From Personal to Partisan: Abortion, Party, and Religion among California State Legislators

David Karol, Chloe N. Thurston

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


The parties' polarization on abortion is a signal development. Yet while the issue has been much discussed, scholars have said less about how it reveals the unstable relationship between legislators' personal backgrounds and their issue positions. We argue that the importance of personal characteristics may wane as links between parties and interest groups develop. We focus on the case of abortion in the California State Assembly - one of the first legislative bodies to wrestle with the issue in modern times. Drawing from newly collected evidence on legislator and district religion and Assembly voting, we show that divisions on abortion were chiefly religious in the 1960s - with Catholics in both parties opposing reform - but later became highly partisan. This shift was distinct from overall polarization and was not a result of district-level factors or sorting of legislators by religion into parties. Instead, growing ties between new movements and parties - feminists for Democrats and the Christian Right for the Republicans - made party affiliation supplant religion as the leading cue for legislators on abortion, impelling many incumbents to revise their positions. Archival and secondary evidence further show that activists sent new cues to legislators about the importance of their positions on these issues. Showing how personal characteristics became outweighed by partisan considerations contributes to understanding of party position change and polarization, as well as processes of representation and abortion politics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)91-109
Number of pages19
JournalStudies in American Political Development
Issue number1
StatePublished - Apr 1 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science


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