The following is the last of a three part series, titled “The War Over Public Opinion: The Impact of Interest Groups on Anti-Abortion Policy in Kansas.” It was written for an undergraduate political science course at the University of Kansas taught by Dr. Alesha Doan.
The effect of interest groups on public opinion
Anti-abortion interest groups in Kansas strategically influence the general public’s opinion about reproductive policies in many ways in order to fulfill the mission of their organizations. Recently, Kansans for Life petitioned the city of Wichita with the goal of preventing a women’s organization from opening an abortion clinic at the site of murdered abortion provider George Tiller (Lefler 2013). Though Kansans for Life’s ultimate goal is to criminalize or eliminate abortion, legal systems are in place to prevent this from occurring. The group must then pursue other options of reducing access to abortion, like the cited petitioning example. The organization thus chooses to paint a narrative about the potential abortion clinic in order to convince lawmakers to disallow the practice. David Gittrich, the development director for Kansans for Life, said that the clinic would cause a disruption in the neighborhood because of its controversial nature. While this fact may be true, Gittrich cleverly showcases the clinic as a public nuisance, instead of what others might identify as an arena by which to protect public health (Lefler 2013).
In their study, “Democratic Responsiveness and Policy Shock: The Case of State Abortion Policy,” Camobreco and Barnello examine the responsiveness of elected officials to the general public’s attitudes on policy issues. They point out that the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade shifted how legislators relate the public’s opinion on issues concerning abortion. Now, lawmakers are paying stronger attention to the public’s opinion on abortion policies thank they are to the attitudes of elites or interest groups. Camobreco and Barnello note, “[l]awmakers will attempt to respond to public preferences about contentious morality policies despite the imposition of an external policy constraint” (Camobreco & Barnello 2008, 48).
Specifically, legislators are most attentive to the opinions of their constituents surrounding concepts of morality policy, which includes issues such as reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, capital punishment and physician-assisted suicide.
The research indicates that lawmakers struggle with these policies because they incorporate more than just politics and reveal answers to life-or-death situations (Camobreco & Barnello 2008). When issues relating to abortion are at stake, public opinion may be where many lawmakers find their answers. However, interest groups may instead choose to indirectly influence publics in order to create favorable policy alternatives, thereby “act[ing] as a conditioning force on the link between mass attitudes and abortion policy” (Camobreco & Barnello 2008, 52).
In debate is still whether public opinion should play a role in shaping abortion legislation in the states. When legislators are receiving mixed messages from all sides – the public, lobbyists and political parties – to whom is it most important to listen? The study “Public Opinion and Policymaking in the States: The Case of Post-Roe Abortion Policy,” found that grassroots advocacy and public opinion tended to match and were thus reflected in state abortion policies. When states have a tradition of conservativatism in other areas, Republican majorities in the state legislature and fewer women legislators, more pro-life policies are found.
In addition, citizens are likely to have strong and unwavering opinions on morality policies. Norrander & Wilcox noted that “[s]uch intense preferences should lead citizens to become active in interest groups, and these interest groups should reflect the public’s positions in their lobbying of state legislatures” (Norrander & Wilcox 1999, 707). However, when state interest groups like Kansans for Life and Americans for Prosperity vary in their methods and primary focuses because of extremism in the state, lawmakers may find it difficult to find common ground or moderation in policy. In contrast with more moderate states, lawmakers in Kansas may have difficulty making decisions regarding morality policy because they are not receiving a cohesive message from the public. In addition, “[i]nterest groups…often develop more polarized or extreme positions than the general public,” which brings back into focus the question of who legislators are representing if the general public’s opinion may be weighed down by elite interest group ideology (Norrander & Wilcox 1999, 709).
Weaving a narrative of shame and violence
Many anti-abortion advocacy groups choose to paint abortion as an act – at the least – associated with guilt and an emotional burden on the woman. Nicholson-Crotty and Meier outline three conditions that are integral “ for perceptions about a group to translate into specifically designed policy targeting that group” (Nicholson-Crotty & Meier 2005, 225). First, a marginal group must have a significant stereotype associated with it. Second, a morally driven elite must focus attention on that group. Finally, an economic elite must possess enough resources to influence the legislature to act against that group (Nicholson-Crotty & Meier 2005). In this way, anti-abortion interest groups are able to draw sufficient attention to women who seek abortions and the providers of the service. Thus, they showcase the need for restrictive legislation around the issue.
When a negative stigma is placed around obtaining an abortion and the people who stand up for the right to do so, “political decision makers are more likely to consider that group as a potential target for sanctions” (Nicholson-Crotty and Meier 2005, 225). Often, women are simply silenced when it comes to discussing abortion. The idea that reproductive rights are something that need to be maintained is completely taken for granted, because of the narratives that surround it (Castle 2011). This idea is cemented when interest groups like Americans for Prosperity publicly label pro-choice women as devoid of value and in need of saving. An article in Right Wing Watch further illustrates negative stereotypes constructed around women, particularly in red states like Texas and Kansas. The director of Texas Americans for Prosperity, Peggy Venerable, “tweeted that pro-choice women should ‘choose sterilization’ as they are ‘nasty’ and ‘simply should not procreate’ (Tashman 2013). Legislators are impacted by this publicity and may choose to align with these opinions if they believe that the interest groups represent their constituents.
Narratives constructed around public policy problems “can have important implications for policymaker responsiveness, and ultimately, each group’s political inclusion in a democratic society” (Crowley, Watson & Waller 2008, 71). The disparate impact of the voices of interest groups and the public is detrimental to political participation, as one group may have a greater impact than the other. The social construction and narrative building of ideas around abortion define how policy is created and then the specific language within the bills affects the way that people within these groups shifts to talk about a particular issue (Crowley, Watson & Waller 2008). To stabilize levels of political participation, “it is urgent to coordinate and empower individuals, multiple organizations and communities to engender effective changes in attitudes, norms, behavior and policies that will enable women to obtain reproductive health services, including abortion care” (Castle 2011). The playing field can only be leveled when interest groups and the general opinion of the public is separated and examined in depth.
Spin to win: The consequence of candidates who change their opinions to get elected
Ultimately, one of the most unfortunate facts is that some legislators may re-adjust their opinions in order to get elected, which further blurs the lines of representation. While campaigning, candidates may spin their opinions on policies in order to draw out a large quantity of voters, no matter the political ideology. In many cases, people who belong to interest groups are extremely vocal and likely to stand up for a candidate who shares their interests, so candidates may choose to align with interest groups instead of standing up for individual citizens. Despite this, even candidates “do not fully control the framing or public portrayal of their ideal points” (Berry, Fording et al. 2011, 119). Once again, it is the hands of elite interest groups to funnel news into the hands of the public, as they are charged with labeling candidates as either supporting or standing against their cause. This information is then disseminated to their members, who drive participation in elections. Still, the cycle of influence continues.
Regardless of their goals or missions, interest groups have many positives. They increase civic engagement, provide input to legislators on various issues and do research on an abundance of issues the impact citizens. However, when interest groups control the narrative around a topic like abortion, confusion and misinformation ensues. Certainly, there is a war around public opinion. Legislators may not know who to listen to if campaign contributions and extremists cloud their judgment during campaign season. Even if they believe that they are accurately representing their public, a lawmaker may not know where the opinions of his constituents are derived from: it could be the very interest group he or she tried so desperately to push away. When multiple actors affect the perception of abortion within a state, particularly one as currently conservative as Kansas, access to abortion is restricted and the democratic process is put at odds with the interests of a few passionate elites.
A bibliography for this paper is available here. The rest of the series is available at the links below.