Framing Morality Policy Issues: State Legislative Debates on Abortion Restrictions

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Publication Title

Policy Sciences


Scholars of “morality policies” have often assumed a signature characteristic of such policies is that advocates will frame them as clashes between fundamental moral and religious principles. Recent studies of issues typically considered under the “morality policy” rubric have found that advocates often frame these issues along multiple dimensions and that they do not necessarily favor frames that emphasize moral principles over other considerations. This paper examines this issue for abortion policy. We analyze verbatim records of debates over 26 recent proposals to restrict abortion rights in the 16 states for which data are available. We found that both sides in debates over abortion restrictions framed the issue along several dimensions with no single frame dominating most of the debates. While there is some empirical support for the morality policy perspective, the frequency that advocates employed morality frames was less than we expected given the disproportionately high levels of evangelical Protestant membership in the states we examined. Rather than simply casting the debate as one over irreconcilable moral principles, the two sides’ strategies often converged by framing the issue in terms of various consequences of abortion and abortion restrictions for women. Advocates propensity to frame the issue in terms of “right to life” versus “woman’s choice” principles rose when one side or the other escalated rhetoric about “life” or “choice” principles (inducing the other to respond in kind). Our data thus conform to the logic of a game of tit-for-tat in which individuals follow a strategy of “retaliation” if their opponents frame issues in highly moralized, judgmental terms, or they “cooperate” by emphasizing how their preferred policy will promote some widely shared value (like women’s welfare or the authoritativeness of medical research). “Morality talk” was also more prevalent when the debates were about bans on abortion rather than other types of restrictions. The broad implication of our findings is that the propensity of advocates to frame issues in terms of fundamental moral principles has less to do with the general subject matter or issue area (e.g., abortion) and more to do with the context of debate and strategic considerations.

Original Citation

Mucciaroni, G., Ferraiolo, K. & Rubado, M.E. Policy Sci (2018).