Framing morality policy issues: state legislative debates on abortion restrictions

  • Gary MucciaroniEmail author
  • Kathleen Ferraiolo
  • Meghan E. Rubado
Research Article


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.


Framing Public policy Debate Abortion policy Abortion rights Abortion restrictions Morality policy Legislative debate Framing public policy State legislatures 


  1. Axelrod, D. (1984). The evolution of cooperation. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  2. Bali, V. (2009). Tinkering toward a National identification system: An experiment on policy attitudes. Policy Studies Journal, 37, 233–255.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Baumgartner, F. R., Berry, J. M., Hojnacki, M., Kimball, D. C., & Leech, B. L. (2009). Lobbying and policy change: Who wins, who loses and why. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Baumgartner, F. R., & Jones, B. D. (1993). Agendas and instability in American politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  5. Belluck, P. (2013). Complex science at issue in politics of fetal pain. The New York Times. Retrieved January 31, 2015, from
  6. Benford, R. D., & Snow, D. A. (2000). Framing processes and social movements: An overview and assessment. Annual Review of Sociology, 26, 611–639.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Boonstra, H. D., & Elizabeth N. (2014). A surge of state abortion restrictions puts providers—and the women they serve—in the Crosshairs. Guttmacher Policy Review 17, 1 (Winter). Retrieved July 19, 2014, from
  8. Bosso, C. J. (1989). Pesticides and politics: The life cycle of a public issue. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.Google Scholar
  9. Braun, D., & Helge J. (2013). U.S. Climate Policy as Morality Policy. Paper delivered at the Biennial International Conference on Public Policy (ICPP), Grenoble, FR, Accessed 1 August 2018.
  10. Burns, G. (2005). The moral veto: Framing contraception, abortion, and cultural pluralism in the United States. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Chong, D. (2000). Rational lives: Norms and values in politics and society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Chong, D., & Druckman, J. N. (2007). A theory of framing and opinion formation in competitive elite environments. Journal of Communication, 57(1), 99–118.Google Scholar
  13. Clifford, S., & Jerit, J. (2013). How words do the work of politics: Moral foundations theory and the debate over stem cell research. Journal of Politics, 75(3), 659–671.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Condit, C. M. (1990). Decoding abortion rhetoric: Communicating social change. Urbana, Ill: University of Illinois Press.Google Scholar
  15. Condon, S. (2011). Texas house set to pass law requiring a sonogram before having an abortion. CBS News, Accessed 1 August 2018.
  16. d’Anjou, L., & Van Male, J. (1998). Between old and new: Social movements and cultural change. Mobilization: An International Journal, 3, 141–161.Google Scholar
  17. Davies, S. (1999). From moral duty to cultural rights: A case study of political framing in education. Sociology of Education, 72, 1–21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Dery, D. (2000). Agenda setting and problem definition. Policy Studies, 21(1), 37–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Dillon, M. (1993). Argumentative complexity of abortion discourse. Public Opinion Quarterly, 57(3), 305–314.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Druckman, J. N. (2001). On the limits of framing effects: Who can frame? The Journal of Politics, 63(4), 1041–1066.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Eaton, T. (2011). Sonogram bill is send back to committee. Austin American-Statesman, Accessed 1 August 2018.
  22. Eckholm, E. (2014). Abortion-rights advocates preparing for a new stage of federal and state attacks, The New York Times, Accessed June 25, 2015.
  23. Entman, R. M. (2004). Projections of power: Framing news, public opinion and U.S. foreign policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  24. Eriskon, R. S., Wright, G. C., & McIver, J. P. (1993). Statehouse democracy: Public opinion and policy in the American States. Boulder: University of Colorado Press.Google Scholar
  25. Euchner, E.-M., Heichel, S., Nebel, K., & Raschzok, A. (2013). From ‘Morality’ policy to ‘Normal’ policy: Framing of drug consumption and Gambling in Germany and the Netherlands and their regulatory consequences. Journal of European Public Policy, 20(3), 372–389.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Evans, J. H. (1997). Multi-organizational fields and social movement organization frame content: The religious pro-choice movement. Sociological Inquiry, 67(4), 451–469.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Feinberg, M., & Willer, R. (2013). The moral roots of environmental attitudes. Psychological Science, 24(1), 56–62.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Fenno, R. (1978). Home style: House members in their districts. Boston: Little, Brown.Google Scholar
  29. Ferraiolo, K. (2013). Is state Gambling policy ‘Morality Policy’? Framing debates over state lotteries. Policy Studies Journal, 41(2), 217–242.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Ferraiolo, K. (2014). Morality framing in U.S. drug control policy: An example from marijuana decriminalization. World Medical & Health Policy, Accessed 1 August 2018.
  31. Ferree, M. M., Gamson, W. A., Gerhards, J., & Rucht, D. (2002). Shaping abortion discourse: Democracy and the public sphere in Germany and the United States. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Gamson, W. A. (1992). Talking politics. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  33. Ginger, C. (2000). Discourse and argument in bureau of land management wilderness environmental impact statements. Policy Studies Journal, 28(2), 292–312.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Goggin, M. (1993). Understanding the new politics of abortion. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  35. Grammich, C., Hadaway, K., Houseal, R., Jones, D. E., Krindatch, A., Stanley, R., et al. (2012). 2010 U.S. Religion Census: Religious Congregations & Membership Study [data file and codebook]. Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies [producer]. University Park, PA: The Association of Religion Data Archives [distributor].Google Scholar
  36. Haider-Markel, D. P., & Meier, K. J. (1996). The politics of gay and lesbian rights: Expanding the scope of conflict. Journal of Politics, 58(2), 332–450.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Jasper, J., & Poulsen, J. (1995). Recruiting strangers and friends: Moral shocks and social networks in animal rights and anti-nuclear protests. Social Problems, 42, 493–512.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Jerit, J. (2008). Issue framing and engagement: Rhetorical strategy in public policy debates. Political Behavior, 30, 1–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Karch, A., & Rosenthal, A. (2017). Framing, engagement, and policy change: Lessons for the ACA. Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law, 42(2), 341–362.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Kellstedt, P. (2003). The mass media and the dynamics of American racial attitudes. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Kingdon, J. W. (1984). Agendas, alternatives, and public policies. Boston: Little, Brown.Google Scholar
  42. Klandermans, B. (1992). The social construction of protest and multiorganizational fields. In A. D. Morris & C. M. Mueller (Eds.), Frontiers in social movement theory (pp. 77–103). New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  43. Knutson, K. E. (2011). Breaking the chains?: Constraint and the political rhetoric of religious groups. Religion and Politics, 4(2), 312–337.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Lax, J. R., & Phillips, J. H. (2009). How should we estimate public opinion in the states? American Journal of Political Science, 53(1), 107–121.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Lax, J. R., & Phillips, J. H. (2012). The democratic deficit in the states. American Journal of Political Science, 56(1), 148–166.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Liptak, A. (2016). Supreme court strikes down texas abortion restrictions. The New York Times. Retrieved April 7, 2017, from, June 27.
  47. Luker, K. (1984). Abortion and the politics of motherhood. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  48. Masci, D. (2018). American religious groups vary widely in their views of abortion, Fact Tank, Pew Research Center. Retrieved October 23, 2018, from
  49. Meier, K. J. (1994). The politics of sin: Drugs, alcohol and public policy. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.Google Scholar
  50. Meier, K. J., & McFarlane, D. R. (1993). Abortion politics and abortion funding policy. In M. L. Goggin (Ed.), Understanding the new politics of abortion (pp. 249–267). Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.Google Scholar
  51. Mintrom, M. (2000). Policy entrepreneurs and school choice. Washington: Georgetown University Press.Google Scholar
  52. Mooney, C. Z. (1999). The politics of morality policy: Symposium editor’s introduction. Policy Studies Journal, 27(4), 675–680.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Mooney, C. Z. (Ed.). (2001). The public clash of private values. In The public clash of private values: The politics of morality policy (pp. 3–18). Washington: CQ Press.Google Scholar
  54. Mooney, C. Z., & Lee, M.-H. (1995). Legislative morality in the American States: The case of Pre-Roe abortion regulation reform. American Journal of Political Science, 39(3), 599–627.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Mooney, C. Z., & Lee, M.-H. (1999). The temporal diffusion of morality policy: The case of death penalty legislation in the American States. Policy Studies Journal, 27(4), 766–780.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Mooney, C. Z., & Schuldt, R. G. (2008). Does morality policy exist? Testing a basic assumption. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Philadelphia, PA. August 31–September 3.Google Scholar
  57. Mucciaroni, G. (1995). Reversals of fortune: Public policy and private interests. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution.Google Scholar
  58. Mucciaroni, G. (2011). Are debates about ‘Morality Policy’ really about morality? Framing opposition to gay and lesbian rights. Policy Studies Journal, 39(2), 187–216.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Nash, E., Gold, R. B., Rathbun, G., & Vierboom, Y. (2014). Laws affecting reproductive health and rights: State trends at midyear. Retrieved 19 July 2014, from
  60. Nelson, T. E., Clawson, R. A., & Oxley, Z. M. (1997). Toward a psychology of framing effects. Political Behavior, 19(3), 221–246.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Nisbet, M. C. (2009). Communicating climate change: Why frames matter for public engagement. Environment, 52(2), 12–23.Google Scholar
  62. Peralta, E. (2012). Michigan state rep barred from speaking after ‘Vagina’ comments. National Public Radio, Accessed 1 August 2018.
  63. Pierce, P. A., & Miller, D. E. (2004). Gambling politics: State government and the business of betting. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.Google Scholar
  64. Reese, S. D., Gandy, O. H., Jr., & Grant, A. E. (Eds.). (2003). Framing public life: Perspectives on media and our understanding of the social world. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates.Google Scholar
  65. Riker, W. H. (1996). The strategy of rhetoric. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  66. Rochefort, D. A., & Cobb, R. W. (Eds.). (1984). The politics of problem definition: Shaping the policy agenda. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.Google Scholar
  67. Roh, J., & Berry, F. S. (2008). Modeling the outcomes of state abortion referenda: Morality or redistributive policy, or both? State Politics and Policy Quarterly, 8, 66–87.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Rohlinger, D. A. (2002). Framing the abortion debate: Organizational resources, media strategies, and movement-countermovement dynamics. The Sociological Quarterly, 43(4), 479–507.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Rose, M. (2011). Pro-life, pro-woman? Frame extension in the American antiabortion movement. Journal of Women, Politics & Policy, 32(1), 1–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Saletan, W. (2003). Bearing right: How conservatives won the abortion war. Berkeley: University of California.Google Scholar
  71. Schattschneider, E. E. (1962). The semi-sovereign people. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.Google Scholar
  72. Schuldt, J. P., Konrath, S. H., & Schwarz, N. (2011). ‘Global Warming’ or ‘Climate Change’?: Whether the planet is warming depends on question wording. Public Opinion Quarterly, 75(1), 115–124.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Siegel, R. B. (2007). The new politics of abortion: An equality analysis of woman-protective abortion restrictions. Faculty Scholarship Series, Paper 1139. Retrieved January 10, 2018, from
  74. Snow, D. A., & Benford, R. D. (1988). Ideology, frame resonance, and participant mobilization. International Social Movement Research, 1, 197–218.Google Scholar
  75. Snow, D. A., & Benford, R. D. (1992). Master frames and cycles of protest. In D. A. Snow, S. A. Soule, & H. Kriesi (Eds.), The Blackwell companion to social movements (pp. 380–412). Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  76. Snow, D. A., Burke Rochford, E., Worden, S. K., & Benford, R. D. (1986). Frame alignment processes, micromobilization, and movement participation. American Sociological Review, 51(4), 464–481.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Stone, D. A. (1988). Policy paradox and political reason. Glenview, Ill: Scott, Foresman.Google Scholar
  78. Strickland, R. A. (1998). Abortion: Pro-choice versus pro-life. In R. Tatalovich & B. W. Daynes (Eds.), Moral controversies in American politics: Cases in social regulatory policy (2nd ed., pp. 3–36). Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.Google Scholar
  79. Studlar, D. T. (2001). What constitutes morality policy? A cross-national analysis. In C. Z. Mooney (Ed.), The public clash of private values (pp. 37–51). New York: Chatham House.Google Scholar
  80. Swidler, A. (1986). Culture in action: Symbols and strategies. American Sociological Review, 51(2), 273–286.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Tatalovich, R., & Daynes, B. W. (1981). The politics of abortion: A study of community conflict in public policymaking. New York: Praeger.Google Scholar
  82. Tillman, L., & Eckholm, E. (2014). Texas women forced to reassess after new ruling on abortions. The New York Times. Retrieved January 10, 2018, from
  83. Tribe, L. H. (1990). Abortion: The clash of absolutes. New York: Norton.Google Scholar
  84. Weart, S. (1988). Nuclear fear: A history of images. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  85. Weiss, J. A. (1989). The powers of problem definition: The case of government paperwork. Policy Sciences, 22, 91–121.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. Williams, D. K. (2013). No happy medium: The role of Americans’ ambivalent view of fetal rights in policy conflict over abortion legalization. Journal of Policy History, 25, 42–61.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  87. Williams, R. H., & Kubal, T. J. (1999). Movement frames and the cultural environment: Resonance, failure, and the boundaries of the legitimate. Research in Social Movements, Conflicts, and Change, 21, 225–248.Google Scholar
  88. Zink, J., Sanders, K., & Caputo, M. (2011). Fight breaks out as abortion measures pass. Bradenton Herald, Accessed 1 August 2018.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Temple UniversityPhiladelphiaUSA
  2. 2.James Madison UniversityHarrisonburgUSA
  3. 3.Cleveland State UniversityClevelandUSA

Personalised recommendations