Working paper

Policies Affect Preferences: Evidence from Random Variation in Abortion Jurisprudence

Daniel L. Chen, Vardges Levonyan, and Susan Yeh


Whether policies shift preferences is relevant to policy design. We exploit the random assignment of U.S. federal judges creating geographically local precedent and the fact that judges’ politics, religion, and race predict decision-making in abortion jurisprudence. Instrumenting for abortion jurisprudence with exogenous judicial characteristics, we estimate the impact of abortion jurisprudence on state laws, campaign donations, and abortion attitudes. We verify information transmission in that pro-life abortion jurisprudence caused restrictive state laws and increased campaign donations to pro-choice causes. Pro-choice abortion decisions shifted preferences against legalized abortion in the short-run, but in the longer-run, abortion views followed court decisions. Pro-choice decisions affected Republicans while pro-life decisions affected Democrats. Counterfactual exercises suggest that had abortion cases in the last half-century been decided the opposite way, the increase in pro-life attitudes among Republicans would have been steeper and Democrats would have been more pro-choice. Our estimates complement a historical narrative that turning to the courts to vindicate rights often led to resistance and subsequent acceptance and we present a model consistent with these facts.


Backlash; Expressive Law; Abortion; Norms;

JEL codes

  • D72: Political Processes: Rent-Seeking, Lobbying, Elections, Legislatures, and Voting Behavior
  • P48: Political Economy • Legal Institutions • Property Rights • Natural Resources • Energy • Environment • Regional Studies
  • Z1: Cultural Economics • Economic Sociology • Economic Anthropology

Published in

IAST working paper, n. 16-58, October 2016