(Reuters) - U.S. attitudes on abortion are split along regional lines, and opposition to legal abortion has grown in some parts of the South while Americans in the Northeast and on the West Coast still strongly favor abortion rights, according to a new study.
While a little more than half of all Americans continue to favor abortion rights and two in five oppose them, the divide is reflected in legal and legislative battles over the issue this month in the two regions with the most opposition to legal abortion: the South Central and Midwestern states.
The South Central region - Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky - is "the only one in which opposition to legal abortion has significantly increased since the mid-1990s," the Pew Research Center reported.
The opinion gap between South Central states and New England, the region of highest support for legal abortion, is about 35 percentage points, up from only 18 points in the mid-1990s when slightly fewer New Englanders favored abortion rights and significantly fewer South Central residents opposed them.
"The gap between New England and South Central states has widened considerably over the past two decades," the Pew report said.
In the middle is the Midwest, evenly split for and against legal abortion but second-highest to South Central in opposition among all the regions.
This month, Texas joined 12 other states that have banned abortions at no later than 20 weeks of pregnancy, and legal battles over tougher limits on abortion have also been fought in North Carolina, Alabama, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Missouri, among others.
The battle in Texas drew national attention after state senator Wendy Davis, a Democrat, staged a one-woman filibuster to try to block the new restrictions, ultimately signed into law by Governor and former Republican presidential contender Rick Perry.
North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, a Republican, signed new requirements for clinics into law, saying they would further women's safety but would not unconstitutionally restrict access to abortion.
Judges in North Dakota and Alabama have recently delayed restrictions that were among the most stringent of a host of anti-abortion laws passed this year by Republicans across the country.
The national survey, conducted July 17-21 among 1,480 adults and released on Monday, found that roughly 54 percent of all Americans said that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. About 40 percent said it should be illegal in all or most cases.
That ratio of opinion has remained consistent for most of the past two decades, according to Pew, but the regional differences appear to be widening.
"There have long been substantial regional difference in views on abortion, reflecting religious, social and demographic differences in different parts of the country," said Michael Dimock, the director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. "But the gap is wider now than in the past."
The South Central region is the only one in which a majority of residents - 52 percent - now say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. The next highest opposition was seen in the Midwest, evenly split at 47 percent. The Midwest comprises Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska and the Dakotas.
In the other 37 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, 58 percent said abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
In New England, 75 percent of residents say abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
Sixty-five percent in the Pacific Coast region - which includes California, Alaska and Hawaii - favor legal abortion in all or most cases, along with 61 percent in the Mid-Atlantic region, which includes New York and Pennsylvania, and 59 percent in the eight-state Mountain West region, running from Arizona and New Mexico up through Colorado, Utah and Nevada to Montana.
(Reporting by Carey Gillam; Editing by Gary Hill)