New study on young people’s views on abortion

Last week, the Public Religion Research Institute released a new study focused on millennials’ (18-29 year olds) views on abortion entitled “Committed to Availability, Conflicted About Morality: What the Millennial Generation Tells Us about the Future of the Abortion Debate and the Culture Wars.”

One main take-away from the study is that attitudes on abortion and same-sex marriage have become increasingly “decoupled.” Support for marriage equality is increasing while support for legal abortion has remained remarkably steady for years–and the two issues are not particularly linked. Young people especially reflect this shift. Millennials are much more likely to support marriage equality than the population as a whole. But while they tend to have the demographic characteristics that would suggest similarly strong support for legal abortion–they are more educated, more liberal, and more likely to be religiously unaffiliated–when it comes to abortion, they aren’t that much more supportive than the rest of the population.

Of course, “that much” is relative here. Because young people are still strongly in support of abortion rights and availability. Three-quarters of millennials call themselves “pro-choice.” 68% agree that “at least some health care professionals in [the] community should provide legal abortions” and 60% support the legality of abortion. 59% said they think that “abortion can be the most responsible decision a woman can make in certain circumstances.” And, although the report describes millennials as “conflicted” on the morality of abortion, yesterday Sarah Posner broke down the data and noted that, in fact, young people are actually less conflicted than other groups.

In other words, then, millenials are more in the “morally acceptable” camp than any other age group, and they are more likely than the population as a whole to say that abortion is “morally acceptable.” So why highlight that they are conflicted on the morality of abortion? Instead, the data suggest that millenials are moving more in the direction of accepting the legality, availability, and morality of abortion, and therefore are less conflicted than their elders.

Posner notes that one of the strangest findings was that young people, unlike everyone else, are more likely to support the availability of abortion in the community than they are to support the legality of abortion. Which, of course, makes no sense. One of the researchers suggests that perhaps millennials, who were born after abortion was legalized and whose “eyes glazed over” when asked about policy questions, may be less likely to “perceive risk to legality than availability.” And considering that so many communities lack meaningful access to abortion even though Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land, I think that’s actually a pretty accurate assessment of the world we live in.

Of course, the other big lesson–one that’s certainly not new–is that those who oppose abortion just care so much more. They are more than three times as likely as those who support legal abortion to say it is a critical issue. And they are willing to devote great amounts of time and energy to the cause. I do think it’s important to examine why this is–and think creatively about how we can better mobilize folks to action. But, we shouldn’t overstate the problem. After all, as Dawn Laguens of Planned Parenthood notes, when millennials do “see threats to access and availability of reproductive health, they become actively engaged.” Damn right they do.

And we should definitely acknowledge where the main divide in this country lies when it comes to attitudes toward abortion. As Posner writes, “The conflict is not within the millenial (18-29 year olds) camp, but between religiously-motivated anti-choice activists and the majority of Americans.”

Atlanta, GA

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

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  • Rachel

    I read (okay, skimmed) this study last week and the one thing that really stood out to me was that a lot of millenials consider the labels (pro-choice, pro-life) as being to simplistic. I really appreciated that because that’s exactly how I feel. I would definitely put myself in the “pro-choice” camp. However, I think that the label “pro-life” makes people think that the opposite is “pro-death.” Pro-death is not something that I am. I’m not going to start walking up to pregnant women and say, “Man, you look really uncomfortable with that pregnancy. Maybe you should have an abortion.” I would rather think that my attitude fosters an environment where the conversation can be had. I could have an abortion if I wanted to, but I could also not. Either choice is just fine. The point is that the choice needs to be there.

    • Dan L

      The terms are ambiguous and it seems to get worse from there when people are aggressively defending their position on the issue and coming up with new terms.

      I guess I’ve always mentally completed the terms into a phrase:

      Pro-Choice … of the mother outweighing the life of the fetus
      Pro-Life … of the fetus outweighing the choice of the mother

      I think it’s important to realize there’s a corollary to your description of not being pro-death. I do have some pro-life people in my life, although I’ve only had deeper discussions with 2 of them. Both of them independently indicated that they had no problem with a woman having control over her body, just that she exert that control before pregnancy. Neither of them were “pro-life” in cases of medical danger, rape, incest, etc and when I proposed a hypothetical both indicated that if a person was using birth control and it failed that it would likewise be in the group of “okay” abortions. If I recall at that point the conversation devolved since I suggested them deciding which were okay and which weren’t was the entire crux of the problem. I also realize their opinions may not represent the majority of pro-life advocates, but they exist. So I guess going back to the original point, the terms are ambiguous.

    • honeybee

      Isn’t that exactly what ‘pro-choice’ means though?

  • LP

    One of the problems I’ve noticed among my friends is that a lot of them don’t know what “pro-life” means. Most think it means “I, myself, am not going to have an abortion under reasonable circumstances because I am a responsible person” instead of it really meaning “I think no one should ever have an abortion”. Which is weird, because some of them get really defensive when I point out that they’re wrong.

    • Lita

      That’s why I end up pointing out to people online very often that “I would never have an abortion but you should be allowed to” is pro-choice. Pro-both-you-and-I-have-the-choice-to-decide-for-ourselves.