Braking Down The News

There’s A New Age Gap On Abortion Rights

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Americans’ views on abortion have been relatively consistent for years despite massive demographic changes, social upheaval and shifting perspectives on sexuality. But that may be about to change. 

A new report from the Pew Research Center found that support for abortion rights is considerably higher among young Americans. Roughly three-quarters of 18- to 29-year-olds say abortion should generally be legal, including 30 percent who say it should be legal in all cases. Meanwhile, Americans 65 and older expressed much more tepid support — only 54 percent said abortion should be legal without exception (14 percent) or with some exceptions (40 percent).

This might not sound all that surprising since younger adults often see issues differently from older adults, but this age gap on attitudes about abortion contradicts past polling on this issue. According to the General Social Survey,1 young Americans’ views on obtaining an abortion have not been appreciably different from the public’s overall for much of the past 40-plus years. That changed fairly recently, though. On the question of whether someone should be able to get an abortion for any reason, 64 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds agreed in 2021, a 20-percentage-point increase from a decade earlier.

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In fact, over the past decade, one of the most confounding trends in public opinion has been why millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996)2 — who are less religious, more educated and more liberal than previous generations — are not stronger supporters of abortion rights. Polls have generally shown that millennials express considerable ambivalence about abortion, views that do not distinguish them from the broader public.

Millennials’ attitudes on abortion rights stand in stark relief to the way they tend to approach other issues of sex and sexuality. For instance, they were among the strongest proponents of legalizing same-sex marriage at the height of debate in the mid-2000s, and they have generally liberal views on contraception, sex education and premarital sex. Abortion has always been the exception.

In a series of focus groups that my colleagues and I conducted in 2011,3 the contrast between millennials’ attitudes on abortion and same-sex marriage was clear. When they were asked to write down the first words that came to mind when they heard the term “same-sex marriage,” millennials’ responses were overwhelmingly positive — even celebratory. “Awesome,” “It’s cool!” and “Go for it!” were some of the phrases they shared, and the ensuing conversation was incredibly upbeat.

The mood was dramatically different when discussing abortion, though. It was often difficult to get participants to maintain eye contact during the conversation, and their responses were largely negative: They said abortion was a sad situation and mentioned death or irresponsible behavior.

Scholars proposed a variety of theories to explain millennials’ curiously conservative views. It was suggested, for example, that the rise in sharing ultrasound images on social media may have led more young adults to think of a fetus as a growing child, thus accounting for their greater reservations about abortions. Another popular explanation was that millennials were influenced by how abortion was portrayed in popular culture at the time, including in movies such as 2007’s “Juno” and “Knocked Up.” Demographic explanations have also featured prominently, as Latinos, who tend to be more conservative on abortion than other racial or ethnic groups, constitute a larger share of millennials compared with older generations. 

Now, though, we’re left to solve another riddle: Why do Generation Z adults (born between 1997 and 2004) not share millennials’ more conservative perspectives on abortion? There are a few possible explanations worth considering.

Perhaps the simplest is that Gen Z adults, particularly women, are more liberal than previous generations when they were young adults — including millennials. While younger adults are typically more liberal than older ones, Gen Z women especially tend to be progressive. An analysis of Gallup surveys over the past decade conducted by the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life, which I lead, found a critical shift in political identity among young women. In 2021, we found that 44 percent of 18- to 29-year-old women identified as liberal, whereas only 30 percent of 18- to 29-year-old women identified as such a decade earlier. Among men in this age group, the share who identified as liberal was essentially unchanged during the same time period.

Another explanation is that for most Gen Z Americans, abortion is not an issue wound up in ethical, moral and religious concerns, as it more often is for many other Americans. Pew’s March survey suggests that most Gen Z Americans aren’t thinking about abortion with the same moral framing: Only 32 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds said abortion was morally wrong in all or most cases compared with 47 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds and 53 percent of Americans age 50 or older.

It’s possible that growing diversity among Gen Zers along lines of race, religion and, most notably, sexuality has also led them to eschew the standards of morality that previous generations embrace. It’s true that millennials are also a fairly diverse group, but Gen Zers are unique in their approach to sexuality and feelings of physical attraction. For instance, a 2021 Ipsos survey found that Gen Zers are significantly less likely than millennials to be attracted exclusively to the opposite sex. And compared with older generations, Gen Zers (as well as millennials) are more likely to agree that greater racial and ethnic diversity is good for society.

The waning influence of organized religion may offer another clue as to why Gen Z supports abortion rights more than other generations. According to the Survey Center on American Life, Gen Zers had somewhat weaker formative attachments to religion than millennials did. Fifteen percent of Gen Zers said they were raised in nonreligious households, and even those raised in a religious tradition reported having less regular involvement with their faith. As a result, it’s likely that compared with older generations, Gen Zers are just less familiar with religiously based objections to abortion.

It’s important to remember, too, that Gen Zers are coming of age at a time when America’s religious identity and moral authority are more contested and its institutions less trusted. Consider, for example, how much confidence in organized religion has plummeted in the past decade. According to Gallup, only 37 percent of Americans said they had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the church or organized religion in 2021. But in the mid-2000s, when millennials were roughly the same age as Gen Zers are now, a greater share of Americans expressed confidence in religious institutions. In other words, not only are Gen Zers less rooted in religious communities, but religiously based arguments about abortion may hold less weight for them than they did for millennials because those in Gen Z do not trust the messengers.

Young adults today are also being told that the pathway to happiness and success lies in getting a good education and career. In fact, growing up, Gen Zers were more likely than previous generations to say it was expected that they would go to college. Sixty percent of Gen Zers said their parents expected them to attend a four-year college compared with 48 percent of millennials, 43 percent of Gen Xers and 35 percent of baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964). 

Recently, I wrote that Gen Zers are distinct from previous generations in their belief that professional and educational achievements are critical markers of their identity. Given the central importance of education, personal growth and fulfillment for this generation, it’s possible that support for abortion rights is rooted in the idea that an unplanned pregnancy might undermine these aspirations. 

Finally, a crucial difference between Gen Z and millennials on abortion rights may have to do with shifting perceptions of access. Millennials came of age at a time when abortion was perceived as generally available and subject to comparatively few restrictions. In a 2011 survey, a majority (55 percent) of millennials said it was not at all or not too difficult to get an abortion, a significantly higher share compared with other age groups’ responses. After a decade of state-level restrictions, though, and well-publicized efforts to reduce abortion access, views have changed significantly.

Of course, research has long shown that younger Americans are generally less engaged in politics and spend less time talking about political issues than older Americans. But abortion may be an issue they care about more. According to results from Pew’s March survey, younger Americans spend as much time as Americans overall thinking about abortion, and for young women, the share is even higher. If the Supreme Court does overturn Roe v. Wade, which established the constitutional right to abortion in 1973, it is not difficult to believe that the large majority of Gen Zers who support abortion rights will see such a move as an infringement on rights once afforded to them. And if the past few years have shown us anything, it is that anxiety is a powerful political motivator.

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