The headline from the Religion News Service story was “Millennials are the ‘Don’t Judge Generation’ On Sexual Morality.” But, right on cue, the actual study being cited in the story has a particular focus on how Millennials have very strong views on the immorality of sexual violence. Of course, we’ve known for some time now about the fact that young people will judge rather harshly anything that smacks of homophobia. And I just had an Op-Ed appear in the USA Today which argued that Millennials also judge abortion more strongly than do previous generations.
It appears that Millennials don’t judge…except when they do.
But how can I argue that young people are more pro-life than previous generations? The RNS story appears to suggest otherwise. Well, the first thing to note is that questions asked in abortion polls are notoriously terrible. They seem addicted to offering only hopelessly simplistic binary answers. Are you pro-choice or pro-life? Are you in favor of Roe v. Wade or against?
The problem with these kinds of questions is that you can hardly tell anything about what someone thinks about abortion based on their answers. Consider, for instance, that one can be “pro-choice” for all kinds of reasons. This view encompasses everything from (1) abortion is a social good, the greatest thing since sliced bread, to (2) abortion is a terrible, horrible evil, but there are certain abortions which are difficult to regulate via public policy. And it contains all the dozens and dozens of positions in-between.
And how about if a respondent supports Roe v. Wade? What can we learn from that? In a Pew Forum study done on the 40th anniversary of Roe we learned that only sixty-two percent of Americans know even that this Supreme Court decision is about abortion. Shockingly, for those younger than 30 years old, this number falls to forty-four percent. Furthermore, of those who know that Roe is about abortion, many don’t know what the decision actually said or did. Many wrongly believe, for instance, that overturning Roe would mean making abortion in the US flatly illegal. Also, for those who know what Roe is and want it supported, they might also support a range of policies that limit abortion rights. For instance, just last week I was having online conversation with a significant pro-choice activist who said that she and others could support the Pain-Capable Act if they didn’t think it was ultimately aimed at undermining Roe.
As bad as those poll questions are, a question asked in the poll cited in the RNS story gets my vote for worst abortion poll question ever. It asks respondents to say whether they think “abortion” (without discussing at what stage of pregnancy or in what circumstances) is either “morally wrong” or “morally acceptable/depends on situation.”
Depends on situation is in the same category as morally acceptable? The official teaching of the Catholic Church claims that abortion of pregnancy can be acceptable depending on the situation. How would have John Paul II had to answer this terrible poll question? A whopping 70% of pro-lifers think that abortion should be acceptable in the 2% of circumstances which involve sexual violence or the mother’s life being threatened. How should they answer this terrible poll question?
The RNS story notes that this particular poll was funded by the Ford Foundation, a not insignificant fact given that foundation’s long history of support for organizations like Catholics for Choice, Fund Abortion Now, and Planned Parenthood.
If you ask better questions of Millennials on abortion, you get more revealing answers. For instance, let’s take the 20 week ban. According to the National Journal, 44% of those 50 and older supported such a ban, compared with 52% of those ages 18-29. Gallup found in 2010 that “support for making abortion broadly illegal (was) growing fastest among young adults.” This was “a sharp change from the late 1970s, when seniors were substantially more likely than younger age groups to want abortion to be illegal.”
Perhaps even more telling are the reactions of abortion-rights advocacy groups to their understanding of the views of young people. They are very publicly worried about something former NARAL president Nancy Keenan called the “intensity gap.” Of young people who identify as “pro-life,” for instance, 51% claim that abortion is an important issue. But for young people who identify as “pro-choice,” that percentage plummets to 20%. Fears over this intensity gap were the primary motivation for the 2013 resignation of the then 61 year-old Keenan.
Gallup’s poll told us something that we probably already knew intuitively: a generation becomes more skeptical of abortion over time. Especially with the influence of a growing and disproportionately pro-life Latino population, Millennials in the United States are poised to outdo both Gen Xers and Baby Boomers when it comes to skepticism of abortion.
Interviewed about his poll in the RNS story, Robert Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute claims that Millennials want to see “equal access” to abortion, and that “people should have individual freedom to make decisions.” Those conclusions are as hopelessly vague as the questions asked in his poll; and, like the answers to his poll’s questions, it just isn’t clear what they mean, practically speaking, when it comes to the complex issue of abortion.
When we ask more specific and interesting questions, however, we get more specific and interesting answers. These answers lead to a very clear conclusion: Millennials are leading us into a complex conversation which will take us beyond the abortion wars.
In 2011 the Public Religion Research Institute published a survey called
Committed to Availability, Conflicted about Morality: What the Millennial Generation Tells Us about the Future of the Abortion Debate and the Culture Wars.
This survey finds that the majority of Millennials believe abortion should be legal in some cases, but 50% say abortion is morally wrong (p. 22). The survey also finds that the “binary pro-choice/pro-life labels do not reflect the complexity of Americans’ views on abortion,” and that “Millennials are less supportive of legal abortion than their demographic profile would suggest” (Executive Summary).
Hi Lisa…thanks for commenting. Preliminary question: was that 2011 study funded by the Ford foundation? The final conclusion that you give us above is very, very different from they funded through PRRI that was released this week. Indeed, the conclusion of that study (unsubstantiated though it was) was almost the opposite of the final line you give us here.
Also, and I’m just going by what you’ve given us here (I have to watch basketball!), this is just and hopelessly vague as the study released this week. “Abortion legal in some cases”? That’s the view of, well, almost everyone…including some of the most extreme pro-lifers. Also, I’m not sure what we can conclude about someone’s views when they agree with the claim “Abortion is morally wrong.” All abortion? Most? How aware are they of the circumstances of most abortions?
It is just far, far better to ask more specific questions about specific kinds of abortions. Like the 20 week ban, for instance. Or about early-term abortion in the case of sexual violence.
Just came upon this excellent post, but wanted to point out that the link embedded in the sentence “The official teaching of the Catholic Church claims that abortion of pregnancy can be acceptable depending on the situation” links to rogue self-styled theologian Ronald Conte Jr., whose writing on the link goes on to claim precisely the opposite. I would appreciate seeing a link to authentic CCC teaching on this difficult subject–and wonder whether the link might have been hijacked, since Conte is a problematic character whose body of work has been described with some accuracy as a “cult.”