One Millennial’s Take on New Research on Young People, LGBT rights, and Abortion


The Public Religion Research Instittue has released new research on the attitudes of millennial youth (18‒29) toward abortion and a number of other social issues including gay marriage. The research shows that millennials “support gay rights at rates much higher than their parents while their views on abortion do not deviate significantly from those of their parents or the general public.”

It’s important to note at the outset, that millennial youth favor abortion access in their local communities by a significantly higher percentage than any other age group in the population—68 percent for millennial youth compared to 58 percent for the general public. It’s also important to note that that millennial youth are more supportive of abortion in general (60 percent) than the general public (56 percent) or any other age group in the population.

The headline here is that the majority of young people, just like the majority of older people, are pro-choice, but lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equality—most notably the right to equal marriage—resonates much more strongly with youth than does the abortion rights movement.

The question is, why?

As a millennial who has been active in both the abortion rights and LGBT movements, I have my take.

The LGBT movement has grown in size and in political power as more and more people, including young people, have come out. In the lives of millions of Americans, the movement has a personal face—one that we know, recognize, and respect. It’s the face of our friends, family members, fellow students, and work colleagues. The thought that these people should somehow be denied the same rights and privileges that straight members of our society often take for granted is a moral outrage. I think I am like the majority of my generation in that I don’t arrive at this position via ideology or politics: I arrive at this position from my personal experience with the people around me and the core assumptions of empathy, equality, and social justice that are the hallmarks of my generation.

Those opposed to LGBT equality have won many political battles, but at what cost? They have prevailed in every state referendum on marriage equality, but they have lost the hearts and minds of an entire generation in the process. Inevitably, their current political victories will be washed away over time as my generation matures and passes on the lessons of respect, acceptance, and empathy that guide our values. It’s much easier to demonize and stereotype people that you don’t know personally than those you do.

So, why is there such a difference in millennials attitudes toward abortion? First off, let’s be clear that young people are just as pro-choice as the American public as a whole. And, like the general public, the views of my generation on abortion are mixed. As the Brookings website puts it: “Millennials have a unique, nuanced approach to the issue of abortion, combining strong support for the availability of abortion services and access to birth control with moral reservations.”

It does not surprise me that millennials are unlikely to respond well to stark, rhetorically inflamed alternatives like “pro-life” vs. “pro-choice,” especially since these outdated frames greatly benefit the anti-abortion movement. We respond not as traditional issue-driven constituencies, but look for the nuances that reflect our own complex life experiences. We accept as fact that since people are different, not everyone will (or should) make the same choice when faced with an important life decision. In this context, strident political alternatives come across as unrealistic and out of touch.

But as an activist who believes strongly that all women should have the right, the power, and the access, to make their own reproductive health decisions, it’s important to examine why the abortion issue isn’t getting the same public opinion “bump” among millennials enjoyed by gay marriage.

I would point to three main indicators of a more complex reality, one lost amid sound bites and topline polling data. First, the leadership of the pro-choice movement in this country has put all its focus and resources into political and legal strategies. While these areas are incredibly important, they have left the cultural conversation about abortion to be defined almost entirely by the anti-choice movement. We do not hear the personal stories of women who had abortions before Roe v. Wade, and women’s contemporary narratives are silenced in the current debate as well.

Second, the anti-choice movement has been adept at exploiting the silence of women’s voices on abortion. They have long been driving a campaign to stigmatize the decision of abortion from the adversarial gauntlets they raise outside abortion clinics to their ad campaigns driving home the story line of the “good” mother, the one who has her baby even in “tough” circumstances (all while moving to drastically cut funding for programs for low-income mothers and their children such as WIC and Head Start). The supposedly liberal ideal of abortion as “safe, legal, and rare” has only reinforced our cultural silence on this issue.

Third, the mainstream reproductive health movement simply does not prioritize the needs of youth. Young people’s access to contraception and confidential services is often the first bargaining chip in larger political fights over reproductive health. In America, young people see their sexuality stigmatized from an early age—and we see a pro-choice movement that is fearful of engaging us as constituents or as allies. In contrast, the LGBT movement has seen the needs of young people as central to its purpose. Gay/straight alliances and anti-bullying initiatives have embraced LGBT young people not as passive recipients of necessary programs, but as part of the solution—current and future leaders in their own right. The message is simple: your voice should not be silenced. Transitioning this message to future activism is far easier than asking people to fight for a pro-choice movement that too often frames its own cause as a potential source of shame.

(It should also be noted that many young advocates are stepping up to organize and lead the fight on abortion and reproductive justice issues, but this is much more often outside of—or despite—the existing movement leadership.)

Social conservatives continue to exploit silence and shame whenever possible. It is sadly clear that this is still a winning strategy on abortion, at least for the time being. It’s so much easier to stigmatize the idea of abortion when the far right is able to define the issue around the least sympathetic motives, reasons, and circumstances. It becomes more difficult—if not impossible—to stigmatize abortion when presented with the stories and circumstances of the women who make these important decisions each and every day.

One in three American women will have an abortion in her lifetime. These women are our sisters, family, friends, and colleagues. As the new study shows, the abortion issue comes with moral “nuance” and complexity. But when women’s stories get told, it becomes obvious that the person to resolve these complexities is the woman who is faced with an unintended pregnancy—not the politicians writing demeaning laws that impose a one-size-fits-none solution on the most personal of decisions.

It’s long past time for the abortion rights movement to invest in the cultural dialogue about abortion in America, and to authentically engage millennials as partners and allies. Nearly 60 percent of women who have abortions in America are women in our twenties— many of whom are already mothers. These are our stories. It’s time to refocus this “debate” around women and the particular circumstances of our lives. Only then will the millennials truly rally for abortion rights and put this issue in a category similar to LGBT equality. Only then will the pro-choice movement be built around empathy rather than shame.

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  • arectaris

    I think you’re leaving out two key few points. Taken straight from the report.

    On the question of legality, when controlling for other characteristics, Millennials are surprisingly 1.3 times more likely than older Americans to say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. 

    Strong majorities agree that it should be possible for a woman to obtain a legal abortion in four of seven circumstances: if the woman’s physical health is seriously endangered by the pregnancy (86%); if she became pregnant as a result of rape (79%); if the woman’s mental health is seriously endangered by pregnancy (74%); and if there is a strong chance of serious defect in the baby (66%). Americans are more ambivalent or opposed to a woman obtaining a legal abortion is three other specific circumstances. American are divided over whether a woman should be able to obtain a legal abortion because the woman is still in high school (47% possible, 49% not possible). Majorities of Americans say it should not be possible for a woman to obtain a legal abortion in two circumstances: the family is low income and cannot afford any more children (52%); and the woman is not married and does not want to marry the man (59%).

    Based on the above I think it would be safe to say that “most” would entail the first four situations. As a compromise, I think that would be unacceptable to the pro-choice movement as a whole and would probably be more readily accepted by pro-lifers than pro-choicers. Pro-choicers usually argue that a woman should be allowed to have an abortion for economic and social reasons in addition to issues of rape, incest, fetal defects and maternal health, though that’s an unwinnable battle. I find that “your take” simply regurgitates the usual sound bites. If your idea is to try to make people more accepting of the idea of aborting for social or economic reasons, you’re fighting an uphill battle because you’re trying to address the situation from the wrong angle. If your idea is to try to make people to accept that sometimes abortion can be justified, then you’ll probably have more success. Though on the last point that would also require you to give up arguing that abortions for social and economic reasons are justified and should be permitted.

  • arekushieru

    And would, once again, require MORE sacrifice on the woman’s part.  As long as it’s only the woman making the sacrifice, that’s OH-SO-CONVENIENT… right?

    Besides, it isn’t THAT unwinnable a fight.  You just need to read more threads on the site, rather than ones you think you can use to express the same talking points, OVER AND OVER, again.

  • arectaris

    You all are one-trick ponies. Go find some other pro-lifer willing to play this game. I’d rather respond to the OP and engage people willing to respond to those posts.

  • colleen

    Go find some other pro-lifer willing to play this game.

    Go find another blog to troll.

  • arekushieru

    I’m sorry, but WHERE else have you done that?  Or is this just more of your ‘projection’…?  Hmmm…?

  • prochoiceferret

    You all are one-trick ponies.

     

    Yes, I guess we’re just kind of a broken record about the fundamental human rights of women. We can understand if you’re sick of hearing about it. All you have to do is treat women as equal human beings with as much right to autonomy and self-ownership as anyone else, and it’ll go away.

  • goatini

    get a life! I saw you trolling today @ the HuffPo. It’s so getting old, it’s the same old crap from back in the AlterNet days. We’re not buying what you’re selling.

  • arectaris

    (I’m going to assume this is to me.)

     

    What the hell? I don’t even read HuffPo, much less post on that site, nor do I read AlterNet. Some of you really do need your own reality check or something. It’s as if the accusations get more and more ridiculous every day. I keep saying I’m going to stop responding to them, and I really should.

  • ahunt

    I think you are missing the hippo in the corner, Arecteris.

     

    Permit me to point out that millenials were not around to see the horrors of the abortion wards in  big city hospitals around the country. I imagine if we were to return to those days, the stats would change. Admittedly, black market abortion pharmeceuticals may well limit the intake in such wards in a post Roe-repeal world…but there is little doubt the wards will make a comeback.

     

    And again…there is the reality that…“the only moral abortion is my abortion. Given the large percentage of catholics and evangelicals obtaining legal abortion NOW…I have to wonder if millenials are pro-life right up until the time they find themselves dealing with unwanted pregnancies.

  • goatini

    the handles of all the socks you’ve been forced to create on RHRC due to repeated banning. Rep Weiner did a far more convincing “Who, me?” act, and his wasn’t all that convincing.

  • arectaris

    I think you’re the one missing the point.

     

    Permit me to point out that millenials were not around to see the horrors of the abortion wards in  big city hospitals around the country. I imagine if we were to return to those days, the stats would change. Admittedly, black market abortion pharmeceuticals may well limit the intake in such wards in a post Roe-repeal world…but there is little doubt the wards will make a comeback.

     

    The individuals most likely to remember such a time (65+), are also the most disapproving of abortion. What’s your point?

     

    And again…there is the reality that…“the only moral abortion is my abortion. Given the large percentage of catholics and evangelicals obtaining legal abortion NOW…I have to wonder if millenials are pro-life right up until the time they find themselves dealing with unwanted pregnancies.

     

    Catholics and evangelicals especially are less likely to obtain an abortion if they become pregnant than are, for example, Jews or the non-religious. I can’t really understand what point you are trying to make. Are you saying millenials views on abortion do not count?

  • squirrely-girl

    The individuals most likely to remember such a time (65+), are also the most disapproving of abortion.

    Please provide a citation for this – because several pollings/studies that have recently been released would suggest otherwise, such that generational differences in opinions on abortion just aren’t there.

     

    While you’re at it, I’d like a citation for this as well because the Guttmacher institute has tossed a couple studies out there looking at religious orientation with regard to abortions, and at least for Catholic women, they obtain abortions at the same rate as other women.

    Catholics and evangelicals especially are less likely to obtain an abortion if they become pregnant than are, for example, Jews or the non-religious.

  • ahunt

    The individuals most likely to remember such a time (65+), are also the most disapproving of abortion. What’s your point?

     

    Sigh. So what? The point is that the large number of septic abortion wards were a factor in the developing liberalization of abortion laws. “Most Likely to disapprove ” is irrelevant here.

     

     

    Uhm…last I checked, catholics together with evangelicals comprised well over a third of all abortions in the US.  The point is that women get abortions, across all demographic lines and religious affiliations, including those adamantly anti-choice affiliations.

     

    http://factcheck.org/2007/12/abortions-comparing-catholic-and-protestant-women/

     

    The institute found that more Protestant women obtained abortions than Catholics: Forty-three percent of women over age 17 in the 2000-2001 survey said they were Protestant, while 27 percent said they were Catholic.

     

    http://www.mswm.org/abortions.worldwide.abortionstatistics.htm

     

    18% of all abortions are performed on women who identify themselves as “Born-again/Evangelical”.

     

    18% + 27%= 45%.

  • arectaris

    Please provide a citation for this – because several pollings/studies that have recently been released would suggest otherwise, such that generational differences in opinions on abortion just aren’t there.

    55 and older are least likely to support abortion.

    While you’re at it, I’d like a citation for this as well because the Guttmacher institute has tossed a couple studies out there looking at religious orientation with regard to abortions, and at least for Catholic women, they obtain abortions at the same rate as other women.

    Taken from Guttmacher:

    The majority of women older than 17 who obtained an abortion reported a religious affiliation. The highest proportion (43%) identified themselves as Protestant. Twenty-seven percent of women having an abortion identified themselves as Catholic, and 8% as a member of another religion; 22% reported no religious affiliation. Thirteen percent identified themselves as “born-again” or evangelical, three-fourths of whom were Protestant (not shown).

    Protestants (total) make up about 51.3% of the U.S. population; Catholics make up 23.9% of the population; Evangelicals make up 26.3% of the population; the unaffiliated make up 16.1%; and other about 4.7% (Pew). Dividing the percentage of abortion obtained by the percentage of the U.S. population adhereing to a certain religion (or vice versa, so long as you do it the same way for all factors), you will get the following numbers ranked from lowest to greatest.

    Evangelical: 0.494 Protestants (total): 0.838 Catholic: 1.297 None: 1.366 Other: 1.702

    Lowest means least likely whereas highest means more likely. That’s not exact, and is just a rough sketch, but it matches other evidence on the matter.

  • arectaris

    Sigh. So what? The point is that the large number of septic abortion wards were a factor in the developing liberalization of abortion laws. “Most Likely to disapprove ” is irrelevant here.

     

    You tried to argue as if such a thing would change people’s minds from pro-life to pro-choice. If you want to take it back, you’re more than welcome to do so.

     

    Uhm…last I checked, catholics together with evangelicals comprised well over a third of all abortions in the US.  The point is that women get abortions, across all demographic lines and religious affiliations, including those adamantly anti-choice affiliations.

     

    Please read your own provided links. It says that “other” and those professing no religious belief are the likeliest to obtain an abortion.

     

    The groups that were the most likely to have an abortion were those affiliated with “other” religions or no religion at all, with abortion rates of 31 and 30 per 1,000 women, respectively.

  • ahunt

    Sigh….being deliberately obtuse may be your riff…but it makes you look ridiculous.

     

    A) If and when we see a return of septic abortion wards…the public perception will likely move towards reliberalizing abortion laws.

     

    B) I did NOT say that catholics and evangelicals obtain the marjority of abortions. I pointed out that these two demos together comprise a large percentage of the abortion rate. Read for comprehension, please.

  • arectaris

    A) If and when we see a return of septic abortion wards…the public perception will likely move towards reliberalizing abortion laws.

    How do you figure this? Assuming this is what it was like prior to Roe v. Wade, the people most likely to remember such a time are also the least likely to believe abortion should be legal. What makes you think a return to septic ward abortions would suddenly make people want to make abortion illegal? You seem to be missing the crux of the pro-life position.

    B) I did NOT say that catholics and evangelicals obtain the marjority of abortions. I pointed out that these two demos together comprise a large percentage of the abortion rate. Read for comprehension, please.

    I understood what you said. Perhaps you should take the time to try to understand what I wrote out. Catholics and Protestants will obtain more abortions because there are more of them than any other group. However, when you look at the percentage of Protestant and Catholics obtaining an abortion, it is lower than those professing other beliefs and those professing no beliefs. They are less likely to obtain an abortion than their counterparts. If the U.S. population was equally comprised of Protestands, Catholics, those professing other beliefs and the non-religious, you would see a greater number of abortions come out of the latter two groups than the first.

  • forced-birth-rape

    ~ I want every one to know that this poster is a MAN, and HE is hateful to women who say they have been raped. ~

  • ahunt

    Now, now Arecteris…

     

    Catholics and Protestants will obtain more abortions because there are more of them than any other group.

     

    Can you say…Irrelevant to the point that those women who do in fact obtain abortions are nearly as likely to come from an anti-abortion religious tradition as other demos?

     

    How do you figure this? Assuming this is what it was like prior to Roe v. Wade, the people most likely to remember such a time are also the least likely to believe abortion should be legal. What makes you think a return to septic ward abortions would suddenly make people want to make abortion illegal? You seem to be missing the crux of the pro-life position.

     

    Come again?

     

  • arekushieru

    Yeah, it doesn’t make sense. Either the return to septic ward abortions WOULD suddenly make people want to make abortion illegal, or…. they AREn’t ProLife.