This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.
Last week, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI)—a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts research to better understand debates on public policy issues—released its new survey, How Race and Religion Shape Millennial Attitudes on Sexuality and Reproductive Health. One of the largest of its kind, the survey sought to examine how race, religion, and politics shape young people’s attitudes on reproductive and sexual health, as well as on morality and stigma.
Millennials—young adults born in the 1980s and 1990s—came of age during a time when antibiotic-resistant sexually transmitted infections became a public health threat, racial disparities in reproductive and sexual health outcomes persisted, and politicians continued to systematically deny and attack their ability to access sexual health information and health care services, such as contraception and abortion. That may be why, when compared to the general public, so many of the 2,314 young adults ages 18-to-35 in the survey were less likely to identify with either of the two major political parties, and have a pessimistic view about the direction of the country.
Also, my generation is the first generation to have not known a world before the risk of HIV and AIDS became a widely known epidemic—a sobering reminder of the context in which today’s young people were born and still live. This could explain why 87 percent of millennials believe health plans should cover HIV and STD testing.
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Fortunately, the report suggests that millennial attitudes about reproductive and sexual health are promising, especially around sexual health education, contraception, and abortion. Further, the findings of this poll and others published recently suggest advocates have an opportunity to engage millennials—estimated to be the nation’s largest living generation—in working toward unfettered access to reproductive health information and services.
Seventy-five percent of millennials surveyed support comprehensive sex education in public schools. They want accurate information about their bodies, about sex and relationships, and about how to protect their health. That’s a big deal because one in four of those surveyed were not taught any sex education, and, among those who were, four in ten said their sex ed classes were not helpful to them in making sex and relationship decisions. In a nation where half of states require health educators emphasize abstinence-only, our policymakers are clearly out of touch with what young people want and need—comprehensive sex health education that is scientifically accurate and teaches young people how to protect themselves and have healthy relationships.
SisterReach, an organization based in Memphis, Tennessee, focused on empowering Black women and girls around their reproductive and sexual health, also released a report last week that emphasizes the need for comprehensive sex education, especially in a state that promotes abstinence-only education. The report, Our Voices and Experiences Matter, found that misinformation often fills the gaps abstinence-only education leaves behind. According to the report, one teen in a focus group said, “Guys talk about trying to make their own condoms—Saran Wrap.”
The focus groups found that teens, their parents, and their teachers show a desire and need for curriculum that provides young people with scientifically accurate information and equips them to make healthy decisions. The report concludes that Tennessee must change its sex ed curriculum and include input from young people, parents, and teachers.
Lack of appropriate and accurate sexual health education ultimately affects the health and life outcomes of the young people. For example, researchers found that young people who received comprehensive sex ed were less likely to report pregnancy than those who received abstinence-only education.
According to the report, millennials want access to contraception even more than they want comprehensive sex education taught in public schools. More than half (55 percent) of those surveyed are opposed to requiring a prescription for emergency contraception. Seventy-eight percent support making all forms of contraception readily available on college campuses, and 82 percent think prescription birth control should be covered by health insurance. Additionally, 81 percent support increasing access to contraception for women who cannot afford it. The availability and affordability of contraception matters to millennials and a large majority—both Democratic and Republican millennials alike—believe using contraception is morally acceptable.
Support for the increased availability and affordability of contraception is nothing new. Specifically, a 2013 poll found that African Americans of all ages and religious and political affiliations overwhelmingly view contraception as basic health care that should be covered, along with testing for sexually transmitted infections and abortion care, by health insurance.
All of this recent research suggests millennials want to decide whether and when to have children, and want people to have ready access to the information and services they need to carry out their decisions.
At first glance, survey respondents appear to be divided ideologically among religious and political lines when it comes to abortion, but a closer look yields some encouraging insights. Amongst all respondents, just over half (55 percent) think abortion should be legal in all or most cases and oppose making abortion more difficult to obtain. But those who know someone who had an abortion are more likely to oppose restricting access to safe abortion care. Among those who have had an abortion themselves, 73 percent oppose making it more difficult to access, and 79 percent say abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
Data from the reproductive health field confirm that individuals are willing to be non-judgmental and support those who seek abortion care. As recently as 2014, polling commissioned by the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health showed that—among Latino voters in Texas—78 percent agree that a woman has the right to make her own personal decisions about abortion, and eight in ten would offer support to a loved one who had an abortion.
These data, as well as other data in the PRRI report not covered here, demonstrate that individual reproductive and sexual health decision making is important to young people and that they value having access to helpful information and health-care services. In fact, millennials are speaking up online, in the streets, and even on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court to fight for the health care they need. As a generation that was born into a world with a growing number of health concerns and lives in a political environment that is hostile to reproductive health decisions, millennials recognize there is still a great deal of progress to be made. Our engagement, our advocacy, and our votes could turn the tide.
There will be opportunities to use this and other data to inform reproductive and sexual health policymaking. I hope those opportunities are taken and include the voices and perspectives of young people, because they could help improve the health outlook in the country for generations to come.