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.
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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?
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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.