Millennials conflicted about abortion, more clear on support for same-sex marriage
PROVO - Jordan Allred grew up in a conservative LDS family in the conservative state of Montana, yet he's quick to admit he sees the world differently than his parents or grandparents do."The culture is sort of evolving," he said. "I think it's getting harder and harder to put labels on things. For the longest time I thought I was conservative, but I believe that I've changed. I can say that I'm a more moderate thinker and believer these days."
The Utah State University senior in his mid-20s is a Millennial, an American between the ages of 18 and 29 who is part of a generation defined by ethnic and racial diversity, high levels of education, lower levels of religiosity, open-mindedness and confident attitudes.
New survey data released today by the Public Religion Research Institute found that most Millennials are like Allred when it comes to the issue of same-sex marriage - more open, accepting and supportive than previous generations.
Yet, when it comes to abortion, these same progressive, young Americans have opinions that more closely mirror those of the general population - including their parents.
"The purpose of this study," according to the report, "is to shed some light on this apparent paradox and to explore what role religion and values play in younger Americans' attitudes toward reproductive issues."
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Public support for legal abortion has hovered around 50 percent for the past decade, and is currently around 56 percent.
For Millennials, sixty percent believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, with an even higher 68 percent of Millennials believing that abortion should be available in their local communities.
However, one of the most surprising findings from the survey was that only 46 percent of Millennials believe abortion is morally acceptable, said Daniel Cox, research director at the Public Religion Research Institute.
"Research both in academia and polls has shown that Millennials, while very liberal on a lot of social issues and sexual issues, have not been as progressive on the issue of abortion," he said. "And there have been a lot of questions on how abortion is different."
In the general population, 40 percent believe that abortion is morally acceptable while 56 percent believe it should be legal in all or most cases, and 58 percent think it should be available in the local community.
"This survey is among the first to point out an obvious truth," said Patrick Whelan, a doctor at MassGeneral Hospital for Children and president of Catholic Democrats. "That most Americans are both opposed to abortion and think that it should be a personal family decision. In other words, most people - including most Catholics -are both pro-life and opposed to the criminalization of abortion."
Yet while Millennials exhibit conflicting feelings on abortion, they are clear on their support for same-sex marriage, and are breaking away from views of previous generations that linked the two issues as comprising the "values-voter agenda."
Among Millennials, 57 percent believe that gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to marry, compared to 42 percent of those in the next generation, and 32 percent in the 50 to 64 age group. Only 26 percent of Americans age 65 and older support same-sex marriage.
And only 41 percent of Millennials (compared to 69 percent of senior citizens) labeled sex between adults of the same gender as morally wrong.
Same-sex relationships weren't talked about 20 and 30 years ago, and if they were, it was generally in a negative light. But today, they are shown in television shows, movies, music and even news in a much more positive and somewhat trendy light, which appeals to the Millennials, who Allred calls very trend-conscious.
"We want to talk about trendy news, do trendy things," he said. "It bugs the heck out of me, but it has it's upsides, because I do think that being trendy has made it appropriate to talk about things our parents didn't really talk about that much."
This attitude shift can clearly be seen through an exercise Cox did with focus groups before the official survey of 3,000 Americans, which included a large chunk of Millennials. They asked white, politically moderate Millennials to write down the first word that came to mind when given the words "same-sex marriage" and "abortion."
In the abortion category, a majority of words (54 percent) were opposing - "anger," "death" "loss" "killing an innocent life" "sad" "scary" and "wrong."
In the same-sex marriage category, 53 percent of words were affirming, like "love" "equality" "go for it!" "it's cool" "progress" and "what's the difference."
Cox said it showed same-sex marriage is seen as something to be "celebrated," unlike abortion, which "even if you support (it), it's not something that's generally celebrated. It's often talked about as a failure," he said. "We think that the Millennials are making this distinction between same-sex marriage, which is celebrated, and abortion, which while a majority say it should be legal, they definitely have moral concerns."
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Such moral concern was also seen in survey responses by Americans who couldn't pick just one label or term to define their position on abortion and instead exhibited "overlapping identities and attitudes."
A large majority of respondents said the term "pro-choice" described them somewhat (32 percent) or very (38 percent) well, yet another two-thirds said they could also be defined very (35 percent) or somewhat (31 percent) well by the term "pro-life."
For Millennials, 75 percent picked the term "pro-choice," yet 65 percent also said that "pro-life" is somewhat self-descriptive.
"It's a testament to the fact that the pro-life community has been effective with their messaging in reaching younger people, who until recently took a more traditionally liberal position on this issue," Whelan said. "For my generation growing up in the 1960s, it was very unfashionable to be outspokenly pro-life. It was seen as anti-woman, at a time when feminism represented the new frontier in civil rights. But now, most people don't seem to equate being pro-life with being against the interests of women."
When the survey asked for a more specific answer on the abortion question, 37 percent of Americans and 40 percent of Millennials still identified themselves with "mixed" terms or as someone who rejected both terms equally.
"I think that pro-life or pro-choice, those are too narrow to describe my opinion," said Ray Walker, a 23-year-old chemical engineering student at the University of Utah. "I don't think it should be illegal, because ... there's exceptions to everything. But at the same time, abortion is, you are aborting a potential life, and that, in my opinion, is murder. That's my stand. I don't think it should be illegal, but people should think twice, even three times before they go through with it."
Walker believes that in cases of rape, where a woman's right to choose was taken away, the woman should have a choice regarding the pregnancy.
That type of consideration, an approach shared by many, represents more of a situational, rather than a principle-based approach to the issue of abortion.
Sixty-four percent of Millennials consider themselves situationalists in regards to moral questions, which translates to higher acceptance of abortion than their principle-based counterparts.
Yet, most of the situations Millennials and many others rely on as reasons for their approval of abortion - rape, incest and health of the mother - are far more rare than they realize, says Helen Alvar, an associate professor of law at George Mason University and author of numerous articles on abortion, same-sex marriage and family law.
She points to a 2004 study by the Guttmacher Institute where women were asked to explain why they wanted an abortion. The top reason was that "having a baby would dramatically change my life," (74 percent). Twelve percent of women indicated they had physical health problems and only one percent of women indicated they were victims of rape.
Yet because the survey asked about specific situations, the rarity of which few people realize, she said she believes it presented a somewhat inflated abortion approval rate.
"The study gives no sign of having made the link for respondents between the situations it describes, and the tiny percentage of abortions those situations represent," she said.
Without that clarification, Americans get "nowhere closer to resolving the actual questions that face us today," she continued, "(such as) 'Do you approve of the over 90 percent of all abortions taking place in the United States today which have no relationship to the mother's life, or health, or rape or incest, or health of the child?'"
ADDITIONAL SURVEY FINDINGS:
* 63 percent of Americans who live in urban areas believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared with 45 percent of Americans who live in rural communities
* 69 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared to only 29 percent of white evangelical Protestants
*68 percent of Americans with a post-graduate education believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared to 50 percent of Americans with a high school diploma or less
* When asked to pick critical issues facing the country, most Americans put the economy first (78 percent), followed by immigration, environment, abortion and same-sex marriage (23 percent)
* Americans are more supportive of allowing abortion when it happens as a result of something outside of the woman's ability to choose, such as health risk to the mother (86 percent), rape (79 percent) or birth defects of the child (66 percent)
Americans are less accepting of abortion for the following reasons: if the girl is still in high school (47 percent), if she was low income (45 percent) and if she didn't want to marry the baby's father (39 percent)
* Americans who have seen MTV's shows "16 and Pregnant" or "Teen Mom," are 8 percent more likely to say that abortion is morally acceptable than those who haven't seen the shows (48 percent versus 40 percent) and 11 percent more likely to say abortion should be legal in all or most cases (65 percent versus 56 percent)
* Americans who take the Bible literally as the word of God are less likely to believe that abortion should be legal (37 percent) compared to those who believe the Bible is a book written by men (83 percent)
* Among Americans who attend church services at least once a week, only 36 percent say abortion should be legal in all or most cases. For those who attend monthly or a few times a year, the acceptance rate jumps to 64 percent and for those who rarely or never attend church, 74 percent believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases
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