Debunking Abortion Myths: Part 2

Political rhetoric often gives the impression that Americans’ views on abortion may be neatly categorized along ideological, generation, and gender lines. However, this ethereal narrative blurs and even obscures the on-the-ground reality: Americans’ views on abortion are far more complex than our prevailing political narratives are usually willing to admit.

A Salon article entitled “How to Argue with Your Relatives About Abortion: A Few Arguments that Won’t Work with Pro-Lifers and Some that Might” by Shawna Kay Rodenberg (introduced in the first post of this series) gives advice on how to successfully argue with your Aunt Cheryl about abortion over the family dinner table. Ms. Rodenberg ascribes to the myth that millennials are overwhelmingly pro-choice. This generational argument is a common abortion myth, one that is called into serious question when we take a closer look at polling data. In fact, we find a much more complex picture, one that reveals that the generation gap may actually run in the other direction, that is, Aunt Cheryl is more likely to be pro-choice than her millennial niece.

The Generational Myth: Young people are not as pro-life as their parents.

It is not surprising that once we begin to examine the assumptions in articles like Ms. Rodenberg’s, we begin to see a different picture about abortion. In the 1960s and 70s, young Americans were at the forefront of the movement for legal access to elective abortion. In the years immediately following the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling on Roe v. Wade and its less well known sister case Doe v. Bolton, 18–29-year-olds led Americans as those most likely to support elective abortion under any circumstances. By 2009, however, Gallup reports that support for unrestricted elective abortion among millennials (18–34-year-olds) was lower than that among Gen X-ers and Baby Boomers. Only seniors (65+) had a less favorable view of elective abortion than millennials, and millennials lead all age groups in saying “abortion should be illegal in all circumstances.”

As a generation that grew up in the shadow of Roe v. Wade, millennials are rethinking abortion. As abortion rates decline to their lowest levels since 1973, young Americans express deep ambivalence about elective abortion and can no longer be counted on to support liberalization of abortion rights. In fact, a 2003 New York Times article reported a decline in support for abortion among young Americans, citing survey data that revealed a 13% drop in college freshmen who thought abortion should be legal—from 67% in the early 1990s to 54% in the early 2000s. The same article noted a January 2003 New York Times/CBS News poll, which also “found that among people 18–29, the share who agree that abortion should be generally available to those who want it was 30%, down from 48% in 1993” (March 30, 2003).

In 2015, a CNN poll reported that 23%of millennials favored making abortion illegal in all circumstances, the highest percentage among any other age group of Americans, with an additional 31% favoring abortion only being “legal in certain circumstances,” as opposed to “legal under any circumstances” or “legal under most circumstances.” Finally, in 2016, Gallup reported that 56% of Americans believe abortion should be legal only in a few circumstances or illegal in all circumstances. Yet, Americans remain fairly evenly split when asked if they consider themselves pro-choice or pro-life, with 47% reporting “pro-choice” and 46% reporting “pro-life,” a fact that appears to indicate more uneasiness with the politicization of the classifications we use, than with on-the-ground attitudes. We can conclude that America is trending away from the position that abortion should be legal under any circumstances. Public support for abortion peaked in the mid-1990s, and has more or less steadily declined since. Regardless of whether millennials identify as pro-choice or pro-life, it’s clear from the data that Aunt Cheryl is more likely to advocate for elective abortion than her millennial niece or nephew.

Learn more about The Generational Myth during an upcoming webinar. In 6 Abortion Myths: A March for Life Primer, we will uncover the realities of various myths surrounding abortion and discuss practical ways to cultivate pro-life communities.


Featured Photo: American Life League; CC-BY-NC-2.0.


Jessica Keating

Jessica Keating is the director of the Notre Dame Office of Human Dignity and Life Initiatives, where she engages in scholarship that strives to recover the concept of human dignity for the theological and philosophical imagination.

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