Though pro-choicers have decried alleged millennial apathy, while pro-lifers claim that millennials may be their own new wave, recent research suggests that millennials are just as conflicted about abortion as any generation post-Roe.
A 2011 study by the Public Religion Research Institute, based on interviews with 3,000 Americans, 413 of them aged 18-29, found that while millennials generally believe abortion should be legal and available, they are conflicted about its morality. In fact, millennials are more likely to believe that same-sex marriage, sex education, and affordable birth control are morally acceptable than they are to believe that abortion is.
Researchers note that the majority of Americans, including millennials, agree that abortion should be legal in some (but not all) cases. They explain, "Over the last ten years, the percentage of Americans who say abortion should be legal in all cases has never risen above 21%, and the percentage who say it should be illegal in all cases has never risen above 17%." They further note that geographic location, religion, education, and political affiliation have an effect on abortion attitudes, as do age and race. Gender appears to not be a salient factor.
6 in 10 millennials think abortion should be legal in all (22%) or most (38%) cases; 4 in 10 think it should be illegal in all (13%) or most (25%) cases. Their views reflect the views of the general population.
The study notes, "For example, while three-quarters of millennials identify with the term 'pro-choice,' 65% also say 'pro-life' describes them at least somewhat well." In other words, the same millennials who call themselves pro-choice also identify as pro-life. (Well, they're certainly not the clearest of terms.) Researchers further note that 53% of all Americans believe that "pro-choice" is a more socially acceptable label, which may lead to at least some of the overlap. Millennials are more likely to believe that whether having an abortion is right or wrong depends on the situation, again aligning with the majority of Americans (54%).
Millennials are oddly conflicted when it comes to the legality of abortion. Researchers note, "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" but "millennials are 1.5 times more likely than older Americans to say at least some health care providers should provide legal abortions in their community." Meaning ... what, exactly?
The truth is that abortion may simply not register on the political consciousnesses of millennials as the most pressing issue facing America.
And we aren't alone in that. 3 in 10 Americans think that abortion is a "critical issue facing the country today," whereas 4 in 10 say it is not that important. A higher percentage of Americans think immigration (43%) and the environment (42%) are critical issues, with the economy ranking as issue number one (78%). Abortion ranks fourth out of five issues, followed only by same-sex marriage, when all Americans weigh in.
Abortion is not that high on the national agenda ... except with "white evangelical Protestants, Republicans, and those who identify with the Tea Party," who rank "abortion third behind the economy and immigration and rank the environment last." The people who are most likely to say abortion is a critical issue are those who believe that it should be illegal in all cases. Perhaps this explains, at least in part, the spate of legal restrictions that Americans have seen over the past two years. It certainly explains the personhood push from anti-choice advocates, who (perhaps not coincidentally), often refer to abortion in terms of "death" (as do, implicitly, all pro-lifers).
While millennials share essentially the same attitudes on abortion as our parents, we are significantly more likely to advocate for marriage equality.
Nearly 6 in 10 (57%) support same-sex marriage, and another 2 in 10 (19%) believe that civil unions should be legal. Researchers note that 54% of the words that millennials connect to abortion in top-of-mind associations are negative; "the words 'death' or 'killing' appear five times and 'sad' appears three times." For same-sex marriage, 53% of the associated words were positive; "the word 'equal' appears five times, and the word 'love' appears three times. There are also positive high intensity phrases such as 'Awesome,' 'It's cool,' and 'Go for it!"
Millennials also display the highest level of support for comprehensive sex education with 88% approving, though a solid majority of other American demographics support sex education in schools as well. (Again, the central outlier is the Tea Party, where support for comprehensive sex education in public schools is only 54%.) And 8 in 10 Americans (82%), including millennials, favor "expanding access to birth control for women who cannot afford it" ... even in the Tea Party.
So what does all this data demonstrate?
Firstly, it would seem to indicate that millennial Tea Partiers are few and far between, even if we have adopted the language of liberty. This is not surprising, given that the popularity of the Tea Party has been in rapid decline since its 2010 victories.
Secondly, it suggests that framing marriage equality in terms of "love" and "equality" has paid off, whereas framing abortion in terms of "choice" may not have. But what should be substituted in its place, if both pro-life and pro-choice seem to be meaningless? As Katha Pollitt puts it at The Nation, "If the problem is that lots of people support Roe in the abstract but think it’s too easy to get an abortion and too many women who have them are heedless sluts, it won’t be long before 'personal decision' sounds as lightweight as 'choice.'"
Whatever new labels emerge for millennials, be they pro-choice or pro-life, we will have to contend with our own moral and legislative judgments as to when abortion is permissible ... just as generations of Americans before have done. The fight to define abortion rights is far from over. The issue is far from settled in the courts. And millennials will be the ones continuing to settle it, even as we battle over student loan debt, the poor economy, health care reform, immigration reform, and gun control.