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Report: Committed to Availability, Conflicted about Morality: What the Millennial Generation Tells Us about the Future of the Abortion Debate and the Culture Wars
The Millennials, Abortion and Religion Survey, conducted by Public Religion Research Institute and released at the Brookings Institution, is one of the largest public opinion surveys on abortion and religion ever conducted. The survey also finds that there are large generational differences on two issues that have often been linked in political discourse: abortion and same sex marriage.
A solid majority of Americans say abortion should be legal in all (19%) or most (37%) cases, compared to 4-in-10 who say it should be illegal in all (14%) or most (26%) cases.
With the exception of white evangelical Protestants, majorities of all major religious groups say abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
A majority of Americans across the political spectrum say it is more socially acceptable today to be “pro-choice” rather than “pro-life.”
Nearly 6-in-10 (58%) Americans say that at least some health care professionals in their communities should provide legal abortions.
With the exception of white evangelical Protestants and Latino Catholics, majorities of all major religious groups agree that at least some health care professionals in their community should provide legal abortions.
Americans who live in large metropolitan areas are much more likely than those who live in rural communities to say legal abortion services should be available in their community (67% vs. 39% respectively).
The binary “pro-choice”/“pro-life” labels do not reflect the complexity of Americans’ views on abortion. Seven-in-ten Americans say the term “pro-choice” describes them somewhat or very well, and nearly two-thirds simultaneously say the term “pro-life” describes them somewhat or very well. This overlapping identity is present in virtually every demographic group.
The decoupling of attitudes on abortion and same-sex marriage suggests that these topics, which served in the past as the heart of the “values” agenda, are no longer necessarily linked in the minds of Americans.
Roughly the same percentage of Americans said abortion should be legal in all or most cases in 1999 (57%) as say this today (56%).
In contrast, the percentage of Americans who said marriages between same-sex couples should be recognized by the law as valid has grown 18 points over this same period, from 35% in 1999 to 53% in 2011.
Millennials are less supportive of legal abortion than their demographic profile would suggest.
Millennials generally have traits associated with higher levels of support for the legality of abortion: they are more educated, more liberal, and more likely to be religiously unaffiliated.
Millennials exemplify the decoupling of attitudes on legal abortion and same-sex marriage. They are much more likely than the general public to favor same-sex marriage, but they are not significantly more likely than the general public to support the legality of abortion (60% vs. 56% in the general public).
Millennials have largely positive top of mind associations with same-sex marriage but have largely negative top of mind associations with abortion.
Millennials are conflicted about the morality of abortion, but most say same gender sexual relationships are morally acceptable. Nearly 6-in-10 (57%) Millennials say sex between two adults of the same gender is morally acceptable, compared to only 46% who say having an abortion is morally acceptable.
Unlike all other age groups, Millennials register different levels of support for the availability and legality of abortion. On the one hand, Millennials are strongly committed to the availability of abortion and are significantly more likely than the general public to say that at least some health care professionals in their community should provide legal abortions (68% vs. 58% respectively). But they are no more likely than the general public to say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. These findings suggest general measures of legality may not fully capture support for legal abortion among Millennials.
On the issue of abortion, Americans hold complex and sometimes contradictory views, and grasping this complexity is critical for understanding the dynamics of the debate.
Approximately 3-in-10 Americans hold decidedly mixed views about the circumstances in which having an abortion should be possible. When measured on a composite scale of support for abortion in five specific circumstances, 43% say abortion should be possible in most or all of these circumstances, 29% say abortion should not be possible in most or all of these circumstances, and 28% hold decidedly mixed views.
Majorities of Americans simultaneously say abortion is morally wrong (52%) and that it should be legal in all or most cases (56%).
The study identified and tested a number of hypotheses about independent influences on attitudes about the legality of abortion. The following factors are independent predictors of support for the legality of abortion, even when controlling for other demographic characteristics:
Having a situationalist rather than a principle-based approach to morality has a positive impact on support for the legality of abortion.
Knowing someone who has had an abortion has a positive impact on support for the legality of abortion.
Having seen MTV’s reality shows about unmarried pregnant teenagers has a positive impact on support for the legality of abortion.
Recently seeing an ultrasound image of a fetus has a negative impact on support for the legality of abortion.
Among Americans who attend church at least once or twice a month, majorities report hearing their clergy talk about the issue of abortion (54%) or homosexuality (51%) in church. Catholics are significantly more likely than Protestants to hear about abortion in church.
More than 7-in-10 (72%) religious Americans believe it is possible to disagree with the teachings of their religion on the issue of abortion and still be considered a person of good standing in their faith. A majority of all major religious groups, including Catholics and white evangelical Protestants agree with this statement.