There are some “culture war” issues, notably involving LGBTQ+ rights, in which public opinion shows really sharp generational divisions. To put it bluntly, homophobia appears largely to be a geriatric illness, born of inadequate experience with real live LGBTQ+ people and rigid views of acceptable conduct. Even among conservative Evangelical youth, hostility toward marriage equality has ebbed.
But until recently, there have been few persistent generational divisions on abortion rights. As Gallup noted in 2010, older and younger generations steadily converged in their views on legal access to abortion in the early years of this century. And the millennial generation has confounded expectations that it would lead a liberalizing trend on abortion like it has on same-sex marriage, as Daniel Cox explains at FiveThirtyEight:
Over the past decade, one of the most confounding trends in public opinion has been why millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) who are less religious, more educated and more liberal than previous generations — are not stronger supporters of abortion rights. Polls have generally shown that millennials express considerable ambivalence about abortion, views that do not distinguish them from the broader public.
Millennials’ attitudes on abortion rights stand in stark relief to the way they tend to approach other issues of sex and sexuality. For instance, they were among the strongest proponents of legalizing same-sex marriage at the height of debate in the mid-2000s, and they have generally liberal views on contraception, sex education and premarital sex. Abortion has always been the exception.
As the steadily increasing fragility of abortion rights has raised the issue’s visibility in recent years, Generation Z (those born in or after 1997) looks likely to break the mold and lead a backlash to the impending revocation of a constitutional right to abortion by the U.S. Supreme Court. A new Pew survey released in May showed that 74 percent of adults ages 18 to 29 believe abortion should generally be legal, and that includes 30 percent who say it should be legal in all cases without exception. That’s a 12-point jump from the percentage of adults ages 30 to 49 taking the “generally legal” position and the difference between a solid majority and a supermajority.
This generational trend could solidify the anti-abortion movement’s isolation as an ideological group that is only dominant among white Evangelicals (who oppose legal abortion by a 74-24 margin, according to the same Pew survey). Pew shows Catholics now favoring legal abortion by a 56-42 margin (in sharp contrast to the largely monolithic official position of the Catholic Church in opposing legal abortion). Non-Evangelical white Protestants favor legal abortion by a 60-38 margin, and Black Protestants take the same position by a 66-28 margin. And among the religiously unaffiliated (an increasingly large group in both the millennial and Gen-Z cohorts), support for legal abortion soars to 84 percent.
According to Cox, there is an emerging gender gap in the overall ideological positioning of Gen Z that is less apparent in older generations:
An analysis of Gallup surveys over the past decade conducted by the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life, which I lead, found a critical shift in political identity among young women. In 2021, we found that 44 percent of 18- to 29-year-old women identified as liberal, whereas only 30 percent of 18- to 29-year-old women identified as such a decade earlier. Among men in this age group, the share who identified as liberal was essentially unchanged during the same time period.
In any event, the idea that the national divide over abortion is all but eternal and immutable is no longer so compelling. This is well-timed good news if the Supreme Court is indeed going to relegate abortion policy to the political realm to be fought out state by state in hand-to-hand legislative and electoral combat. The right to choose could eventually become as relatively noncontroversial in the United States as it is in western Europe.
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