There is little doubt that abortion is a complex and multifaceted issue. With divergent viewpoints and a muddled “middle ground," it is common for public opinion polls to yield seemingly contradictory results.
Despite the perceived difficulties in definitively determining abortion perspectives, recent developments expose a public that is steadily growing warmer to the pro-life point of view. If this trend continues, there will be intriguing social and political implications, especially considering the surprising stance Millennials are taking on the issue.
One could argue that the nation’s ongoing abortion debate re-fueled and intensified following President Obama’s controversial speech at the University of Notre Dame in May 2009. Since the widely publicized event, journalists and researchers have attempted to qualify recent polls that corroborate an increase in pro-life sentiments. In May 2009 Gary Langer, the director of polling at ABC News, wrote, abortion is “a highly fraught subject—and one of those on which a single polling number does not begin to describe the complexity of Americans’ attitudes.”
Langer says that the majority of Americans are actually pro-life and pro-choice simultaneously. For instance, some people may believe that abortion should be legal, but only in specific cases (i.e. rape or if the woman’s life is in danger). In this case, the stance calls for legal abortion (pro-choice sentiment), but only in very specific circumstances (pro-life sentiment). In either case, an individual who subscribes to these beliefs is essentially aligning him or herself with both poles of the abortion debate—albeit, to different degrees.
Interestingly, Langer is not alone in his conclusions. In May 2009, New York Times journalist Dalia Sussman urged readers to be cautious when jumping to the conclusion that America may actually be embracive of pro-life tenants. According to Sussman, “[Asking if someone is “pro-life” or “pro-choice”] creates absolutes, when in reality, abortion really represents an issue in which there aren’t any absolutes for many (if not most) people.”
While this may be a valid argument in terms of recognizing complexities in perception, it is entirely possible that a slight majority of Americans are still avoiding absolutes, while sliding, albeit slowly, toward a more pro-life world view. Statistics from multiple sources corroborate this notion. One does not have to be “absolute” in a belief to lean more in one direction than another.
Imagine a line on which one charts his or her support on a scale from zero to 10 (10 being “extremely favorable” of abortion rights). Now, picture millions of people plotted along this continuum. While individuals may hold diverse beliefs on the subject, chances are that a majority would find itself on either end (this is to say before or after the five, or middle ground, placement) of the spectrum. For instance, an individual who opposes abortion, yet thinks that it should be legal in cases of rape, may choose a three on the continuum, instead of a zero. Here, this person clearly opposes abortion, while possessing some sense that it should be permitted in select circumstances. Even though his or her opinion isn’t an extreme (a zero or 10), the individual still leans more in favor of pro-life sentiments.
Despite resistance from some journalists and researchers who cannot fathom a reduction in support for pro-abortion arguments, public opinion polls continue to reflect a collective, albeit slow, movement away from pro-choice-ism. In Oct. 2009, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life was one of many reputable sources to recognize a drop in support for abortion. Pew found that, while abortion supporters outnumbered foes in 2007 and 2008, the two sides are now equal in number. Additionally, Pew wrote that “there have been modest increases in the numbers who favor reducing abortions or making them harder to obtain.” And most surprisingly: “Less support for abortion is evident among most demographic and political groups.”
Perhaps most intriguing is the closure in the generational gap. According to Gallup, those Americans aged 18 to 29 and 30 to 49 were most supportive of abortion rights in the late 1970s. This pattern has evolved since 2000, with all age groups aside from seniors (65 and older), sharing similar views on abortion. Not surprisingly, seniors remain the “least likely to favor legal abortion.”
Now for the bombshell:
Gallup found that between 2005 and 2009, among those individuals who are 18 to 29 years of age, there has been a nine-percentage-point increase in the belief that abortion should be “illegal in all circumstances.” This essentially means that young Americans are nearly tied with seniors in their belief that abortion should be eradicated.
Interestingly, this group is also frequently pointed out by the left to be strongly in favor of more liberal social and political policy. However, young people appear to be moving more in line with conservatives on this issue, further corroborating the notion that Millennials may not be sold on progressive policies.
Make no mistake, opinions about abortion have not shifted radically on the whole. That said, public perception appears to be sliding in the pro-life direction. In 2001, Gallup asked respondents if they saw abortion has morally acceptable or morally unacceptable; 42% said that abortion is morally acceptable, with 45% stating the contrary. In 2010, this same poll found only 38% claiming that abortion is moral, with 50% stating the opposing view, that abortion is immoral.
Abortion will continue to be a highly controversial topic in American political and social circles, as both sides argue in support of their respective stances. With Millennials poised to inherit future leadership posts, the generation’s less-favorable abortion perspective offers an intriguing conundrum to the left. In the end, it is the Millennial generation that will create the laws and monitor the policies that govern this highly contentious subject.