The Public Religion Research Institute recently released the largest national public
opinion survey ever conducted on abortion and the influence of religion and moral
values. The poll zeroed in on the views of Millennial youth (18-29) and
discovered that while this generation is slightly more supportive of abortion than
the public as a whole (60% compared to 56%), they are significantly more supportive
of same sex marriage -- by 15 points -- than any other age group in the population.
Millennial youth have, as the pollsters state, "a unique, nuanced approach to the issue of abortion, combining strong support for the availability of abortion services and access to
birth control with moral reservations." So, put the Millennials down as strongly favoring the legality and accessibility of abortion, but with significant personal and moral concerns regarding individual circumstance.
But, why are Millennials so much more supportive of equal marriage for gays and lesbians when compared to the general public than they are of abortion?
My view is that the sheer volume of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and
transgender (GLBT) people who have come out over the last 25 years has
helped to transform public perceptions of same sex relationships. Millennial youth have known GLBT people as family, friends, fellow students, and work colleagues for decades. They know their stories and have glimpsed the reality of their lives. The thought that these individuals should somehow be denied the same rights as straight folks strikes Millennial youth as a social and moral non sequitur. It just doesn't make sense.
When it comes to abortion on the other hand, millennial youth do not have a comparable experience of knowing the stories of women who have had abortions -- whether pre- or post-Roe v. Wade. Plus, the anti-choice movement has successfully stigmatized abortion with its tactics of clinic intimidation, restrictive legislation, and conservative religious opposition.
The good news for those of us who support women's reproductive health and rights is that there is tremendous room for us to grow the support of Millennials for abortion rights. As the pollsters point out, "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."
My belief is that the pro-choice movement needs to supplement its current focus on legal and policy strategies by becoming much more visible and engaged on the cultural front. Stigma thrives in silence and anonymity. Acceptance is fueled by personal and social contact. In short, it's a lot easier to demonize someone who you don't see and you don't know.
Another major finding of the poll has significant ramifications for the upcoming
2012 elections. Millennial youth are major supporters of a broad array of sexual health
and rights issues. They not only support same sex marriage and access to abortion, but
they also support comprehensive sex education (82%), access to contraception
for women who can't afford it (82%), the morality of same sex relationships (57%), and
the morality of sex between an unmarried man and woman (70%).
These attitudes represent more than a mere generation gap between younger and older voters in the population -- they constitute a political chasm when it comes to the policies
of the two major political parties.
The Republican culture war is a loser with young people. Strident opposition
to gay marriage, support for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, votes to eliminate
federal support for contraception for poor women, opposition to comprehensive sex education, the attacks on Planned Parenthood, heavy-handed anti-abortion legislation
that tramples nuance and individual circumstance -- all scream "out of touch" to young
For the Democrats, who are generally supportive of sexual health issues, the key is
whether they can overcome their traditional timidity and skittishness to effectively brand sexual health as a Democratic issue and a powerful cultural signal of the failure of the Republican Party to "get" the Millennial generation.
The pollsters note that Millennial support for gender equality and rights for gay and lesbian people coupled with their overall strong support for sexual health issues constitute
"one of the most politically important ways that Millennials differ from other cohorts."
We'll see whether Democrats "get" this fundamental difference and find ways to effectively communicate with the generation that is about to transform sexual health in America.