“Moral Conflict” On Abortion A Result of Anti-Choice Advocacy

The title of the Public Religion Research Institute’s extensive new study, released last week, on attitudes towards abortion, is “Committed to Availability, Conflicted About Morality: What the Millenial Generation Tells Us about the Future of the Abortion Debate and the Culture Wars.” While I understand how this massive and wide-ranging study would be challenging to summarize in a single headline, the focus on the moral conflict among millenials, in my view, gives a distorted view on what the data in the study actually shows.

According to the survey, “a solid majority of Americans say abortion should be legal in all (19%) or most (37%) cases.” White evangelical Protestants are the only religious group that does not have a majority supporting legal abortion. The conflict is not within the millenial (18-29 year olds) camp, but between religiously-motivated anti-choice activists and the majority of Americans. (There even may be a less-discussed sub-conflict between religious rhetoric and reality, as recent data from the Guttmacher Institute shows that three-quarters of women who have abortions describe themselves as “religiously affiliated;” one in five women having abortions are evangelical.)

As the Rev. Carlton Veazey, president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, put it in a statement:

The survey’s notion of “moral conflict” indicates that Millenials have been affected by the extraordinary negativity about abortion and the barrage of legislative attacks. Although abortion is one of the most common surgical procedures in the United States, with one in three women having an abortion, many young people have been shamed into silence . . . . Yet despite the stigma attached to abortion, 59% of Millenials surveyed said they think that “abortion can be the most responsible decision a woman can make in certain circumstances.”

Indeed, notwithstanding the rhetorical successes of the anti-choice movement in stigmatizing abortion, according to the survey, three-quarters of millenials describe themselves as “pro-choice,” and 68% of them (more than any other age group) agree that “at least some health care professionals in [the] community should provide legal abortions.” So why, then, did the survey authors describe these millenials as “conflicted” about the “morality” of abortion?

From the report:

A slim majority (52%) of Americans believe having an abortion is morally wrong, compared to 40% who say it is morally acceptable. Millenials are more divided on the morality of abortion, with half (50%) saying having an abortion is morally wrong and 46% saying it is morally acceptable. Among Americans age 65 and older 57% say abortion is morally wrong, and 31% say it is morally acceptable.

In addition, millenials (49%) are more likely to say that abortion is not a sin than the general population is (44%), and more likely than all other age groups to say it’s not a sin. They are also more likely to say abortion should be available in the local community than the general population (68% to 58%).

In other words, then, millenials are more in the “morally acceptable” camp than any other age group, and they are more likely than the population as a whole to say that abortion is “morally acceptable.” So why highlight that they are conflicted on the morality of abortion? Instead, the data suggest that millenials are moving more in the direction of accepting the legality, availability, and morality of abortion, and therefore are less conflicted than their elders.

The survey authors note that millenials are more likely to support the availability of abortion in the community than they are to support the legality of abortion, one of the oddest findings of the study:

In the general population and in all other age groups except for Millenials, nearly equal numbers support the legality of aboriton and the local availability of abortion services. Millenials, however, support the availability of local abortion services at a significantly higher rate (68%) than they support the legality of abortion (60%).

This of course makes no sense: how can someone think that abortion shouldn’t be legal, but it should be available? The lead survey author, PRRI president Robert P. Jones, struggled to explain this phenomenon. He noted that in focus groups millenials’ “eyes glazed over” when asked detailed questions about policy and legislative efforts to restrict access to abortion. Jones suggested that, perhaps, because the millenials were born after Roe v. Wade became the law of the land, it “may be harder [for them] to perceive risk to legality than availability.” But still, I’d love to probe that eight percent: if you don’t think it should be legal, then why would you think it should be available?

In any case, though, the higher rates of acceptance of availability than legality should provide some signals to the anti-choice movement, which of late has focused on restricting access at the state level. If millenials are more supportive of availability, will they see the efforts of the anti-choice movement as going too far?

While there is wide acceptance for one anti-choice effort at restricting access (parental consent laws, which nearly three-quarters of Americans support for women under 18), there was also wide support among all respondents for access to abortion if a woman’s physical health is endangered (86%), if the pregnancy was the result of rape (79%), if the woman’s mental health is endangered (74%), or if there is a chance of a serious birth defect (66%).

But there is a cautionary note — the (religious) intensity factor:

Those who oppose legal abortion are more than three times as likely as those who support legal abortion to say it is a critical issue. Among those who say abortion should be illegal in all cases, nearly two-thirds (65%) say that abortion is critical issue. In contrast, aong those who say abortion should be legal in all cases, only 19% say it is a critical issue.

Advocates for restricting abortion access, then, are highly religiously motivated, and willing to devote extraordinary time and energy to policy minutiae, such as legislating onerous regulatory requirements for abortion providers, relentlessly pursuing banning abortion coverage in insurance, and instituting requirements such as a visit to a crisis pregnancy center before a woman can have an abortion, to name a few of the efforts being made in state legislatures across the country. Given Jones’ comment about millenials’ “eyes glazing over” when faced with detailed policy questions, the study actually provides more clues about why the anti-choice movement might be succeeding in legislating these restrictions, despite being out of step with the majority of Americans, than it does about the moral conflicts experienced by millenials.

And of course not all millenials’ eyes glaze over. As Dawn Laguens, Planned Parenthood Executive Vice President for Public Policy and Communications, put it, “We know, just from the past few months, that when Americans, especially Millennials, see threats to access and availability of reproductive health, they become actively engaged.”

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email