This is the first of two articles on bridging the abortion issue with compassion. We…
Do numbers show a shifting abortion divide?
Most Americans, 62 percent, believe abortion is a “complex issue,” according to a new poll about American attitudes toward abortion released last week by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). The best example of this complexity may be that 52 percent of American adults agree with the statement, “abortion goes against my personal beliefs,” and at the same time, 54 percent say abortion should be legal in most cases.
Shifts among the young
Polling on abortion questions in the United States has been remarkably stable over time. Yet, the PRRI study shows that some younger Americans may be changing their minds. Thirty-four percent of adults under the age of 30 say their views on abortion changed in recent years. Most, 25 percent, have become more supportive of abortion, while 9 percent say they have become more opposed. Older Americans are less likely to report a change in their views on the topic, and among those that have there is a fairly even split between those becoming more supportive and those becoming more opposed.
Majorities of both men (55 percent) and women (51 percent) do not believe abortion services should be covered in health care plans. Nearly 6 in 10 Catholics, 58 percent, agree that this should not be covered. Americans under 30 disagree, with 52 percent supporting this type of abortion coverage.
Two-thirds of white evangelical Protestants believe abortion should be illegal in most or all cases (PRRI combines race and religion to report some results). A slight majority of Catholics, 52 percent, disagree and say abortion should be legal in most or all cases. Those without a religious affiliation are most likely to support legal abortion. Seventy-four percent of “nones,” as some researchers refer to those without a religion, believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases.
Not a dichotomous issue
The PRRI survey does not specify what type of “cases.” However, the General Social Survey (GSS), a series of nationally representative surveys, has done this since 1972. Here, majorities of adult Catholics have said they oppose the legality of abortion in certain circumstances. In 2016, 65 percent opposed legal abortion if the woman wants it “for any reason.” More specifically, 65 percent opposed this if the family has a very low income and cannot afford more children and 62 percent opposed this if the woman is married and does not want anymore children.
Majorities of adult Catholics believe abortion should be legal if the woman’s own health is seriously endangered by the pregnancy (89 percent), if the woman became pregnant as a result of rape (73 percent), and if there is a strong chance of “serious defect” in the baby (68 percent). This split between different circumstances is evident in almost every sub-group of the population. For many abortion is not a “legal or not” dichotomous issue. Even a third of those without a religious affiliation do not agree with abortion being legal for any reason. At the same time, 74 percent of Catholics who attend Mass weekly believe abortion should be legal if the woman’s health is endangered by the pregnancy.
Like the PRRI study, the GSS includes evidence of shifting opinions among younger Americans. In 2016, nearly half of all adults under age 30 in the United States felt that abortion should be legal if the woman wants it for any reason. Fewer than 4 in 10 adults under age 30 agreed with this a decade earlier (36 percent).
Aside from personal feelings and beliefs about abortion, 6 in 10 adults in the PRRI study said they do not believe it is likely that abortion will become illegal in the United States in their lifetime.
The American public has been evenly divided over the issue of abortion for decades. The PRRI study and other surveys also show many have internal conflicts about abortion. The newest wrinkle in the research is that there is evidence that younger Americans may eventually alter the divide over abortion in the public. Those under age 30 today are more supportive of abortion, less likely to be personally opposed to it, and to believe abortion should be covered by health insurance.
It is unclear from the PRRI study how young adult Catholics responded. Pooling responses from the 2014 and 2016 GSS to ensure a sufficient number of cases, 36 percent of Catholics under age 30 surveyed felt that abortion should be legally available “for any reason.” By comparison, 69 percent of the religiously unaffiliated under 30 agreed with this.
Those without a affiliation are the fastest-growing religious sub-group in the country. In 1990, only one in ten adults under 30 did not have a religious affiliation. By comparison, nearly a third, 32 percent, in this age group does not have one now, according to the GSS. Thus, the shifts in attitudes about abortion apparent in younger respondents in national surveys may be more about religion than about age or generation.
Mark M. Gray, Ph.D., is a senior research associate for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
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