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The Morality of the Millenials

Yesterday, in a presentation at the Brookings Institute, Robert P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute presented the results of new survey data about the moral views of Millenials, those aged 18-29, regarding abortion and same sex marriage. The results confirmed two essential facts: first, Millenials’ views on abortion track largely with older age cohorts, while they are decidedly more tolerant of same sex marriage and, second, Americans remain largely ambivalent about the legality of abortion.

The survey entailed 3,000 phone interviews. Critically, 750 of the interviews were conducted by cell phone, an important – and more expensive – method of polling but one that is essential for obtaining sound data on younger Americans, many of whom no longer have land lines. The poll went into the field in late April through early May of this year, so the data is current.

60 percent of Millenials think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared to 58 percent of those aged 30-49, and 59 percent of those aged 50-64. Only 43 percent of Seniors, aged 65 and up, think abortion should be legal in all or most cases. So, Millenials do not differ hugely from other Americans except Seniors. On the other hand, 57 percent of Millenials favor same sex marriage, compared to 42 percent of those aged 30-49, 32 percent among those aged 50-64, and 26 percent of Seniors. These trends show a “decoupling” of same sex marriage from abortion in the population among the range of traditional moral concerns.

Religion, with the exception of white evangelicals, does not seem to provide much of a determinative effect in views on abortion and same sex marriage. Those who express some religious affiliation largely track with the statistical norm for the population, but only 29 percent white evangelicals think that abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances.

Curiously, while frequency of church attendance among most religious affiliations does not drastically alter perceptions about the legality of abortion, it does with Catholics. Among those Catholics who attend church weekly or more often, only 34 percent think abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances compared to 62 percent among those who attend monthly or yearly and 7 percent among those who attend seldom or never but still identify as Catholics. There is a cart-horse dynamic here. Those who attend church more frequently tend to be older, older church-goers tend to be more conservative, and those who hear messages in their churches about abortion are more likely to oppose it. Still, something going on in Catholic churches seems to be working in persuading people on the issue, and one of the ways we can help change the culture to become more pro-life is to focus on ways to get more Catholics to come to church with greater frequency.

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One of the most interesting findings of the survey highlighted the ambivalence of Americans regarding abortion. Interviewers asked those being surveyed whether they considered themselves “pro-life” and fully two-thirds said that the do. But, when asked whether they considered themselves “pro-choice,” seven in ten said that term applied also. Digging into the data, Jones said that about 40 percent of Americans are genuinely conflicted about abortion, identifying as both pro-life and pro-choice. Only 7 percent of respondents said they were “strongly pro-life” and only 14 percent said they were “strongly pro-choice.” But, it is that 40 percent in the middle who can be persuaded one way or the other and it is they who are most likely to be responsive to the kind of incremental changes, such as parental notification requirements and waiting periods, that can help bring down the abortion rate.

Another very curious finding was what Jones described as the MTV effect. Those Millenials who regularly watch the MTV shows “Teen Mom” and “16 and Pregnant” were significantly more likely to favor legal abortion in all or most cases. I wonder how many of those have seen the pro-life movie “Juno,” or if there was an MTV series based on a pro-life theme, if those numbers might change. Culture is shaped not only, or even primarily, by a legal regimen. Creating a culture of life will require our Catholic colleges to produce writers and actors and directors and playwrights capable of providing culturally sensitive narratives that celebrate life. In our utilitarian, consumer culture, you can be sure there will be plenty of anti-life messages flooding the airwaves that so shape the worldview of Millenials.

It is difficult for polling on an issue as well polled as abortion to find anything genuinely new, but Jones and his team discovered something very interesting. While 60 percent of Millenials think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, 68 percent think it should be “available in their communities.” More ambiguity, to be sure. But, I suspect also that for Millenials, as opposed to older cohorts, the difference lies in the fact that legality speaks to an abstract principle and availability speaks to concrete reality. Those aged 18-29 are those for whom an unintended pregnancy is more likely to be a real, not an abstract, concern.

Karlyn Bowman, of the American Enterprise Institute, was one of the two responders to Jones’ report and she made a very critical observation, noting that when people are ambivalent, they pull away from the policy debate, leaving that to the activists on both sides. This is something we in the pro-life community need to ponder deeply. Obviously, we cannot compromise our moral teachings on the sanctity of human life, but we must find ways to engage, not demonize, those who are ambivalent and whom, with time and patient witness, we might be able to persuade to be more decidedly pro-life in their policy positions. A rejectionist stance towards those in political life who are pro-life but may disagree on certain ambiguous policy areas, such as we saw during the debate over health care, such a stance is not likely to persuade this ambivalent middle to come closer to our positions.

There is much food for thought in the survey results. And, there is in these results, I believe, much good news for those who want to create a culture of life and understand that persuasion, not demonization, will yield the best results and that creating a culture of life will require more than a political strategy. I am sure that some on both sides of the abortion debate will attack the survey because it does not confirm their orthodoxies, but data is data and we will not persuade our fellow Americans to embrace life by burying our heads in the sand. Kudos to Jones and his colleagues for a thoughtful in-depth survey.

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