In order to fully understand any polling data, we have to understand who the numbers are about. Last week, Gallup released polling data that showed a drop in support for legal abortion among young adults ages 18 to 29. Although young people still show the highest level of support for abortion across the generations, this drop is concerning. However, we must look past the numbers to uncover why young people are expressing lower levels of support for abortion and how we might better engage them in the future.
Today’s young people were the unfortunate beneficiaries of eight years of funding and support for abstinence-only education. As a result, those in their late teens and twenties experience the highest rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unintended pregnancies. But the detrimental impact extends well beyond STIs and pregnancies.
For the most part, abstinence-only education either does not make mention about abortion rights and services or casts these rights and services in a bad light. And so, young people have not received accurate information they need to make informed decisions about their own lives or create informed opinions about matters of reproductive justice.
One of Choice USA’s young activists from Kentucky put it best: “I feel that I was short-changed in sex education because I was taught abstinence-only-until-marriage and that just doesn’t apply to everyone.”
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Abstinence-only education is not solely responsible for the drop in support for legal abortion among young adults. As we know, young people receive their information both in and out of school. Unfortunately, out of school, the silence on, discomfort with and denigration of abortion has been repeated in a wide variety of venues.
Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of this polling data is that, while the data indicate changes in attitudes, young adults are nonetheless having the vast majority of abortions. A recent Guttmacher study found that women in their twenties account for 58 percent of all abortions in the United States.
Without doubt, and as we know when it comes to the stigma attached to abortion rights, there is a great disconnect between what young people are doing and what young people are saying.
We must overcome the stigma attached to abortion in order to engage all people, and most especially young people. We need to craft messages and provide information that change the hearts and minds of people and that lift up the human aspects of the abortion debate. It isn’t just about changing attitudes towards abortion, we must change how people view sex and sexuality on the whole.
Study after study has shown that young people are very progressive and also very concerned with “morality.” We need to take that knowledge and create spaces for young people to receive accurate, unbiased information and wrestle with the moral dimensions –in their various forms and complexities–of sexual and reproductive health.
In Choice USA’s work in high schools and colleges, we often meet students who have yet to form an opinion on abortion. They come to us and express reservations, frequently rooted in their cultural or religious background. We try to provide these students with spaces, free from judgment, in which they can talk about the complexities of abortion. Some do decide they are against abortion in some or all circumstances. More often than not, with accurate information in hand, these young people choose to support the full range of reproductive rights.
It’s true that today’s young people didn’t experience the tragedy of back alley abortions. Young people can respect, but not fully comprehend, the struggles that led to the Roe decision. And young people weren’t there during the founding moments of today’s pro-choice movement.
Yet while young adults didn’t necessarily experience these things directly, they have experienced the lack of affordable options for abortion services. Young people know the impact of heinous parental notification and 24-hour waiting period laws. Above all, young people feel the stigma that exists around having abortions and supporting abortion rights.
In a recent interview about the contraceptive pill, Gloria Steinem was asked if she thought young people took the Pill for granted. She simply replied, “I hope so.” Hopefully, one day soon, young people will be able to take a woman’s right to choose for granted. That day has not yet arrived. But only then will we know our work was not done in vain.