During the Republican debate over the weekend in Manchester, New Hampshire, a commentator posed a question that suggested young people are conservative when it comes to reproductive rights, as they ”have not moved to the left” on abortion—but that is not necessarily what data about millennial opinions on the issue implies.
Republicans took on abortion on Saturday at the urging of conservative commentator Mary Katharine Ham, who lended a right-leaning perspective to the night’s questioning for ABC News. Speaking to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ham alleged that millennials have not “moved to the left” on abortion like they have with marriage equality, claiming that many young people support restrictions on access proposed by many conservatives:
MARY KATHARINE HAM: Senator Rubio, one of the lazier pieces of political conventional wisdom is that so-called social issues are hurting Republicans with young people. But on the two most prominent social issues, polling with millennials actually moves in different directions.
On one hand, it is clear, young people across the political spectrum increasingly favor same-sex marriage. However, young voters have not moved to the left on abortion. In fact, large numbers of them favor at least some modest restrictions that conservatives have supported. How do you speak to millennials on both these issues, while Democrats will inevitable charge intolerance and extremism?
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This was hardly the first time someone has suggested millennials, generally regarded as those born between the early 1980s and early aughts, may lean to the right on reproductive issues. Anti-choice conservatives have increasingly leveled the charge to claim that young people identify with their worldview in order to promote their own position and depict abortion as unpopular.
But data does not support these claims.
In a 2014 Pew Research Center examination of attitudes on a range of issues, including abortion, a majority of millennials said that abortion should be legal in all or most cases at a rate comparable to Gen Xers and Boomers.
Though it is not immediately clear where Ham was drawing her information from, it is important to note that the format of polls and the self-identifiers required for participants may skew results or interpretations. Polling conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) in April 2015 found that millennials are increasingly straying from both “pro-life” and “pro-choice” labels, finding that neither properly describe their attitudes on abortion. Of those surveyed, the majority—54 percent—said they were pro-choice. However, of that number, 27 percent said they were also “pro-life.” Another 22 percent of millennials said neither label fit them, suggesting that it isn’t necessarily that millennials are conservative on abortion, but that their opinions on the matter exist in more of a gray area.
PRRI also found that “A majority of millennials say that abortion should be legal in most cases (33%) or legal in all cases (22%),” and 56 percent of those who participated opposed making abortion access more difficult. Almost 60 percent of millennials, however, did oppose allowing those under the age of 16 to obtain an abortion without parental consent.
Gallup polling released just one month later offered more proof that millennials still support abortion, finding that the share of young people between the ages of 18 and 34 had increased slightly in recent years, with 53 percent now identifying as “pro-choice” compared to 45 percent in 2012.
The question asked can also significantly shift how respondents react to questions about abortion. According to Vox’s Sarah Kliff, variations of questions about abortion make a big difference, and “a simple wording change can alter whether Americans say they support legal abortion.”
When surveying on abortion, pollsters at Vox found that augmenting a question on abortion from “Abortion should be legal in almost all cases” to “Women should have a legal right to safe and accessible abortion in almost all cases”—in other words, centering the person obtaining the procedure in the question—resulted in a 9 percent jump in support of legal abortion.
But why, as Ham suggested, has support for marriage equality but not abortion risen dramatically among millennials? Examining the phenomena in 2011, PRRI claimed it may be due to something it calls the “decoupling of attitudes.”
“These topics, which served in the past as the heart of the ‘values’ agenda, are no longer necessarily linked in the minds of Americans,” it noted.
As Amanda Hess further explained for Good in 2011, one explanation for this “decoupling” isn’t that young people are moving to the right on abortion, but instead that conservatives have increasingly embraced LGBTQ equality and marriage equality.
“Support for same-sex marriage and abortion rights have traditionally gone hand-in-hand, and that’s changing,” wrote Hess. “Here’s one explanation for the decoupling: Youth support of same-sex marriage does not reflect an embrace of progressive values, but rather an expansion of conservative ones. Over the past several decades, the mainstream gay rights movement has aligned its priorities with fundamentally conservative institutions: Gays and lesbians want the right to get married, adopt children, and serve in the military. These family-friendly, all-American demands appeal to the conservative base,” Hess continued.
So while Ham may be correct that support for marriage equality has outpaced support for abortion among millennials, it is important to note that this isn’t necessarily due to a decrease in support for abortion. Ham’s question suggested a false equivalency between two issues that are largely unconnected in the eyes of many voters, and the differences in support may just reflect conservatives who have increasingly embraced marriage equality.
When it comes to abortion, it isn’t that young people “haven’t moved to the left”—it is that they’ve remained generally consistent in their views over the last decade, with a growing number in favor of reproductive rights in recent years. Most recent polls have found that a majority of young voters still consider themselves pro-choice and support access to abortion.