Doubts about the abortion generation

youngprolifers It’s not just a truism that generations differ by outlook — it’s a fact.

When George McGovern was the Democratic presidential nominee, he did 10 percentage-points better among young voters than their older counterparts. The eminent Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam has found that the single biggest reason for the decline of social capital in the United States is the dying off of the “long civic generation” of those who grew up before World War II.

Even so, I question the conventional wisdom that simply by virtue of their generation, young people today are pro-life. It strikes me as too pat, too simplistic. Might not other factors be at play?

Exhibit A is Stephanie Simon’s story in The Los Angeles Times, whose nutgraph is below:

Thirty-five years after Roe vs. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, opponents are pouring resources into building new generations of activists. Young people are responding with passion.

Today’s students and young adults have grown up in a time when abortion was widely accessible and acceptable, and a striking number are determined to end that era.

Simon in this passage makes two (unstated) claims. Her first claim is that young people today are more pro-life than their older counterparts. She cites an undated Pew poll that 22 percent of those 18-to-29-year-old support a “total ban” on abortion, while only 15 percent of their parent’s generation do.

I’m not sure that generation is the determining factor. In fact, Simon implies as much:

Pew Research Center polls dating back a decade show that 18- to 29-year-olds are consistently more likely than the general adult population to favor strict limits on abortion.

This summary suggests that a person’s age is a key independent variable, not one’s generation. If the data showed that Generation Y was more pro-life in its youth than Generation X or the baby boomers, Simon ought to have told her readers.

Perhaps I protest too much. Yet my understanding is that Americans become less pro-life the longer they stay in college. While I cannot find a reference, I remember reading a study that this was true for Catholic students. As circumstantial evidence, Simon in her story quoted young teenagers, who are presumably not in college. So did Sue Anne Pressley Montes of The Washington Post in her coverage of the March for Life.

If Generation Y really is more pro-life than its predecessors, reporters have failed to explain the reasons adequately. Simon implies that young people are rebelling against society’s callous acceptance of abortion:

Today’s students and young adults have grown up in a time when abortion was widely accessible and acceptable, and a striking number are determined to end that era.

Again, I don’t know. In The Los Angeles Times, longtime abortion-industry leaders Frances Kissling and Kate Michelman, strikingly, declared that technology and science has made more people pro-life:

Science facilitated the swing of the pendulum. Three-dimensional ultrasound images of babies in utero began to grace the family fridge. Fetuses underwent surgery. More premature babies survived and were healthier. They commanded our attention, and the question of what we owe them, if anything, could not be dismissed.

To her credit, Simon writes toward the end of her story that ultrasound images of unborn infants has galvanized the new generation.

Simon’s second claim is that young people today increasingly are becoming anti-abortion activists. She cites pro-life activists in Colorado, Pennsylvania, and California who have succeeded in challenging the abortion status quo. But is their status as members of Generation Y the determining factor? Simon never adequately says.

In the case of activists, Julia Duin of The Washington Times suggests that, to her surprise, most are Catholic:

I didn’t realize how many thousands of kids — mostly Catholic ones — pour into town for this gruesome anniversary each year. There’s the Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life at Georgetown University and the Students for Life conference across town at Catholic University. Those are just some of the many activities and gatherings going on around town.

Then there’s the 8,000 students who show up at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception tonight for a procession of litanies, rosaries, vigil Masses and confessions going on all night long. A lot of these students will actually be sleeping on the floor and in the pews.

Then on Tuesday morning, the Verizon center downtown will be packed with 20,000 young Catholics — along with cardinals, bishops and a few hundred priests — for an annual Mass for Life. The Jesuits will have their own separate Mass at St. Alyosius Church.

Duin’s findings gibes with my own experience at the March for Life.

While covering the event or walking with those in my local chapter of the Knights of Columbus, I have been struck by the profusion of Catholics. Endless statues of Mary, banners for seemingly every Catholic high school and seminary east of the Mississippi, signs urging participants to receive Holy Communion on the tongue rather than by hand — the event is not so much a “gigantic pep rally” as a gigantic Catholic pep rally.

Perhaps I am wrong. But if the generational tide pulls so strong, are young mainline Protestants and Jews becoming pro-life activists? If so, that would show that one’s generation is more important than one’s religion. None of the stories explored this possibility.

In summary, Generation Y might well be more pro-life than its predecessors. But if so, aren’t education, science and technology, and religion major reasons why they are?

Print Friendly

  • Jerry

    There was at least one survey that said:

    Generation Y is very liberal on social issues. A majority (53 percent) flat-out support allowing gay marriage. And 63 percent say women should have the legal right to choose an abortion.
    But, as usual with surveys, I want to know how well it was written including what questions were asked.

  • thomas

    Re: “gigantic Catholic pep rally”

    Moreover, if one browses various Christian blog entries for January 22, one is struck by much greater focus on abortion/March for Life at various Catholic blogs than at various evangelical blogs. Of course, it could be just a result of my very unscientifc blog survey..did it strike others that way?

  • Susan Davis

    It’d be interesting to see how many of these young people are against abortion because they’re aware that its legality made their own lives optional.

  • Katherine

    The March for Life has long been a more Catholic initiative of the pro-life movement. I think when looking at the movement as a whole rather than this one event, you see more non-Catholic participation.

    It is amazing that in the decades since Roe, this issue remains. Few other such social changes have remained debated for so long. Once, gay rights was far more controversial than abortion. Now, it would not be difficult to find young people at the March for Life who support gay rights and socialize with gay friends.

  • tmatt

    Two comments:

    I know that evangelical colleges send groups. It could be that a smaller number of these schools are within a five of six hour drive of DC, whereas there are many, many Catholic schools in the web of highways up here in the northeast.

    Also, the polls I read indicate that about 10 percent of people in the US want to ban abortion and about 10 percent want a total abortion on demand agenda.

    Many young people are in the middle, but evolving toward support for major restrictions that verge on being a ban.

    Alas, there seems to be little compromise possible in light of the current court decisions. There is no middle position, or not much room for one. Ask pro-life Democrats about that, at the national level.

  • Jeff Sharlet

    No comment but praise. This is one smart observation.

  • Julia

    It’d be interesting to see how many of these young people are against abortion because they’re aware that its legality made their own lives optional.

    I’d give some credit for this to a TV ad that ran several years ago that showed a young girl in her yard – I think she was maybe about 12 – who was talking about her brave mother who, against advice, didn’t abort her although their life has not been easy.

    It really grabbed me. If I had been 12, it would have communicated volumes to me.

    Equally moving was the recent TV press conference of the sheriff who found the pregnant Marine burned and buried in another Marine’s back yard. HSheriff had a really difficult time talking about the little charred hand he found that had belonged to the baby about 2 weeks short of his/her expected arrival date. If I recall he didn’t use the word “fetus”.

    Along with sonograms, these images and mental pictures succeed in changing minds more than any reasoned argument could.

  • Michael

    Ask pro-life Democrats about that, at the national level.

    Or a pro-choice Republican.

  • jaymee hewitt

    there is convincing evidence that ultrasound can cause autism. it does cause a scattering of brain cells in monkeys and rats. a google search on the ultrasound autism connection from Yale medical studies is something every pregnant woman should read before allowing an ultrasound.

  • Brian Walden

    I think one reason for the high pro-life numbers among Catholic youth might be that’s it’s the one issue the that’s consistently taught in parishes across the nation. For example, I help to write the prayers of the faithful for my parish and even though it’s a very liberal parish there’s a rule to always include at least one pro-life prayer. In fact, that’s the only rule I’ve ever been given in helping to write the prayers. Young people know truth when they see it; when the rest of the faith is so often watered down, it’s no wonder that they respond well to the Church’s clear pro-life message.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    First observation: The Wall Street Journal about a year ago did a survey indicating that the younger generation tends to be more conservative–especially on abortion–because liberals aborted far more of their nexty generation than did conservatives (because most conservatives tend to be pro-life).
    Second observation: I taught Social Studies in a public high school for almost 40 years. And when the news of the day topic was abortion it always amazed me how openly and instinctively pro-life so many young people were–just finding the whole idea repulsive. Apparently young people have to be brainwashed to right off the life of the unborn child as they grow older.
    Third observation: Although 90% of the time abortion comes up in entertainment vehicles (the major way “Hollywood” morals are spread) in movies and TV, the “spin” is usually pro-abortion-on-demand. But there are far fewer such vehicles than the full-court-press that the Gay Movement gets on its behalf in the entertainment media where the almost ominpresent Gay Character is always “saintly” and no mention is made of the fact that Gay life expectency is decades lower than for other men according to government health statistics. Consequently it is not surprising to see young people confused on Gay issues.
    Fourth Observation: The Gay Agenda is also promoted– like here in Mass.– in the public schools by the schools being virtual re-education camps like the Communists used to run in order to wipe out any vestiges of traditional morality on this topic. God help the student if word gets to the school counselors or front office that in a class discussion he said he believes homosexual behaviour is immoral.

  • tmatt

    What a riot, Michael….

    Unless you are talking about running for PRESIDENT and we still have to see how Rudy does.

    The GOP is the divided, yin-yang party on the life issues. The Democrats know what they believe, other than a few strange people (like me).

  • Michael

    What a riot, Michael. . ..

    I knew you’d like that.

    It’s fair to say that these days (in 2008) being a pro-choice Republican is far lonelier than being a pro-life Democrat, and the scorn you will receive from your party and the opinion elite in 2008 is much harsher.

  • Jill C.

    Anglicans for Life (formerly NOEL) has always been pretty involved in the rally and March for Life in D.C. This year, I understand, the assistant bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh gave the invocation. I participated twice, back in the 1980s, and I did notice plenty of Roman Catholic groups but I also saw a fair share of evangelical Protestants, Lutherans for Life, homeschoolers, Feminists for Life, and others.

  • Mark Stricherz

    It’s fair to say that these days (in 2008) being a pro-choice Republican is far lonelier than being a pro-life Democrat, and the scorn you will receive from your party and the opinion elite in 2008 is much harsher.

    Nice try. Since 1980, when feminists took control of the Democratic party platform, the opposite has been true. Let me count the ways:

    1) At least two Republican pro-choicers (Specter and Giuliani) have run for president. But no pro-life Democrat has.

    2) Pro-choice Republicans have been RNC Chairmen (Marc Racicot). But no pro-life Democrat has.

    3) Pro-choice Republicans have been able to link their web site to that of the RNC. But in 2003 and 2004 Democrats for Life was prevented from linking its to the DNC.

    4) Pro-choice Republicans can say their pro-choice at the party’s nominating convention. We know what happened to Bob Casey in ’92 (and ’96 for the record).

  • Chuck

    It is interesting that Catholics are “on fire” over abortion much like fundementalists are over the lost and un-saved. While any Catholic would be hard pressed to stand on the street corner and preach to the unsaved and unchurched, they have no problem standing on the street corner praying for women who they see as lost and counseling them for the sake of their unborn child. Their fervor in this is very much like evangelical fervor over salvation of those with birth dates. Catholics are becoming the apostles of the unborn.

  • Maureen

    I think the Wiccan pro-life groups and Atheists for Life would differ with the “Catholic pep rally” designation. :)

    Catholics are the majority religious group in this nation, and they have a lot of colorful banners and interesting stuff they bring along. So of course they stand out at the March for Life.

    Of course, it’s also possible that many evangelicals feel like a non-Catholic friend here. She thinks that the March is good, but that it’s crazy to hold it in January!

  • Maureen
  • Dennis Colby

    Catholics are not in the majority in the United States. They are the largest single Christian denomination, but are still considerably outnumbered by Protestants.

  • Dan

    Without a doubt the high Catholic visibility in the pro-life movement is in part because the Catholic Church is the largest and most highly structured denomination. But it is also true that abortion also is the “Catholic issue” par excellence. I find it almost to be a mystery. Why are we Catholics so moved by the issue of abortion? (Or, why is the rest of the world not?) All that said, there is no doubt that many of our Protestant friends fully share our passion.