Why Isn't Millennial Support For Abortion Rights Increasing?

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Amanda Hess explores why young Americans are increasingly supporting gay marriage, but not abortion:


The institute calls this a "decoupling of attitudes." Support for same-sex marriage and abortion rights have traditionally gone hand-in-hand, and that's changing. Though young people today are "more educated, more liberal, and more likely to be religiously unaffiliated" than their parents--all factors traditionally correlated with support of abortion rights--they are not actually more likely to support abortion. 

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, and work in direct contrast to the lingering stereotyping of gays as promiscuous Communists. Today, support for gay marriage is nearing 50 percent among even the most conservative of American youth, likeRepublicans and white evangelical Christians.

Reframing abortion rights as a family value is a trickier sell. Though about one-third of women will abort a pregnancy in their lifetimes--a figure that spans age, ideology, and religion--many who have undergone the procedure remain in the closet. And the increasing acceptance of gay marriage among conservatives may not help the cause. After all, the anti-abortion movement has now found a key ally in gay Republicans.

Remarkably, the word "harm"--or any synonym for it--is missing from this explanation.  If you care about harm to a fetus, why would it help you to know that abortion is really, really common, even among older women and conservatives?  It's as if she'd written "though abortion comes in three exciting flavors--chemical, vacuum, and intact dilation and extraction* . . . "  Really?  That's supposed to change minds?


Do you know who has the most accurate grasp of the number of abortions performed annually in this country?  My pro-life friends.  My pro-choice friends, in my limited experience, usually cannot come within half a million of the actual number.  Now, you can argue that my pro-life friends are unusually well informed, and that's true--I'm sure that there are loads of pro-lifers who believe wildly inflated statistics.  But they're about as well informed as my liberal friends, who generally dramatically underestimate the number of abortions obtained in America.

The point is, the author of this post is theorizing that the reason abortion rights aren't becoming more popular is that pro-lifers aren't aware of a key fact. But the key fact she thinks they're missing is the one thing that all pro-lifers are deeply convinced of: that there are a whole lot of women getting abortions every year.

And yet the article doesn't come off like she's trying to hide the football.  She's really trying to explain why those Cro Magnons in the millennial generation aren't increasing their support for abortion.  It apparently doesn't even occur to her to think that while the harm from gay marriage is pretty nebulous, the harm from abortion is pretty obvious to everyone.  (Whether or not you think it's important enough to ban is of course an entirely separate question . . . but I think it's fair to say that everyone recognizes that something unpleasant happens to some sort of organism that absent the abortion, will almost certainly turn into a human being.)

Instead, she apparently thinks that opposition to abortion/abortion rights comes from conservative allegiance to an ill-defined concept of "family values", support for which gets turned on or off like a lightbulb.  If this were true, it would of course make the decoupling of support for gay marriage with support for abortion really surprising.  But given fairly lopsided views on the matter until recently, its probably more accurate to say that support for gay marriage used to come from allegiance to a somewhat nebulous concept of "sexual freedom" or "progressivism" and that as it's gone mainstream, it's simply gaining support from people who still don't support those totems any more than they ever did.  

The absence of that allegiance to those value constellations does not imply support for their inverse--thinking that it does is a classic fallacy called egotistical bias.  I doubt that most people in America think about the issue in terms of political allegiance.  I'm guessing most of the people who changed their minds did so because gays seemed to want it, and they couldn't really see the harm.

* No, I don't actually know exactly how many ways there are to perform an abortion.  The list was illustrative, not exhaustive.

** No, I mean that.  When answers become obvious, the question stops being controversial.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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