By Michael J. New Ph.D.
Earlier this month, The New York Times ran an article about abortion politics that included a surprising message. The article, entitled “Trump Pushes Young Republicans Away. Abortion Pulls Them Back,” found that many young Republicans actually support the Republican Party primarily because of its strong pro-life stance. For the article, the Times interviewed a geographically diverse group of two dozen Republicans aged 18 to 23. Nearly all those interviewed could identify at least one issue where they disagreed with the Republican Party’s platform. Many also expressed misgivings about President Trump. That said, their pro-life position kept them committed to the GOP.
The evidence presented in The New York Times article was largely anecdotal. However, a dive into recent public opinion data shows that there is an impressive body of research behind the idea that the current generation of young adults views sanctity-of-life issues differently from their predecessors. Indeed, during the 1970s there was a large generation gap on attitudes toward abortion. The elderly often identified as “pro-life,” while young adults were much more likely to favor legal abortion. However, since that time that generation gap has shrunk. Indeed, young adults are still less likely to identify as “pro-life” than other age demographics. However, multiple surveys show that they express their opposition to abortion in other ways.
For instance, the General Social Survey (GSS) has been asking the same six questions about abortion attitudes since 1971. Specifically, they ask respondents if they think a woman should be able to obtain a legal abortion in six different circumstances. Based on these questions, young adults (ages 18-29) were the age demographic most sympathetic to legal abortion in the 1970s. However, starting in the 2000s, young adults became the age demographic most opposed to legal abortion. Additionally, two polls taken in 2013 found that a plurality of young adults supported legislation banning abortion after five months gestation. Finally, the Chiaroscuro Foundation released a poll in 2012, which found that people under 40 were more likely than those over 40 to support a range of incremental pro-life laws, including waiting periods and parental involvement laws.
Whenever Republican candidates fare poorly, social conservatives are often blamed. Indeed, many pundits frequently argue that the socially conservative positions adopted by many Republican candidates scare away young voters in the present and may even create a generation of voters hostile to Republicans in the future. It is true that young adults tend to espouse liberal views on a range of social issues. However, on abortion that is not necessarily the case. Overall, it is heartening to see a mainstream media outlet like The New York Times acknowledge that the abortion issue may actually be helping pro-life Republican candidates receive and retain support from a bloc of young voters.
Michael J. New is a visiting assistant professor at the Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New