Especially when compared with young people a generation or two ago, Millennials are significantly more skeptical of specific legal abortion practices. According to the Institute for Pro-Life Advancement, for instance, a whopping 53 percent believe that abortion should be illegal in most or all circumstances. According to the National Journal, while only 44 percent of those 50 and older support a ban on abortion at 20 weeks, the ban is supported by 52 percent of those ages 18-29.
Perhaps most revealing of this new generation, however, is what is sometimes called “the intensity gap.” Of young people who identify as pro-life, 51 percent claim that abortion is an important issue, but for pro-choice young people that number plummets to 20 percent.
The most serious abortion-rights activists get this generational shift. Then 61-year-old Nancy Keegan resigned as executive director of NARAL in 2013 precisely because she felt that the pro-choice movement needed more young energy to match that of their opponents.
Great news, right? The writing appears to be on the demographic wall when it comes to the abortion debate. We just need to wait for Millennials to get into power, and then we’ll finally have a culture which energetically works to protect both prenatal children and their mothers.
Not so fast. Poll data also finds that, even as this generation becomes more anti-abortion, only 36 percent of Millennials are willing to identify as pro-life. The trend is so clear that groups like Students for Life have refused to use the term “pro-life” as part of their campus advocacy.
What is going on here? Our simplistic life/choice binary hides more than it reveals, but the fact that young people don’t think of themselves as “pro-life” does point to something significant.
In response to these numbers, Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life, observed that “the ‘pro-life’ brand still carries an image which many people don’t want to associate themselves, despite their views on abortion.”
As far as I know, there isn’t a formal study or poll data which demonstrates why the pro-life image is unattractive for young people. But as a scholar who has researched abortion inside and out, and as a teacher of young people, I have three educated guesses.
First, nearly 3 in 4 young people are in favor of legal same-sex marriage. And a large portion of this group finds it inexplicable, and even bigoted, that anyone could be otherwise. And yet these anti-abortion Millennials see a pro-life movement which often explicitly ties its advocacy for the prenatal child to the national debate over same-sex marriage.
Second, Millennials are increasingly refusing to identify with organized religion. In fact, 36 percent of young people now answer “none” when asked to list their religious preference—double the number of Baby Boomers who so identify.
And yet these anti-abortion Millennials see a pro-life movement which is so tied to organized religion that it is often difficult to see them as separate things. In fact, if one were just plopped down in the middle of the March for Life, one could be forgiven for thinking they were participating in a Marian feast day procession.
Third, very few young people are Republicans. In fact, only 18 percent affiliate with the GOP. And yet these anti-abortion Millennials see a pro-life movement which is so tied to the Republican Party that it will even work with the GOP to defeat pro-life Democrats.
This election cycle they’ve seen many in the pro-life movement support Republicans like Donald Trump—a man who has been in favor even of Partial Birth Abortion and whose far-too-convenient pro-life conversion has been incoherent.
Happily, there are counter-examples who can speak more authentically to anti-abortion Millennials. Traditional pro-lifers like Robert George have been outspoken in saying that Trump is not pro-life. Democrats for Life offers a genuine anti-abortion approach which is also broadly pro-life.
The young feminists at Life Matters Journal recently attended both the Republican and Democratic conventions to advocate for their consistent message against aggressive violence. The important group Secular Pro-Life does great work, including this fantastic initiative leading up to the 40th anniversary of the Hyde Amendment September 30th.
Even more than the larger culture, young people are disproportionately anti-abortion. This makes good sense: they have been raised with prenatal pictures of themselves on the fridge, and know first-hand that broad access to abortion choice does not made one free.
But if the pro-life movement is to bring Millennials into the fold of people who are actively working to change our abortion culture, we need to do more to welcome them.
Charles C. Camosy is Associate Professor of Theological and Social Ethics at Fordham University. He is co-editor of the just-released book, Polarization in the US Catholic Church: Naming the Wounds, Beginning to Heal.