The Nation's Pulse

The Millennial Divide

What explains young Americans’ divergent views on homosexuality and abortion?

By 1.22.13

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On January 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its Roe v. Wade decision, creating a constitutional right to abortion and legalizing most abortions nationally.

Later that year, the board of trustees of the American Psychiatric Association voted to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder.

These landmark decisions helped to catapult abortion and homosexuality to the forefront of the culture wars, where they have remained for four decades.

Interestingly, the public’s views on abortion and homosexuality have diverged significantly over the last 40 years -- and that divergence is being driven by the changing views of young Americans.

In 1977, American public opinion was divided evenly on the question of whether gay sex should be criminalized, with about 43% of the country believing it should legal and 43% believing it should be illegal, according to Gallup.

By the mid-’80s, Americans had actually grown more conservative on homosexuality, probably in part due to the belief that the emerging AIDS epidemic was caused by gay sex. In 1986, 57% of Americans felt homosexual relations should be illegal, while only 32% felt they should be legal.

Americans’ views slowly changed over the next quarter century. And by 2011, 64% of Americans believed gay sex should be legal.

On gay marriage, the change in public opinion has been more dramatic. In 1996, the first year Gallup began polling the question, 27% of respondents said same-sex marriage should be legal, while 68% said it should not. By 2012, 50% of respondents supported same-sex marriage, while 46% opposed it.

The near-doubling of support for same-sex marriage has been driven by young people.

A 2011 Public Religion Research Institute poll found that while only 31% of Americans over age 65 supported gay marriage, twice as many, 62%, of Americans under 30 supported it.

Even young Republicans have become more supportive of same-sex marriage. A Pew Research Center for the People and the Press poll found that the share of Republicans age 18-to-29 that supports same-sex marriage grew to 37% in 2012, from 28% eight years earlier.

America has shifted left on many cultural issues -- not just on homosexuality and gay marriage but also on the acceptability of contraception, pre- and extra-marital sex, divorce and out-of-wedlock birth. But on abortion America remains stubbornly ambivalent.

In 1995, Gallup found that 56% of Americans identified as pro-choice, while just a third called themselves pro-life.

But at the moment Americans began to become more accepting of same-sex marriage, they were also becoming more pro-life -- and, again, that change in sentiment was due to the changing views of young people.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, most polls showed young Americans were the least pro-life of any age cohort.

The General Social Survey shows that young Americans became the most pro-life group around the year 2000, and that they’ve become more pro-life since.

According to a 2012 Gallup poll, 46 percent of 18-to-34 years olds are pro-choice, while 44 percent are pro-life.

Young Americans are also the most likely to hold the no exceptions pro-life position. Gallup noted in 2010 that, “support for making abortion broadly illegal [is] growing fastest among young adults…. Young adults were slightly more likely than all other age groups, including seniors, to say abortion should be illegal in all circumstances.” Indeed, 24% of 18-to-34 year olds believe all abortions should be illegal.

Other polls tell a similar story. A 2011 Reuters poll found that two-thirds of Americans under 35 years old feel abortion is wrong, compared to 59% of Americans generally.

Abortion rights advocates have noticed the pro-life shift. A 2010 NARAL Pro-Choice America report fretted about the deep “intensity gap” on abortion. Citing the findings of an opinion survey it conducted, NARAL noted that while more than half (51%) of pro-life voters under 30 years old called their opposition to abortion a “very important” voting issue, just 26% of abortion advocates under 30 felt that the issue was “very important” to their vote.

The divergence among millennials on homosexuality and abortion is stark. A 2012 Gallup poll found that 53% of 18-to-34 year olds felt abortion is morally wrong. It was the age group most likely to feel that way. But at 70%, millennials were also the age group most likely to support same-sex marriage.

This divergence is evident even among evangelical Christians. According to the Pew Religion Forum, 69% of white evangelicals under 30 identify as pro-life, while just 55% of them believe homosexuality should be discouraged.

Barna Research has found that 69% of 18-to-21 year-old born-again Christians believe abortion is a “major problem,” while just 35% of them think homosexuality is a “major problem.”

How can we explain these divergent views on homosexuality and abortion?

Both gay rights and pro-life advocates have adopted the language of civil rights. And both have convinced many Americans that their causes aim to extend natural rights to more people, a goal that speaks to young Americans’ sense of social justice.

Young Americans grow up in an environment in which homosexuality is portrayed sympathetically, on television and in movies, in schools and in the culture generally. This has helped to humanize gays, and reveal them to be more like their neighbors than like sex-crazed participants in gay pride parades.

On abortion, sonogram technology and other advances have helped to humanize unborn children, revealing them to be the living, feeling, learning human beings they are.

What’s more, abortion is by definition a sad event, a sign that something has gone wrong. As the saying goes, nobody ever says “thank you” to an abortionist. The best even abortion advocates can claim is that abortion is the lesser of two evils.

The birth of a child, meanwhile, is always seen as a reason to celebrate. And that’s what millennials appear to prize most -- celebrating the human experience and its expansion to more people.

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About the Author

Daniel Allott is a writer in Washington, D.C.