A new national poll finds a growing divide between younger and older Americans on abortion and reproductive health care — a shift that may be driven in large part by changing attitudes toward religion.
In the survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, or PRRI, respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 were more likely to report that their views on abortion had changed in recent years – and when they moved, they tended to move in favor of abortion rights. Of those young people whose opinions had changed, 25 percent said they became more supportive of legalized abortion compared to 9 percent who became less supportive.
Older respondents, meanwhile, were less likely to report they had changed their opinions; those who had changed their minds were more likely to have shifted toward opposing abortion rights.
"This moving in opposite directions has led us to a greater polarization between the generations on this issue," said PRRI CEO Robert Jones.
The poll also looked at personal beliefs about abortion – in other words, opinions on the morality or ethics of abortion apart from the legal or political status of the procedure. More than half of Americans, 54 percent, said abortion "goes against my personal beliefs," while 44 percent said it did not.
A substantial number of respondents appeared to separate their personal views from their public policy position; 34 percent said that while abortion violates their personal beliefs, they believe it should be legal in most or all cases.
Here, too, a generational divide was apparent: 60 percent of older respondents said abortion violates their personal beliefs, compared with 44 percent of younger people.
Jones said he believes the generational divide on abortion is explained at least in part by a larger shift among young people away from religion, particularly among white evangelical Protestants.
While some religious traditions support abortion rights, Jones notes that white evangelicals have consistently opposed abortion in larger numbers than other religious groups. In the PRRI poll, 78 percent of white evangelical Protestants said abortion goes against their personal religious beliefs compared with 59 percent of Catholics, 56 percent of black Protestants and 54 percent of white mainline Protestants.
But while white evangelicals remain a dominant religious group in American, the tradition is losing younger members.
Taken together, Jones said that may help to account for generational shifts in attitudes toward abortion.
Americans under 30 also were more likely than their elders to say that health insurance should cover abortion services and that the procedure should be available in their local communities.
"I think part of that is a clue to how younger people are seeing this, I think, less as a culture war, political issue, and more really as a health care issue," Jones said. "And that I think puts it in different political terrain for younger people today."
Overall, more than half of respondents, 54 percent, said abortion should be legal in "all or most cases," while 43 percent said it should usually or always be illegal. A majority, 51 percent, said publicly funded health insurance programs, such as Medicaid, should not cover abortion.
The survey found one point of broad agreement: nearly two-thirds of Republicans and three-fourths of Democrats said elected officials are spending too much time talking about abortion rather than focusing on other issues.
The survey was conducted in March 2018 among 2,020 adults ages 18 and older living in the United States. Respondents were contacted by telephone, including cellphones, and the interviews took place in English and Spanish. The margin of error is 2.6 percentage points.
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