Study Sees 'Turnaround' in Young Adults' Positions on Abortion

By Kevin Mooney | July 7, 2008 | 8:06pm EDT

( - Younger voters, especially women, are embracing a pro-life position in surprising numbers and in sharp contrast to attitudes that held sway 15 years ago, according to a new study.

The study by Overbrook Research, a public consulting firm in Illinois, examines public opinion data from Missouri. With proportions of blacks, Catholics and union members in line with national averages, the state is viewed as "highly representative of the American electorate," the study says.

Over 30,000 survey interviews were conducted in the state between 1992 and 2006. Participants were asked: "On the debate over abortion policy, do you consider yourself to be pro-life, pro-choice or somewhere in between?" Those who gave a definitive answer were then asked how strongly they held their view.

Results in 1992 were largely in step with what study authors Christopher Blunt and Fred Steeper call the "self-interest hypothesis." Women and men under 30 were the most ardently "pro-choice" (39 percent) and the least likely to be strongly "pro-life"( 23 percent).

Today, by contrast, among the current generation of 18- to 29-year-olds, 36 percent say they are strongly "pro-life," while just 18 percent say they are strongly "pro-choice," the study authors said.

The trend was particularly evident among women in that age bracket. Forty 40 percent identify themselves as strongly "pro-life" and only 20 percent as strongly "pro-choice."

The data reverses a two-to-one ratio that was evident in 1992, the study noted.

Where previous generations may have been inclined to "divorce sex from its consequences," new voters are entering the electorate at a time when medical advances highlight development in the womb and when public attention is focused on the "gruesome procedure" of partial birth abortion, the authors argued.

Blunt, who is president of Overbrook Research, told Cybercast News Service in an interview that "Generation Y" voters have a very different frame of reference on abortion now than was evident in 1992.

"The most surprising and compelling findings we have are on young people," he said. "They've grown up with high-quality ultrasound images of unborn babies, and their passage into adulthood coincides with the ascendance of partial-birth abortion as the issue's dominant frame."

The authors also examined the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, drafted following attacks on abortion clinics in the 1980s and 1990s and signed into law by President Clinton in 1994. Over time, Blunt said, more dramatic demonstrations at clinics gave way to prayer vigils and sidewalk counseling.

For young voters the "abortion wars" of the 1980s and 1990s amount to a "dim memory," overshadowed by the attention now given to partial birth abortion, Blunt and Steeper suggest.

"As grisly details of partial birth abortion procedures replaced confrontational and often violent clinic protests on the evening news, voters seemed to have changed their minds about who the 'abortion extremists' were," they wrote in their analysis.

Recent data from Gallup indicates that the apparent trend is not restricted to Missouri. In the mid-1990s, Americans identified with the "pro-choice" over "pro-life" label by a 56-33 percent margin, but the gap narrowed considerably during the late 1990s and beyond.

In May of this year, Gallup found the "pro-choice" label leading by just four points (49-45 percent.)

Repeated attempts to get reaction to the study from major abortion-rights groups were unsuccessful.

Ann Stone, chairperson of Republicans for Choice, was dismissive of the poll results, saying in an interview that the public's fundamental support for "the right to choose" has not changed.

"What has shifted is the public's perception of the pro-life label," she said. "So you have a lot of people who are really pro-choice saying they are pro-life. But you can be pro-choice and be personally opposed to abortion. It's about allowing individuals to decide for themselves instead of the government, which is a Republican position."

Nonetheless, Stone acknowledged that the pro-life movement had successfully framed the issue around partial birth abortion and as a result, scored important gains. "They [pro-lifers] have won the battle, they have not won the war," she said.

Kiera McCaffrey, the communications director for the Catholic League, said the Overbrook Research data was "spot on."

Young people are drawn to the pro-life movement, she said, because they are better informed nowadays about what having an abortion entails, and of how devastating the aftermath of an abortion can be for a woman.

McCaffrey said there also appeared to be a link between recent scientific and technological advances and a growth in pro-life sentiment.

"Showing the wonders of life at the earliest stages has done a lot for the pro-life cause," she said.

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