Poll numbers in recent years have been interpreted to suggest that the majority of Americans are pro-choice, or at least split fairly evenly along pro-life/pro-choice lines. The overall American attitude has certainly become more pro-life over the last generation, but numbers relayed in recent polls appear to reflect a degree of stagnation. The standard question in most major, main-stream polls is worded something like this: “On abortion, do you consider yourself pro-choice or pro-life?” A few polls ask instead whether or not respondents support Roe v. Wade.
When Millennials—the approximately 80 million people born in the United States between 1980 and 1995, also known as Generation Y—are asked this question, they answer pretty much as other Americans do. And yet we are seeing huge mobilization among pro-life Millennials, which doesn’t seem to be reflected in most polls. At the same time, pro-choice fervor among young people has virtually fizzled out—another fact that hasn’t shown up in recent polls. The pro-life generation gains momentum on middle school, junior high, high school, and college campuses across the country, while simultaneously the echoes of pro-choice youth’s last hurrah are so far in the past as to be barely audible anymore.
Clearly, the polls don’t reflect the chasm that exists between pro-life and pro-choice activism where Millennials are concerned. Why not? One reason is that most polls lack comprehensive scope. By asking respondents to identify in black-and-white terms on abortion or by siphoning respondents into “pro-choice” and “pro-life” categories based on questionable criteria, pollsters have produced the false impression that Americans at large favor abortion and that these numbers speak for Generation Y. But when we look at the lopsided momentum, with the pro-life side boasting exponentially greater legislative and cultural progress, we see that these polls don’t speak to the reality that is, in fact, the pro-life majority among Millennials.
Pollsters have traditionally categorized people who would allow abortion in limited cases—that is, for such exceptions as rape and incest—as “pro-choice.” A full 50% of respondents told Gallup this year that they believe abortion should be legal only under certain circumstances.1,2 Thus, when pollsters ask respondents to self-identify as “pro-life” or “pro-choice,” since only about a quarter of them believe abortion should be legal in all circumstances without exception, statistics become skewed.
In reality, the rape and incest exceptions account for less than 1.5% of all abortions procured in the United States. Should Americans who believe that more than 98% of all abortions should be illegal be labeled “pro-choice”? A more nuanced depiction of pro-life versus pro-choice sentiment would be needed in order to gauge the real American attitude toward the issue.
Based on Gallup’s most recent poll—which claims 50% of Millennials are pro-choice compared with 40% who are pro-life—the people who don’t believe abortion should be legal in all circumstances are obviously self-identifying as pro-choice. There would be no confusion over the pro-life dominance that exists among the Millennial generation, however, if polling went into greater depth to capture the true sentiment of the majority of young people—who don’t believe abortion-on-demand through all nine months of pregnancy should be legal.
Furthermore, great problems arise in self-identification due to a lack of definitional knowledge. Anecdotally, when Students for Life of America’s Regional Coordinators go out onto campuses and approach large swaths of the student body simply posing the question, Are you pro-life?, a surprisingly large number of students who engage with team members need the question to be clarified in order to answer. They know that “pro-life” and “pro-choice” are related to the abortion issue, but aren’t sure which epithet refers to which side of the debate. This lack of knowledge affects Millennial perceptions of organizations like Planned Parenthood; studies show, for example, that the majority of college-aged Americans are unaware that Planned Parenthood performs abortions.3
Indeed a great number of Millennials (and other Americans as well) fail to understand the full scope of the abortion regime that took effect with the 1973 Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton (an accompanying case) decisions. Shockingly, according to Pew Research only 44% of Millennials even know that Roe v. Wade (or Doe) had anything to do with abortion, much less what exactly these concurrent rulings legalized.4 If all Americans who were asked by pollsters whether they support Roe v. Wade knew the facts about these cases (that is, that Roe legalized abortion-on-demand for essentially any reason until viability—and at any time to save the life or health of the mother—and that Doe defined health-of-the-mother so broadly—including her age—as to extend that right throughout the entire nine months of pregnancy) would the same number self-identify as pro-choice? How can the number of young people identifying as pro-choice be greater than the number of those who don’t even know what the term means due to ignorance of abortion laws in America? Without question, we would see many amended responses if they (and other Americans) were actually apprised of the facts.
Supporting this idea is research from the College Republican National Committee, which studied the abortion views of Millennials based on their responses to more specific questions than, “Do you consider yourself pro-life or pro-choice?” Instead, CRNC phrased questions in terms of the degree to which respondents believed abortion should be permissible.5 Millennials were asked whether abortion should be “legal in all cases, legal up to a certain point in pregnancy, illegal with exceptions for the health of the mother or in cases of rape or incest, or illegal in all cases.”
Only 16% of young voters responding to the CRNC survey believed abortion should be legal in all cases. Thirty-two percent said abortion should be legal up to a certain point. Even if this percentage were added to the 16% that represent the abortion under any circumstances proponents, we are still looking at a minority of Millennials who are pro-choice. Thirty-seven percent of Millennials, on the other hand, believed abortion should be legal only in cases where the health of the mother could be compromised by continuing the pregnancy,6or in cases of rape or incest. Fourteen percent thought abortion should be illegal in all circumstances. If we grant that the latter two camps can be considered pro-life, at 51% they comprise the majority. They may not be 100% pro-life (i.e., without exception), but they certainly don’t support unrestricted access to abortion through all nine months of pregnancy, which is what Roe and Doe permit.7
Despite the inconsistencies in polling, Millennials are demonstrably more pro-life than preceding generations. They have a firm grasp on the reality of human life in the womb thanks to enormous strides in science and technology. Gone are the days when “unborn baby” or “fetus” conjured up no more than the thought of a fuzzy ultrasound image, at best. Millennials know the chromosomal composition of their pre-born children. They know without a shadow of a doubt the highly-developed human form they possess just weeks after fertilization. Many have seen prenatal surgeries and witnessed the survival of premature babies who live in defiance of the term “non-viable.” They may have experienced 4-D ultrasounds and used their smartphones as fetal heart dopplers. The more technology advances, the more the abortion movement’s semantics about clumps of cells, masses of tissue, and non-living matter lose their power.
Millennials are also more educated than their parents’ generation was at their age thanks to mass media coverage of legislative battles on abortion which doubled as eye-opening medical instruction: Clinton’s debacle with the partial-birth-abortion ban in the 90s—he was forced by a Republican-led Congress to veto it twice—showed America what abortion looked like and how far it had spiraled out of control. The trial of Philadelphia abortionist Kermit Gosnell in 2013 re-opened the late-term abortion book, shining a spotlight not only on the ugly reality of procedures benignly referred to as D&X and D&E, but on actual infanticide as well, shattering the widespread belief that the practice of partially (or in Gosnell’s case, entirely) delivering babies and then scissoring their necks had ended when George W. Bush signed the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act in 2003.8
The ongoing movement to enact fetal-pain legislation at the state level has also educated Millennials (as well as everyone else) about the humanity of the unborn child. Media coverage of fetal-pain laws in states like Texas serve to focus attention on the medical realities associated with the inhumane act of abortion.
Clearly, the ignorance on which the abortion industry relied for so many years to market its mercenary offerings as “services” has lost its insidious power. Not only are Millennials better informed than their parents were, they can engage on social platforms that did not exist a couple of decades ago. Millennials are, at all times, just one click (or OB/GYN visit) away from a host of technological resources capable of instantly supplying them with the facts concerning every aspect of prenatal and fetal science.
While Millennials are less likely to be taken in by the kind of dissembling formerly engaged in by abortion advocates—clumps of cells, etc.—the latter have doubled down on their campaign to enshrine apathy.
Speaking anecdotally once again, Students for Life groups affirm that the biggest challenge pro-life Millennials face among their peers nationwide is apathy. Counter-intuitively, this apathy is a greater obstacle to pro-life activism than any actively engaged pro-abortion student. The young person who simply does not care about the abortion debate is twice as hard to win over as the pro-choice student who clearly cares about the issue and can be compelled to consider how science and technology favor the pro-life cohort. But an apathetic student may have to be shocked into the reality of what abortion is (for example, by viewing graphic images of abortion victims or encountering a field of 3,300 tiny crosses memorializing those who die each day from abortion) or have a personal experience related to abortion before he or she begins to care about the issue.
Also a boon to youth participation in the pro-life movement is its inclusivity. With people of every race, religion, background, and philosophy ascribing to the human-rights values enshrined in the pro-life movement, students are guaranteed to find kindred spirits with whom they can share their pro-life views. The pro-life movement has been stereotyped by the other side as a white, male-dominated, Evangelical Christian enterprise. But many organizations, including Feminists for Life; the Gay-Lesbian Alliance for Life; and Secular Pro-Life—just to name a few—refute this misconception by their very existence.
The social aspect of the pro-life movement is crucial in college. The pro-abortion movement—the vast majority of which boasts a steady but narrow following of Democrats and politically liberal individuals in the United States—simply lacks the ability to appeal to every student. Its pro-abortion cause, bearing the misnomer “women’s rights,” is a political commitment to liberal legislation on reproductive issues. It lacks the passion that underlies the vastly wider interpretation of the issue within the pro-life movement, which is the belief in human rights and the innate dignity of every human being from fertilization to natural death. For pro-life students, the appeal goes beyond a political agenda, encompassing the innate, humane concern for justice and equality.
The dominance of the pro-life movement among students on campuses nationwide is clearly quantifiable. Students for Life of America currently works with 838 active student pro-life groups across the country. At the time of publication, the nation’s two most notable pro-choice activist groups combined report fewer than half the number of active groups as Students for Life.9
As we have seen, the pro-life cohort wins hands-down in campus activism. So why isn’t this reflected by polls? In addition to the problematic wording of poll questions, the lack of definitional knowledge, and the pollsters’ practice of absorbing those who support rape and incest exceptions into the “pro-choice” category—all of which we have already discussed—it is also likely that apathetic students tend to poll in favor of abortion because they aren’t motivated to challenge an existing law.
When only given the option to self-identify as pro-life or pro-choice, or as a supporter or non-supporter of Roe, it is in the nature of a disinterested party to choose the path of least resistance. With abortion’s longstanding history as a “legal right”—predating all Millennials—any Millennial who self-identifies as pro-life is opting for a counter-legal view. An apathetic young person with a hands-off view of abortion is likely to self-identify as pro-choice because that position demands only that he or she continue to do nothing—exactly as the apathetic young person prefers.
But momentum favors the pro-life movement, because we have reason to believe that the pro-choice self-identification we are seeing in polls today will continue to decrease, although this shift in statistics will likely be slow if polling continues to serve up—and the media continues to trumpet—more pro-choice sentiment than actually exists. Fortunately, pro-life Millennials are unfazed by inaccurate polling and have shown their commitment to seeing their cause through to the end.
Put simply, the pro-choice movement has already experienced all that it will achieve, and will spend its dying breaths trying to preserve arguments and laws that were made and passed in the now-distant past. And as the pro-choice movement fizzles out, the pro-life movement gains steam at a pace that grows every year. Our efforts are not restricted to one geographical region of the country or one age group or one background—from middle school to high school to college, youth everywhere are joining our efforts in droves. The Students for Life national convention preceding the annual March for Life has grown to such a degree that thousands of young people participate every year. The interest is so strong, however, that long before the conference we have to begin turning away dedicated pro-life students because we simply do not have the means to accommodate all of them. The pro-life movement is where young people want to be.
The pro-choice movement can’t boast of even one comparable event. In fact, former NARAL Pro-Choice America president Nancy Keenan revealed her movement’s collective sense of doom about the future of pro-choice youth activism when, during the 37th annual March for Life in Washington, DC, she observed the hundreds of thousands of pro-life youth who had flooded the city for the event. Newsweek reported:
These [pro-choice] leaders will retire in a decade or so. And what worries Keenan is that she just doesn’t see a passion among the post-Roe generation—at least, not among those on her side. This past January, when Keenan’s train pulled into Washington’s Union Station, a few blocks from the Capitol, she was greeted by a swarm of anti-abortion-rights activists. [ . . . ] “I just thought, my gosh, they are so young,” Keenan recalled. “There are so many of them, and they are so young.”10
The piece went on to juxtapose the numbers of actively involved pro-lifers and pro-choicers, noting that over 400,000 activists participated in the March for Life that year (and we are used to the mainstream media wildly lowballing this attendance number), while only 1,300 attended a pro-choice “anti-Stupak rally” a few weeks before. The 1,300 figure is so low as to be scarcely worthy of mention, except to point out how drastically different it is from the pro-life numbers.
Even more embarrassing to the pro-choice Millennial movement (or lack thereof) is the fact that they are so desperate for numbers they have been documented paying people to represent pro-choice beliefs at political events. For example, when unable to attract voluntary activists during the 2013 legislative session in Texas, abortion advocates desperate to preserve late-term abortion in the state posted Craigslist ads offering substantial compen-sation to individuals who would show up to oppose pro-life legislation.11
Beyond their active involvement in the pro-life movement, Millennials increasingly lead it. This is another fact that promises a bright future for pro-life advocates as opposed to the pro-choice community, whose aging leaders seldomly are replaced by enthusiastic young Millennials. Groups like Live Action, Students for Life of America, New Wave Feminists, the Equal Rights Institute, Secular Pro-Life, and many more are founded—and run—by young Americans. This cannot be said for major pro-abortion organizations like Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and the National Abortion Federation. Rallying behind these groups are women who are out-of-touch with the values that Millennials profess, desperate to hold onto a culture that has moved away from them.
Contrary to perceptions about Millennials—and supporting their increasingly pro-life convictions—they have a demonstrably strong respect for the issues of marriage and family. A survey conducted by JWT Intelligence affirmed this fact, asking respondents, “How much respect would you say you have for each of the following institutions?” Between 86% and 91% of 21- to 39-year-olds responded that they had respect for the institution of marriage. Ninety-four percent of them reported having respect for the institution of parenthood, and 90-93% for the institution of monogamy.
Although older generations often confuse today’s young adults with the feminists of yesteryear, who valued “free love” above solid family fundamentals, Millennials have not only seen but also experienced the real consequences of such a philosophy. The pro-choice movement’s out-of-touch attitude towards this generation’s positive regard for marriage, parenthood, and monogamy may contribute to the greying profiles of its leaders and to the lack of enthusiasm among young people to go forward under their banner.
Nevertheless, we are cautioned by sociologists from committing the fallacy of affirming the consequent, by which we would be remiss to say that just because Millennials may be more likely to support strong marriages than their parents, they are also more pro-life. Rather, while these statistics may line up at points, there is more involved in the national explosion of the pro-life movement among Millennials than the fact that they have somewhat different values from their parents’ pro-choice generation. In his book, The Making of Pro-Life Activists, sociologist Ziad Munson explains:
One would be hard-pressed, for example, to find differences in the characteristics of Tim and Jerome [two men who have very similar sets of pro-life values, but Tim became an activist while Jerome did not] that could explain why one is so active in the movement while the other is entirely uninvolved. This problem parallels a similar one in criminology: no matter how many individual traits are correlated with criminal behavior, there will always be more people who share those traits who are not criminals (Sampson and Laub 1993) . . . The causal connection between individual attributes and activism will therefore always be weak, no matter how many individual characteristics we identify or how many people we include.12
Rather, Munson calls becoming an activist a “dynamic, multistage process,” whereby, “people with a remarkably wide range of preexisting ideas about abortion” converge to form what we call the pro-life movement. This explains how the pro-life movement continues to explode among all Americans, and not just those with certain political, religious, or cultural backgrounds. Munson acknowledges that,
. . . those who already consider themselves “pro-life” are not the only ones who get involved. My data show that many individuals who become activists are at best ambivalent, and in many cases decidedly pro-choice, in their views on abortion before getting involved. [Their views, however, change] during the actual process of becoming activists—that is, in the process of becoming mobilized.
Because of the vast range of those attracted to the pro-life movement for their own personal reasons, Munson points out that, depending on with whom and with what organizations they interact,13 the abortion views of new activists are often “fragmented and contradictory.” Munson traveled the country interviewing pro-life activists as well as prolifers who were not activists, arriving at the conclusion that, counterintuitively, conviction about the pro-life ethic is not a prerequisite for active involvement in the movement. To highlight this discovery, Munson recalls an anecdote about a woman he met in the Twin Cities named Linda who first participated in a pro-life activity when she was invited to do so by a casual acquaintance whom she respected and wanted to please. At the time, Linda leaned more towards the pro-choice side. But after getting involved for social reasons, Linda developed her own pro-life convictions subsequent to her activism. Munson summarizes this phenomenon, writing:
My data on the pro-life movement challenge this conventional wisdom. The link between beliefs and action in social movements must be turned on its head: real action often precedes meaningful beliefs about an issue. Demographic and attitudinal differences between activists and nonactivists cannot explain why some people join the pro-life movement and others do not. Instead, mobilization occurs when people are drawn into activism through organizational and relational ties, not when they form strong beliefs about abortion. Beliefs about abortion are often undeveloped, incoherent, and inconsistent until individuals become actively engaged with the movement. The “process of conviction” (Maxwell 2002) is the result of mobilization, not a necessary prerequisite for it.14
We can thus credit the explosion of pro-life activism among Millennials, at least in part, to the social aspect of college participation in the movement. Students frequently get involved in a college pro-life group because they are invited by peers. Many have not really determined what their personal view on abortion is prior to their initial engagement. But their interest in the social aspect draws them in, and from there they internalize the information they receive and become convicted pro-life activists who in turn reach out to friends who will continue the cycle.
This firmly established social structure simply doesn’t exist nationwide among pro-choice advocates. Unlike Millennials who call themselves “pro-choice,” young pro-lifers are involved in their movement in a very hands-on way. They have owned the movement and are successively taking the places of the pro-life leaders who preceded them. They travel in huge groups to statewide and national rallies annually, making Students for Life of America’s National Conference the largest pro-life conference in the nation, with over 2,500 students, each year. They attend conferences, organize fundraisers, gather regularly for group meetings and strategy sessions, and volunteer at pregnancy resource centers on a regular basis. Coupled with the overall decline in and absence of pro-choice enthusiasm among Millennials at large, a lack of social engagement has leveled the final blow at the pro-choice movement among young adults.
Traditional poll numbers, therefore, clearly underestimate the true discrepancy that exists between pro-life and pro-choice Millennials. While self-identification as “pro-life” and “pro-choice” on polls produces similar numbers of Millennials on either side, we have seen how traditional survey methods fall short. Furthermore, apathetic sentiment across the board likely inflates the pro-choice label, lending false weight to that side. A lack of knowledge regarding the legislative outcomes of Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, and lack of clarity regarding the meanings of “pro-life” and “pro-choice,” also suggest that traditional polling questions are incapable of accurately reflecting America’s pro-life majority. We have seen that this majority has developed in conjunction with greater scientific knowledge and technological advancement, as well as education stemming from media coverage of abortion debates over the decades. And we have seen how, from a sociological perspective, the pro-life movement dominates in recruitment and activism due to its mastering of the social factor that often precedes personal conviction about abortion ethics. All of these taken together help to explain the explosion in momentum behind pro-life Millennials and to project a promising outcome for the future of the pro-life movement in America.
1. Gallup. (2014). U.S. Still Split on Abortion: 47% Pro-Choice; 46% Pro-Life. Retrieved from www.gallup.com/poll/170249/split-abortion-pro-choice-pro-life.aspx
2. Marist. (2012). Abortion in America: Trends over Time. Retrieved from www.priestsforlife.org/statistics/12-12-marist-poll.pdf
3. Lauren Enriquez, “5 things you should know about Planned Parenthood,” Live Action News, 12 May 2013: liveactionnews.org/5-things-you-should-know-about-planned-parenthood/
4. Pew Research Center. (2013). Roe v. Wade at 40: Most Oppose Overturning Abortion Decision. Retrieved from www.pewforum.org/files/2013/01/Roe-v-wade-full.pdf
5. Kristen Soltis Anderson and Alex Shriver, “A Grand Old Party for a Brand New Generation,” Report by the College Republicans National Committee, 2013, p. 6.
6. Evidence does not suggest that abortion is ever necessary to save the life of a pregnant mother. www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0036613
7. These numbers were taken from an poll conducted by The Polling Company, Inc., commissioned by Students for Life of America in 2012.
8. Jon Hurdle and Trip Gabriel, “Philadelphia Abortion Doctor Guilty of Murder in Late-Term Procedures,” New York Times,14 May 2013: A12.
9. See self-reported groups from Planned Parenthood campus groups and Feminist Campus, respectively: www.plannedparenthoodaction.org/get-involved/generation/find-your-planned-parenthood-campus-group/ & feministcampus.org/start-a-group/find-a-group/
10. Analysis: “Why Young Voters Are Lukewarm on Abortion Rights,” Susan B. Anthony List. www.sba-list.org/suzy-b-blog/analysis-%E2%80%9Cwhy-young-voters-are-lukewarm-abortion-rights%E2%80%9D
11. Source: hotair.com/archives/2013/07/01/great-news-being-a-pro-choice-grassroots-protester-pays-a-decent-wage/
12. Ziad W. Munson. The Making of Pro-life Activists: How Social Movement Mobilization Works (2008) University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition. Locations 81-83.
13. Ibid, location 101.
14. Ibid, locations 284-291.
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Kristan Hawkins is President and Executive Director of Students for Life of America and recipient (along with Clarke Forsythe) of the Human Life Foundation’s 2014 Great Defender of Life Award. Lauren Enriquez is a freelance writer, ghostwriter, and communications consultant who helps pro-life organizations gain visibility in the media.