What do young people in Britain really think about abortion?

Polls can tell us something about attitudes, and statistics can tell is something about behaviour. But they can’t tell us everything we want to know.

We know that young people have abortions. In 2013, there were 127,000 abortions to women under the age of 30, out of a total of 185,000 for all women in England and Wales. Of the women aged 25-29 who had an abortion in 2013, 44% had had at least one previous abortion.

And we know that young people are supportive of a woman’s ability to have an abortion if she needs one. An IpsosMORI poll carried out for BPAS in 2011 asked respondents to agree or disagree with the statement, ‘If a woman wants an abortion, she should not have to continue with her pregnancy’. Of respondents aged 18-34, 54% agreed with the statement and only 17% disagreed.

Respondents were also asked to choose between two statements relating to the government’s role in the abortion decision. Fewer than one in five agreed that ‘The government has a responsibility to reduce the number of abortions’, while over two-thirds (70%) agreed that ‘It is a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion and the government should not interfere’.

When it comes to thinking about women’s access to abortion, young people’s views are clear. Women should be able to have abortions if they want them, and it is not the government’s role to interfere with that decision. This is important politically – people between the ages of 18-34 are included in the ‘Millennial’ generation, which forms a relatively large cohort. The Millennials’ outlook, opinions and values are of great interest to politicians and marketers, as they are widely seen as the next big influential generation after the Baby Boomers.

The younger generation’s support for access to abortion is also important in framing the ongoing debate about choice. It is difficult to tell, just by looking at polls, what young people think about the morality of abortion, or how they feel about the pro-choice cause.

There has been a great deal of discussion about this in the USA, where the ‘choice’ debate is becoming increasingly fraught. It is often argued that advocates of abortion rights need to face up to the fact that young people are more ambivalent about the pro-choice cause and the language associated with it than are the older, ‘Roe v Wade’ generation who came of age in the Sixties. Most surveys about the Millennials’ attitudes in general, and to abortion specifically, come from the US, so there is a tendency to ‘map’ those findings onto ideas about young people in Britain.

But looking through some of the available evidence on young people’s ideas about abortion and related issues, there are big differences between the situation surrounding abortion in the UK and the USA, and young people’s ideas about abortion in the two countries should not be collapsed together. In both countries, young people’s ideas about abortion are framed less by their age than by wider social and political dynamics – and this accounts for the differences.

Millennials in Britain

British Social Attitudes 30, a major report published in 2013 by the social research company NatCen, looked at how attitudes and values have changed over the 30 years since the BSA survey began. This report focused on responses to two questions about abortion, which, the authors stated, ‘represent the extremes at either end of the debate’:

Do you think the law should allow an abortion when …
… the woman’s health is seriously endangered by the pregnancy?
… the woman decides on her own she does not wish to have the child?

The responses show ‘almost unanimous support for a woman’s right to have an abortion if her own health would be seriously endangered by going ahead with the pregnancy’, with nine in ten people agreeing – and this has barely changed from 1983. When it comes to the question of whether abortion should be allowed according to a woman’s choice, just over six in ten (62%) support this and a third (34%) oppose it. However, as the authors state:

‘[T]his marks a considerable change since 1983; at that time 37% thought the law should allow this while just over half (55%) thought it should not. In other words, just over half of the public in 1983 opposed abortion being available if a woman does not want a child, while nearly two-thirds support this now.’

What about generational differences? Here, the BSA report makes some very interesting observations. More recent generations are more supportive of a woman’s right to choose when she doesn’t want a child than are older generations. However, ‘the differences are not huge, and the gaps between the most and least supportive groups have not changed much since 1983’. It is also clear, state the authors, that:

‘[M]ost generations are more supportive now than they were in 1983; among the 1960s generation, for instance, support for abortion under those particular circumstances rose from 45% to 69%. However, while support for abortion rose between 1983 and 1987 (and in some cases 1994) among all generations, it subsequently fell between 1994 and 2004 among older generations but continued to rise among those born during and after the 1950s.’

The authors go on to suggest:

‘This distinction is intriguing and perhaps reflects the impact of the debates that foreshadowed the 1967 Abortion Act (something likely to have had a particular impact on the 1950s generation) as well the subsequent availability of legal abortion (for the 1960s generation onwards). These findings suggest that the changes in attitudes we have seen since 1983 cannot primarily be explained by generational change.’

From the BSA findings, we can see a steady acceptance of the idea that a woman should be able to choose to end her pregnancy if she wants to. This contrasts with the ‘rightward shift’ in young people’s attitudes to abortion that has been described in the USA, and which is discussed below. What we see in Britain is a general trend in the direction of people of all ages becoming less judgemental about certain kinds of sexual behaviour, against a backdrop where the traditional moral controversies have lost much of their political edge.

Non-judgemental about sexuality

Back in 1998, a report by Madsen Pirie and Robert M. Worcester on The Millennial Generation, published by the Adam Smith Institute, argued:

‘The Millennial Generation is a markedly tolerant one. It is by no means in sympathy with government bans, imposed or proposed, on several activities. The only things which a majority of them think should be illegal in Britain are the use of Ecstasy and fox hunting with hounds.

‘Asked whether gay and lesbian sex between consenting adults should be illegal, 12% say yes. Thus any lobby to repeal the fairly tolerant legal climate which currently prevails is unlikely to attract large numbers of young people in support. Similarly, moves to clamp down on abortion, which are made from time to time by anti-abortion groups, find little support from this age group. No more than 15% favour making abortion illegal.’

The BSA survey also reveals a growing acceptance of homosexuality. ‘Each successive generation,’ write the authors, ‘has more liberal views than the one before. In 2012, for instance, the 1980s generation are the least likely to think that homosexuality is always or mostly wrong; those born in the 1930s are the most likely to do so.’ Yet there have also been changes in attitudes within generations:

‘Among those born in the 1930s, for example, 61% thought homosexuality was wrong in 1983, compared with 54 per cent among that generation now. The 1950s and 1960s generations in particular have become markedly more liberal on this issue over time.’

The BSA survey notes that attitudes towards homosexuality have fluctuated over time, according to wider debates and anxieties. In 1983, 50% of people agreed with the statement that sexual relations between two adults of the same sex was ‘always wrong’, and this had increased to 64% by 1987; yet by 2012, only 22% of people agreed with that statement, while 47% believed that homosexuality was ‘not wrong at all’.

This extraordinary degree of fluctuation can be explained, say the BSA authors, by the wider context in which the question was being asked. The mid-1980s was the height of the AIDS panic and government-led campaigns about ‘family values’; by 2012, the (Conservative-led) government was pushing through its Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill, and promoting tolerance of homosexual relationships.

The BSA data seems to suggest that ideas about the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of homosexuality are framed less by deeply-held generational beliefs than by the prevailing mood of the times, and whether same-sex relations are officially endorsed, or stigmatised. And this goes for abortion, too.

In Britain today, abortion is officially accepted and publicly funded. Women – and men – of reproductive age have grown up with access to contraception and to legal abortion. In this context, they are not only able to plan their pregnancies – they are expected to do so. Teenage mothers, ‘benefit mums’ with large families, and women who have babies in their forties, are greeted with far more disapproval today than women who fall pregnant accidentally and terminate their pregnancies early in gestation.

Of course, abortion remains a difficult decision for individual women; and it continues to be an ethical debate, particularly among those with strong religious beliefs. But even here, the available data indicates a growing pragmatic acceptance of abortion, even among those who may object to it in principle.

Religious faith and abortion attitudes

The BSA survey confirms that ‘religious faith continues to be closely associated with attitudes to abortion’, with only 39% of Catholics supporting a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy if she wishes to, compared with 56% of Anglicans, and 73% of non-religious people. Yet:

‘[A]cceptance of abortion has increased among all religious groups since 1983; among Anglicans, for instance, 34% supported abortion in these circumstances in 1983, rising to 54% by 1994 and standing at 56% now.’

The Evangelical churches are associated with a ‘hard line’ opposition to abortion. But even here, the responses are not black-and-white. A survey by the UK Evangelical Alliance in 2011 asked respondents to agree/disagree with the statement: ‘Abortion can never be justified’. The findings were: Agree a lot: 20%; Agree a little: 17%; Unsure: 18%; Disagree a little: 28%; Disagree a lot: 17%. Therefore more (45%) of evangelical Christians disagreed with this statement than agreed (37%).

The Evangelical Alliance did find that ‘It’s the younger evangelicals who are more likely to think that abortion can never be justified, while older people are likely to think that abortion, in some instances, is justifiable’. Yet the report’s authors cautioned against drawing too many firm conclusions from this study: ‘[U]ntil more research is conducted to explore the circumstances where evangelicals find abortion justifiable, it’s unwise to interpret the findings in any great detail’.

Party political differences

In Britain, it is often assumed that ‘right-wing’ people will be opposed to abortion and that ‘left-wing’ people will support a woman’s right to choose. But survey data consistently challenge this idea of a clear partisan divide. The BSA survey found that in 2012, 82% of Liberal Democrats support a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion if she does not wish to have the child, compared with around six in ten Conservative and Labour Party supporters (57% and 61% respectively) and 65% of those who do not support any party.

The 2011 BPAS/IpsosMORI poll found that those who intended to vote Conservative were the most likely to agree with the statement ‘A woman should not have to continue with her pregnancy if she wants an abortion’, and the least likely to disagree (59% and 16% respectively). This was followed closely by Labour voters (58% agreed, and 20% disagreed); while of Liberal Democrat voters, 47% agreed, and 26% neither agreed nor disagreed.

What we know about young people’s attitudes to abortion in Britain

In Britain, abortion is not a politically polarised issue. People’s attitudes to abortion, particularly for those under the age of 65, are generally tolerant and pragmatic. Even those who have religious, moral, or principled objections to abortion tend to accept that women should be allowed to have abortions if they want them. And there is an overriding sentiment that abortion is an issue for individuals to decide, rather than governments.

This reflects both the reality of abortion being legally available and fully integrated into the public healthcare system, and also a wider liberalisation of attitudes towards sexual issues that were previously stigmatised, such as homosexuality. In this respect, it is unlikely that any political attempts to stigmatise abortion, or restrict access to it, could win friends amongst the majority of the electorate.

However, this does not mean that the abortion question is settled. As we can see by the major fluctuations in attitudes towards homosexuality between the 1980s and 1990s, aggressive political campaigns can bring marked changes in people’s attitudes towards other people’s private sexual practices. And as we can see now in the USA, this can result in a divergence of ‘tolerance’ – where the polarization of the abortion issue makes people far more ambivalent about abortion than they are about homosexuality, or other ‘family values’ issues.

Millennials in America – Diverging on Culture Wars issues?

Unlike in Britain, where survey data on generational attitudes to abortion is sparse, there is a wealth of US data about public attitudes to abortion and other ‘hot-button’ topics. Overall, this tends to confirm that people’s attitudes are framed more by their wider context – such as religion, education levels, or whereabouts in the USA they live – than by their generation. But because, in the USA, the abortion issue has become more political and polarised, this affects the extent to which the pragmatism and non-judgementalism generally associated with the Millennials extends to other people’s abortion.

A report produced by the centrist American think-tank Third Way in March 2014 labels the Millennials ‘Political Explorers’. The author, Michelle Diggles, Ph.D, highlights one interesting feature of Millenials in the US – the extent to which they seem to be ‘Diverging on Culture War Issues’. She writes:

‘Millennials’ journey into adulthood coincided with a period of increasing societal tolerance on questions of gender roles, as well as growing acceptance and visibility of gay and lesbian people in their communities, classrooms, and homes. This massive culture shift has also affected how they view issues around gender and family life. But on some issues, Millennials’ experiences have driven them to hold what we may call conservative views on cultural issues rather than conforming to recent patterns of values and partisan alignment.’

When it comes to gay marriage, Diggles states that ‘views of all Americans – old and young, Democratic and Republican, Evangelical and unaffiliated – have evolved recently toward support for marriage for gay couples’. However ‘Millennials have been out in front of that movement’:

‘In a 2014 survey, 69% of Millennials supported marriage for gay couples, compared to only 37% of the Silent Generation, 45% of the Baby Boom Generation, and 55% of Gen X. While only 27% of white Evangelical Protestants supported marriage for gay couples, 43% of white Evangelical Protestant Millennials held similar views. In fact, younger voters are more supportive of marriage in every demographic group, with the probability of supporting marriage increasing by 0.8% with every birth year. The result is that one-quarter of the change in public opinion between 2004 and 2011 on the issue of marriage was driven by generational change—younger voters replacing older ones.’*

In relation to family arrangements in general, Millennials’ views are less traditional than those of older generations. This, argues Diggles, reflects ‘lived reality’: ‘61% of Millennials grew up in a two-parent household, as opposed to 80% of Boomers and Silents, and many had mothers who worked outside the home. Only 21% of Millennials ages 18–28 are married, compared to 29% of Gen Xers, 42% of Boomers, and 54% of Silents when they were the same age.’
Perhaps as a consequence:

‘Millennials are less prone to cast moral judgment on Americans who have different family arrangements. Few Millennials disapprove of people living together without being married (22%) or of mothers of young children who work outside of the home (23%). By contrast, 58% of Silents and 44% of Boomers disapprove of living together without being married, and nearly 4 in 10 of each older generation think it is a bad thing for mothers of young children to work outside the home.’

Yet as Diggles note, the high levels of support for gay marriage among the younger generation is not matched by a similar shift in opinion on abortion. Young people’s views on abortion, she states, ‘are no more progressive than the attitudes of their parents and grandparents – if anything, there has perhaps even been a rightward shift among some subsections of Millennials’. She cites the following data, from the 2012 American Values Survey by the Public Religion Research Institute:

‘56% of Americans and 54% of Millennials believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Similarly, 48% of Catholic Millennials and 53% of all Catholics believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. White Evangelical Protestants overwhelmingly oppose abortion, with 64% saying it should be illegal in all or most cases. Starkly, among white Evangelical Protestant Millennials, a whopping 88% believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.’

These shifts do seem very striking. However, other survey evidence gives a far more balanced account. For example, a paper by Tracey Willmott of John Hopkins University, titled ‘Throughout the Generations: How age and religiosity may be changing our views on key social issues’, states:

‘While some studies say abortion opinion has changed over the years, others say it has stayed the same. A PBS article finds that 63% want to preserve the Roe v. Wade decision. It was 62% ten years ago and 60% twenty years ago. The same article stated that 47% of respondents view abortion as morally wrong with only 13% viewing it as morally acceptable. Only 38% of Catholic participants wanted to see Roe v. Wade overturned. The supervisor of the study says, “Even as we’re seeing a lot of denominational flux and people even striking out independently in the way they think about faith in their lives, their core values when it comes to an issue like that (abortion) are their own and not necessarily determined by their religious associations”. Interestingly, there is not evident information regarding public opinion and abortion when controlling for religiosity although it seems like an issue deeply seeded in religion.’

Willmott also cites a 2009 Gallup survey finding that 21% of Americans say abortion should be legal always and 18% say it should be illegal always. She writes:

‘That same survey cites the reason for a recent change in abortion views as a larger percentage of Republicans identify themselves as pro-life compared to ten years ago, while there has been no such shift in Democrats. Nevertheless, the Gallup survey found 46% of respondents identifying themselves as pro-choice and 47% as pro-life, which is a recent increase in the latter category.’

Another way of looking at this point is that the split between ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ in the USA has always been more polarised than it has in the UK. In recent years, the abortion issue has also become more overtly politicised, with politicians adopting a clearly partisan view on the issue. This means that young people’s attitudes towards abortion are framed, not only by their own views, experiences, and religious beliefs, but also by the high profile and political contentiousness of the abortion issue.

However, again we should be careful about drawing too many stark conclusions from this. Another feature of the ‘Millennial generation’ that is often remarked upon is that younger people are wary of big government, organised religion, and party allegiances, often counterposing these to their ‘deep desire for authenticity’ at a personal level. For example, the 2014 Third Way report states:

‘Over the past decade, the number of Independents has grown significantly. But the percent of Millennials describing themselves as political Independents has skyrocketed compared to other generations. Since President Obama’s election, the number of self-identified Independents among the Millennial Generation has increased by eleven points—nearly double the pace of change among all other generational cohorts. This shift, means that at least half of younger voters now refuse to associate themselves with either political party – and it suggests that their allegiances cannot be assumed.’

A 2009 report by the Center for American Progress on ‘The Political Ideology of the Millennial Generation’ found that:

‘Research on the Millennial Generation shows that, like previous generations, they value spirituality and faith but are far less likely to embrace organized religion. This is reflected in the 64% who agree that “religious faith should focus more on promoting tolerance, social justice, and peace in society, and less on opposing abortion or gay rights,” compared to 19% who disagree and 17% who are neutral. Intensity is extremely high on this measure, with 42% strongly agreeing.’

The picture of younger people painted by these indicators is one of a generalised non-judgementalism, where issue is less about taking a stand against abortion than it is about taking a stand with an established organisation or viewpoint.

So why are younger Americans ambivalent about abortion?

Willmott’s own research finds that ‘while some may think younger Americans have much more liberal views on abortion than older Americans, the views have actually not changed very much throughout the generations’. She suggests that ‘[r]easons behind this lack of change may simply be the long-standing existence of the abortion debate’:

‘Older Americans would have strong opinions on this issue from the women’s movements in the 1960’s and the Roe v. Wade decision in 1972. Recent elections have focused on women’s reproductive rights, bringing younger Americans into the conversation as well. Since there has been little progress and few laws made concerning abortion within the past few decades, sentiments are not likely to change. Unlike the gay rights movement, which has gained momentum and has achieved great feats, the abortion debate has been at a standstill for years and will likely continue in the same manner.’

Michelle Diggles’s explanation about the contrast between young people’s attitudes to gay marriage and abortion is that ‘the experience of Millennials has differed in three ways from older generations – all of which solidify their ambiguity on the issue’. She explains:

‘The 1960s and 1970s were a period of public battles over access not only to abortion but also basic contraception. But abortion was literally and figuratively brought out of back alleys in the 1970s, so Millennials have not had the generational experience of coat hangers and unsafe medical practices threatening women’s health and safety. Furthermore, since the 1980s, and increasing in the 1990s and 2000s, contraception has been much more widely available, allowing people to avoid or delay pregnancy with more reliability. Finally, ultrasounds were introduced into U.S. hospitals in the 1970s and became widespread in the 1980s and 1990s. Millennials have come of age in an era in which sonogram photos are used to announce a friend’s first-trimester wanted pregnancy on Facebook, which undoubtedly complicates their perspective on ending unwanted pregnancies that are similarly far along.’

These observations, about the culture in which pregnancy and abortion are experienced today, do help to make some sense of why young Americans may not see the abortion cause as their top priority. Because they have access, to a greater or lesser degree, to contraception and abortion, it is not a cause that they need to fight for in the way that the ‘Roe v. Wade generation’ did.

It is also possible that the increasingly sentimentalised imagery surrounding pregnancy, the increasingly aggressive tactics of the anti-abortion movement, and the politicisation of the issue at a government level make this a less attractive cause than that of gay marriage, for example, which receives considerable establishment support.

Yet these explanations do not show that young Americans are opposed to abortion – simply, that they may not want to think about it, or engage with it as a cause. And that raises some rather different questions.

Young people and the pro-choice cause

Engaging the younger generation in the pro-choice cause has always thrown up challenges, and highlighted differences between the generations involved in that cause. In engaging with these challenges, the first step is to have a balanced assessment of what younger people think about the issues involved.

There are limits to what surveys can tell us about public opinion, particularly on issues such as abortion, which are affected by personal experience, religious belief, wider societal attitudes and other factors. Particularly in the USA, where the issue is more polarised and political, polls can often tell us more about the message that those framing the question want to put out than what people actually think.

Nonetheless, looking at the survey data that exists should reassure us that young people are neither particularly anti-abortion, nor anti-choice. Their approach to other questions related to sexual lifestyle and behaviour indicates a general non-judgementalism, and a belief that the government should not intervene too heavily in personal matters.

The big difference between Britain and America on the question of abortion attitudes seems to be not a generational one, but a difference in the degree to which abortion has become politicised and made into a partisan statement. This may well not win young people over to the anti-abortion cause – indeed, its association with big institutions and ‘party lines’ is more likely to alienate them than anything else.

The survey data indicates that, on most matters of life, young people like choice and want more of it: what they don’t like is being told what to do by big institutions. This opens up a space in which the positive argument for choice can be made more strongly – on both sides of the Atlantic. Young people accept the need for abortion, and one in three of them will have at least one abortion over the course of their adult lives. We should not confuse their lack of interest in established causes with their feelings about women’s need for abortion, and we should not conflate the dynamics that affect young people’s opinions in America with the very different dynamics that frame the abortion debate in Britain.

* The categories employed by Diggles to draw distinctions between the generations do not have precise definitions. It is generally agreed that the Millennials were born between about 1981 and 2000; Generation X between 1965 and 1980; Baby Boomers between about 1945 and 1964; and Silent Generation between 1925 until 1945.

Also read:

The ‘generation war’ over abortion rights. The shift away from ‘choice’ to ‘reproductive justice’ will do younger generations of women no favours, argues Jennie Bristow. Reproductive Review, 22 January 2013.

First published by bpas Reproductive Review, 31 July 2014

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