During the past couple days there has been some good commentary on NRO about the diverging political trajectories of abortion and same-sex marriage. One aspect of this debate that deserves more attention is the opinions of young adults. The overall trends in public opinion are interesting. However, what is especially encouraging for both pro-lifers and same-sex marriage proponents is not only the gains they are making in the court of public opinion, but also the fact that these gains are more pronounced among young people.
Regarding abortion, the General Social Survey has been collecting opinion data on abortion using the same battery of questions since the early 1970s. Throughout the 1970s, 18- to 29-year-olds were more supportive of legal abortion than any other age cohort. This trend continued through the 1980s and 1990s as young adults were generally more “pro-choice” than the rest of the population. But starting around the year 2000 something very interesting happened: This group became the most pro-life age cohort — even more pro-life than senior citizens.
One would not expect the current generation of young people to espouse pro-life views. They tend to be less religious and more secular, and have more liberal attitudes toward sex than previous generations. Social scientists have not arrived at a consensus to explain their pro-life views, but various theories include: (1) the development of ultrasound technology, (2) the 1990s debate over partial-birth abortion, and (3) popular culture’s depiction of single motherhood as non-disruptive in television shows such as Friends and Murphy Brown and movies such as Juno.
With regard to same-sex marriage, a number of surveys have shown that young people are more sympathetic toward it than their older counterparts. But there is some evidence that this support may be leveling off. In the years following the Goodridge decision, which legalized same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, UCLA’s annual survey of college freshmen indicated that support for same-sex marriage fell slightly. This is despite the fact that the decision received plenty of favorable media attention and granted same-sex marriage mainstream political legitimacy.
I do not think that all is lost for supporters of traditional marriage. First, many surveys likely overstate public approval for same-sex marriage. Socially conservative positions tend to perform better at the ballot box than they do in public-opinion surveys. Also, when respondents are given the option to support civil unions, support for same-sex marriage typically falls. And even in deep blue states like New York, same-sex marriage supporters have had to work very hard to scrape out narrow legislative victories. Overall, social conservatism has proven to be resilient over the years as young people tend to become more conservative as they get older. Still, public-opinion data shows that supporters of traditional marriage face a real challenge in their efforts to garner support among many young voters.
— Michael J. New is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan – Dearborn and a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J.