The Common Good

Are Millennials Conflicted About Morality?

The Public Religion Research Institute recently released the results of their newest survey, "Committed to Availability, Conflicted About Morality," which shined new light on the complexity of opinions on abortion between different religious groups and age demographics. The study results were presented two weeks ago at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

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The most intriguing age group in the study are Millenials, ages 18 to 29. In the introduction to the survey results, the authors claim that given Millenials' self-described characteristics of being "confident, self-expressive, liberal, upbeat, and open to change," they have a "peculiar profile" when it comes to their views on abortion. And this is especially "peculiar" when viewed alongside their strong support for gender equality and rights for gay and lesbian people. Millenials' complex, label-defying views of abortion make them "conflicted about morality," the report states. But are Millenials really, actually conflicted about morality?

Let's take a look at the data:

  • 57 percent of Millenials favor same-sex marriage, and an additional 19 percent say people should be allowed to form civil unions, whereas only 32 percent of people aged 50 to 64 and older favor same-sex marriage, and only 26 percent of people ages 65 and older.
  • 22 percent of Millenials believe that abortion should be legal in all cases, and 38 percent believe that abortion should be legal in most cases, whereas 14 percent of people ages 50-64 believe that abortion should be legal in all cases and 29 percent in most cases.

As these statistics show, when it comes to favoring same-sex marriage, there is a large gap between Millenials and older generations, but when it comes to abortion, the gap is not as wide. "Millenials are less supportive of legal abortion than their demographic profile would suggest," the report claims. They "are more educated, more liberal, and more likely to be religious unaffiliated," and thus have the traits associated with higher levels of support for the legality of abortion, and yet they do not favor legal abortion that much more than their older counterparts. So what accounts for Millenials' views on abortion?

One of the authors of the report, Robert Jones, stated in his presentation at the Brookings Institution that in focus groups with Millenials, the researchers heard many people say, "I'm both pro-life and pro-woman." When Millenials were asked which term describes themselves, "pro-choice" or "pro-life," but were not forced to choose one term over another, the results were as follows:

  • 65 percent of Millenials feel that "pro-life" describes them somewhat or very well.
  • 75 percent of Millenials feel that "pro-choice" describes them somewhat or very well.
  • Only 7 percent of Millenials are strongly pro-life and only 14 percent are strongly pro-choice.

The circumstances of the abortion influence the moral choices of Millenials. They reject polarities and favor a situational view of the morality -- not a rule based, label-driven one. Thus, when Millenials were asked about abortion in specific circumstances, their opinions varied significantly:

  • 86 percent believe that an abortion should be allowed if a woman's physical health is endangered.
  • 79 percent if the pregnancy was result of rape.
  • 74 percent if the woman's mental health is endangered.
  • 66 percent if there is a chance of a serious birth defect.
  • 47 percent is she is still in high school.
  • 45 percent if she is low income.
  • 39 percent if she does not want to marry the man.

But Millenials views of morality are not only influenced by circumstance, but are also influenced by their relationships and cultural exposure:

  • Knowing someone who has had an abortion has a strong positive effect in favoring the availability and legality of abortion.
  • Recently seeing an ultrasound image of a fetus has a significant negative effect in favoring the legality of abortion.
  • Having seen either MTV's program "16 and Pregnant" or "Teen Mom" has a significant positive effect on favoring the legality of abortion.

Millenials are also the only age group that is more likely to say that abortions should be available, than to say that they should be legal.

  • 68 percent of Millenials believe that abortions should be available in local communities, while only 60 percent believe that abortion should be legal in all/most cases. For all other age groups the percentage gap between legality and availability is 1 percent or the same.

The researchers asked Millennials their "top of mind" associations with abortion and same-sex marriage. When asked about same-sex marriage, 53 percent responded with affirming words such as "deserved, go for it! love, progress, awesome." And another 21 percent responded with neutral words such as, "politics, don't care." When asked the same question about abortion, 54 percent responded with opposing words such as, "sad, scary, struggle, sucks, unfair." And only 16 percent responded with affirming words such as, "choice, not entirely bad, personal."

By and large, to those who are not Millenials, their answers to these questions can seem confusing and complex. As a millennial myself, I agree that when you look at numbers and percentages, Millenials can appear to be confusing and complex about our values and moral decision making process. However, I believe we are simply nuanced.

When it comes to morality, and the political ramifications of our moral choices, we seem ambivalent and disengaged because we don't like to gather on the polls and take once clear side -- as politics usually demands. But unlike the authors of this study, I do not see in this survey a "decoupling values agenda" or a generation "conflicted about morality." There is no contradiction between our views on abortion, same-sex marriage, and our characterization of being "confident, self-expressive, liberal, upbeat, and open to change." I believe that Millenials are simply seeing the political charged moral questions of our time in a new paradigm -- rejecting labels all together and treating each case as unique and individual situations that require more nuanced reactions.

portrait-claire-lorentzenClaire Lorentzen is the online editorial assistant at Sojourners.

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