How shifting U.S. demographics will change the abortion conversation
With events like the March for Life at the center, the pro-life movement in the United States has managed to maintain opposition to abortion as an active political issue, despite the five decades since the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade.
But support for legally restricting abortion has begun to decrease in the United States, driven by key demographic trends. And those changes suggest that pro-life political strategists may well need to change their strategies, to reach new groups, with different values, and different lifestyles than the pro-lifers of yesterday.
A look at the data makes that clear:
Since 1977, the General Social Survey has asked respondents whether it should be legal for a woman to obtain an abortion under various circumstances, including most broadly: “If the woman wants it for any reason.”
The percentage of respondents who say they oppose unfettered legal access to abortion on demand, for any reason, has gradually decreased from a high of 67% in 1978.
And in 2021, it dropped below 50% for the first time since the survey began, with 44% of respondents favoring restrictions on abortion.
Support for restricting legal access to abortion has historically been similar between men and women, with support for legal restrictions averaging about two percent higher among women.
Although there are not significant differences in support for restricting abortion between men and women, there are significant differences which align with religious practice and political parties.
Those who go to church once a week or more average 28% more likely to support restricting abortion on demand than those who go less than once a year.
When Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, Democrats and Republicans were equally likely to support legal restrictions on abortion. But since the late 1980s support for restricting abortion has polarized significantly along political lines.
Republicans have become slightly more likely to support restricting abortion, and Democrats are much less willing to limit abortion in any way than they once were. Independents have, perhaps predictably, charted a middle course.
Two less often discussed demographic divisions have significant correlations with people’s support for restricting abortion.
Married people are significantly more willing to restrict abortion on demand than are people who have never been married. The marriage gap is larger for women than for men, but nonetheless significant for both men and women.
People who have children are also significantly more likely to support legal restrictions on abortion than those who have no children.
Pro-lifers may see clear reasons why members of these demographic groups would be more open to providing legal protection to unborn children.
Those who have gone through the process of having children know intimately the reality of life both before and after birth. And despite whatever challenges they may face in rearing children, they recognize that parenting is not an impossible burden.
Married people know that they have the support of a permanently committed partner to help in the rearing of their children.
But parenthood, marriage, and frequent church attendance are all becoming less common, particularly among younger Americans. And that leads to the declining number of Americans who oppose restrictions on abortion.
As pro-life advocates seek to build a culture of life, both in law and in practice, it will become increasingly important for them to gain the support of people who perhaps do not look like the majority of those who currently support restricting abortion.
A larger percentage of younger generations of Americans are single, do not have children, or do not attend church often. Pro-life advocates will need the support of some of those people in order to pass laws which will protect the lives of unborn children. That will likely require new strategies and new approaches — which might soon be on display at events like the March for Life.
They will also need to help build a culture of life among those people, a culture in which the idea of marriage and of having children is not alarming. And if true conversion is to be achieved, a culture in which attending church to worship the Creator of all life has a place as well.