WASHINGTON-A packed room of Catholics, Planned Parenthood staff, and gay rights advocates at the Brookings Institute on Thursday listened to researchers explain a new study that shows Americans' attitudes toward abortion.
"It's a complicated story," said Robert Jones, head of Public Religion Research Institute, which conducted the study, adding that Americans are "conflicted about the morality of abortion but supportive of the legality."
The study (which can be downloaded here) is based on about 3,000 interviews conducted in April and May and claims to be "the largest national public opinion survey ever conducted on abortion and the influence of religion and moral values on the issue." It confirmed a narrative that has been emerging from other polls and studies: Millennials, or 18- to 29-year-olds, share their parents' views on abortion but are decidedly more supportive of civil unions or marriage between same-sex couples.
The steady opposition to the legality of abortion across generations (about 40 percent, according to this study) is partly due to the pro-life movement's move toward "fetus rights language," said Melissa Deckman, a Washington College political science professor who specializes in women, religion, and politics. The fetus rights language has put the pro-abortion movement "on the defensive," she said, pointing to the debate over Planned Parenthood's federal funding, where advocates for the group promote its healthcare offerings like cancer screenings but not its commitment to providing abortion services, a tactic "very different from 20 years ago," she said.
The study also contained what Jones called "mysterious" findings: A majority of Americans says abortion is morally wrong, but a majority also says that it should be legal in all or most cases. Millennials also are conflicted: They are more likely than the general public to support the availability of abortion, but are not more likely to support the legality of abortion. But polls have consistently shown that Americans have contradictory views on the subject, said Karlyn Bowman, a polling analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. A majority will say abortion is murder, and a majority will say abortion should be a private choice for a woman and her doctor.
"'It's murder; I'm for it'-think about that," Bowman said. Two-thirds of the country said the term "pro-life" describes them well, while 70 percent of the country said the term "pro-choice" describes them well. Researchers said people think they're both. Those who are opposed to abortion think it is among the most critical issues for the country-those who support abortion don't think it's a critical issue.
Among weekly church attendees, the majority opposes abortion, while the majority of those who attend on a monthly or yearly basis support abortion. And here's another interesting data point: "Biblical literalism," as the researchers termed it, is an indicator of opposition to abortion.
"Situation-based versus rule-based morality is a great indicator [of support for abortion]," Jones said. That might explain why mainline Protestant denominations support abortion while white evangelicals oppose it. Of the religious groups the study examined (unaffiliated, mainline Protestant, evangelical, Catholic), white evangelicals were the only group that believes abortion should be illegal in most cases. A majority of black Protestants believe abortion should be legal.
The researchers asked detailed and unconventional questions. When they asked if individuals had seen any television shows about teenage pregnancy, most named two MTV shows, 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom. Those who had watched the two shows were more likely to support abortion.
One simple act that made people more likely to oppose abortion was seeing an ultrasound.