JANE EISNER Young people divided on abortion
Erik Whittington was a musician in Portland, Ore., about a dozen years ago, "living the rock and roll club lifestyle," in his words, when he had an epiphany on abortion.
At the time, he considered himself pro-choice, would have opted for abortion if a girlfriend became pregnant, and thought pro-lifers were kind of crazy.
That all changed when he stumbled on a "Life Chain," thousands of people calmly holding signs proclaiming that abortion kills children.
"It really broke my heart," Whittington recalls. "Seeing the signs made me realize that I knew the truth. Since then, I've run into numerous young people who have had a similar experience."
From his perspective now -- as a born-again Christian and director of Rock for Life -- Whittington thinks he represents a new generation of Americans more likely to see abortion as the taking of human life than as the preservation of individual liberty.
He and other pro-lifers are convinced that time is on their side, that young people today are far more inclined to outlaw abortion than their baby-boomer parents.
This demographic possibility has sent shock waves down what's left of the spine of the Democratic Party. As shrewd a politician as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton last week repositioned her party (and herself?) when she described abortion as a "sad, even tragic choice to many, many women" that should be minimized and even eliminated through education, responsibility, and birth control.
Far be it from me to disagree; for years, I've been an advocate of the search for common ground in the abortion wars. But compromise should not imply surrender, and a closer look at the attitudes of young people confirms that stance.
One-third of 18-to-24-year-olds say that abortion should be legal for any reason -- a much larger margin than in any other age group. That level of support has dropped from the levels of a decade ago (Erik Whittington's story is echoed among many formerly convinced pro-choice people), but still remains quite strong. Yet further investigation suggests this support ebbs and flows in ways that mirror overall public opinion.
A growing number of young people today say that their attitudes on abortion are linked to political and religious conservatism, but that conservatism, too, can be overstated; after all, the under-30 crowd was the only age demographic to vote heavily Democratic in the last presidential election.
What's clear is this: Young people talk about sex in a language different from that of their elders. Despite the proliferation of images, stories and discussion of casual sex in popular culture, those under 30 talk less about rights, freedom and liberation, and more about AIDS, STDs and responsibility.
That difference is reflected in attitudes about abortion. For nearly 30 years, the Higher Education Research Institute has asked incoming college freshmen whether abortion should be legal; 53.9 percent said yes in 2004, down from a peak of 67.2 percent in 1992. But those ups and downs are common, and mirror the prevailing attitudes in the White House: 53.7 percent when Ronald Reagan was elected, up during the Clinton years, down again during the current Bush years. (Interestingly, the abortion rate fell drastically during the Clinton administration, and rose in more states than it has fallen under George W. Bush.)
These developments should be reflected in the political conversation, an imperative slowly dawning on some Democrats.
"The 1960s rights-based language isn't going to work," says Anna Greenberg, a respected Democratic pollster. "We need to talk about responsible decision-making, and the benefits of prevention."
And responsible family planning. I'm convinced that some of the attitudinal shift on abortion is shaped by the fact that, in many communities, it is no longer shameful to have a child out of wedlock.
Truth is, young people -- like their older counterparts -- are all over the map on whether abortion should be legal none of the time, all of the time, or in various circumstances. Rather than catering only to the vocal extremes, both political parties ought to talk to those grappling with competing moral values in the middle, especially when that includes the young people who hold the political future in their hands.
X Jane R. Eisner is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.