As thousands of protestors from both sides of the abortion debate gathered last month outside of the Supreme Court to await its historic Dobbs decision, it was hard to miss the ubiquitous signs carried by younger abortion opponents that read “I am the pro-life generation.”
The reality, however, is that younger Americans are far more likely to support abortion rights than not — and are increasingly more likely to do so than older Americans.
My organization, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), finds that younger Americans are trending more in support of abortion legality than older Americans. That younger Americans would break from older generations on abortion attitudes was not necessarily a forgone conclusion. Historically, age has not had a significant impact on attitudes about abortion’s legality. Indeed, as recently as about a decade ago, we found that Millennials aged 18 to 29 were no more supportive of abortion rights than older Americans.
Yet in the past few years, younger Americans have become more supportive of abortion legality, creating a gap between their views and those of older Americans. This past March, we found that 72 percent of Americans aged 18-29, which combines Generation Z with the youngest Millennials, believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared with 64 percent of all Americans 30 and over.
Generation Z also differs from previous generations when it comes to the impact of gender on abortion attitudes. While there has long been a gender gap on a wide variety of issues in American public opinion, women and men have largely held similar views about abortion. Instead, differences in abortion attitudes are far more likely to be driven by partisanship and religion.
But our recent polls on abortion attitudes, particularly those undertaken as state legislatures have passed increasingly restrictive laws on abortion in the past few years, show that young women are becoming distinct from their male counterparts when it comes to abortion views. Indeed, our most recent poll — in the field right after the Supreme Court overturned the Roe precedent that guaranteed a woman’s right to abortion nationally — shows that 71 percent of Gen Z women, those born after 1996, think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared with 59 percent of Gen Z men. We also find that Gen Z women are more likely than another group — 46 percent — to believe that abortion should be legal in all cases, compared with just 24 percent of Gen Z men; nationally, only one-third of Americans support abortion legality in all cases.
As abortion regulation now turns to the states in wake of Roe’s reversal, PRRI also finds that young women differ from young men in their attitudes about several restrictive policies now under consideration by some Republican party activists. While we find that most Americans oppose restrictions on what types of birth control can be used to prevent pregnancy or banning the use of FDA-approved abortion pills, Gen Z women are the most likely to express strong opposition to such measures — and much more likely to do so than young men. For instance, almost two-thirds of Gen Z women strongly oppose restrictions on forms of birth control compared with 50 percent of Gen Z men. Similarly, 52 percent of Gen Z women strongly oppose making abortion drugs illegal, compared with 43 percent of Gen Z men.
And, in a sign of how abortion access may become a critical issue in this fall’s elections, we find that Gen Z women stand out again in terms of whether abortion will shape their vote decision. Nationally, more Americans now say that they will only vote for a candidate that shares their position on abortion after Dobbs than before the last presidential election. While a gender gap has emerged nationally on this issue — 36 percent of women compared with 28 percent of men now say that their vote depends on a candidate’s stand on abortion — we find that 44 percent of Gen Z women adopt this voting stance, compared with just 28 percent of Gen Z men.
As severe restrictions and outright bans on abortion access and comprehensive reproductive care are no longer hypothetical in many states, we are seeing in real time a greater acceptance of abortion rights among America’s youngest voters, particularly Gen Z women. If state legislatures seek to make reproductive care even more heavily restricted and punitive, or if a greater number of national Republican leaders seek to impose a national ban on abortion, we may see that younger Americans will match or exceed their relatively high levels of voter turnout in this fall’s midterm elections — particularly Gen Z women.
Melissa Deckman, Ph.D., is CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute and the former Louis L. Goldstein professor of Public Affairs at Washington College. She is working on a book about the seismic impact that Gen Z women will have on the future of American politics.