The rising generation of Americans ages 18 to 29 are more likely than their elders to support gay marriage, but believe more or less as the country at large does about abortion, according to a major new survey of attitudes on social issues released Thursday.
The survey, produced by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), used 3,000 phone interviews and a number of focus groups to produce data on the "millennial" generation's views on major social and moral matters.
"We wanted to cast some light on where exactly millennials are on these issues," said Robert Jones, the founder and CEO of PRRI, in discussing the study during a forum at the Brookings Institution.
According to the PRRI survey, 57 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds favor same-sex marriage — the only age cohort in which gay marriage has majority support. Another 19 percent of millennials support letting gays form civil unions. By contrast, gay marriage is favored by 42 percent of people ages 30 to 49, 32 percent of those ages 50 to 64, and 26 percent of seniors 65 and older.
Abortion, while currently overshadowed by high unemployment and other economic issues, remains a hot-button issue for many Americans, nearly four decades after the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision allowing it.
Four states have recently passed legislation requiring women to view a sonogram before having an abortion, and many states are fighting to defund Planned Parenthood, whose clinics account for about 27 percent of U.S. abortions.
Some 60 percent of millennials interviewed said they thought abortion should be legal in most or all cases, almost exactly the same share as the rest of country younger than 65. Only among people 65 and older was there a significant difference, with just 43 percent thinking abortion should be generally legal.
Similar findings — major generational gaps on homosexuality, less so on abortion — came up when the question were phrased not in legal terms but about the morality of abortion and gay sex.
Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, said the data found in this and most abortion studies are "profoundly contradictory." She said that although a majority of people will state abortion is murder, a majority also think it should be legal in some or all cases.
"They are at the same time pro-life and pro-choice ... they respect the sanctity of life and the value of choice," Mrs. Bowman said.
The study highlights this by stating two-thirds of Americans surveyed claimed they were both pro-life and pro-choice.
Melissa Deckman, an associate professor of political science at Washington College, said the pro-life arguments appeared to be winning the political battle, noting that pro-lifers are three times more likely than pro-choice supporters to say that abortion was a critical issue for them.
"They're highly motivated. They recruit candidates and become legally and politically savvy. They help promote legislation," Ms. Deckman said.
She also stated the pro-choice movement seems to be on the defensive, and that this would result in access to the procedure slowly disappearing.
Mrs. Bowman said most people remain ambivalent on the issue of abortion.
"The views of those [radical] groups do not represent the views of most people," Mrs. Bowman said. "The media pays attention to them because the media loves conflict."
However, she said abortion was not a front-burner issue because of the weak economy. Ms. Deckman agreed, adding that she did not foresee it being a substantial issue in the 2012 elections.
The 40-page study detailed everything from religion's effect on millennials' abortion views to whether the popular MTV show "Teen Mom" has any correlation to a person's views on abortion (it does — watchers of the show are more likely to support the legality of abortion).
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