An important factor in abortion policy: age

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Washington is old. That’s literally true (at least in the American context): the city is celebrating its 232nd birthday this year. But it is also true in the metaphorical sense of “Washington, the seat of American power”. President Biden is 79, the average age in the House is 58, the average age in the Senate is 64, and members of the Supreme Court land at an average age of 61. If someone tells you that 61 is not old, it is because they have already turned 61 or will soon be 61.

It’s worth considering at the moment, given what the court seems to be about to do. At some point over the next few months, a majority of the court’s justices are expected to vote to overturn Roe vs. Wade and, with this decision, allow states to prohibit the practice of abortion. This is an unusual decision in that its effects are disproportionately weighted by age: women in the age range where pregnancy is possible are more directly (but certainly not exclusively) affected than young men. of the same age group or other older Americans. .

It is, in other words, an older generation telling a younger generation what it can do. It’s a tension that’s becoming increasingly familiar as the number of millennials reaches and surpasses the number of baby boomers in the population — but it’s a tension that, on this occasion, has very immediate personal repercussions. and important.

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Based on physiology alone, we wouldn’t be surprised to see a division on opinions of abortion by age. And we do. A poll released this week by The Washington Post and our partners at ABC News matches a Pew Research Center poll released Friday: Younger Americans are more likely to say abortion should be legal in most or all cases .

In the post-ABC poll, those under 40 were 10 points more likely than those 65 and older to say abortion should always be legal. At Pew’s, the youngest segment of this group, those under 30, were 16 points more likely to hold that position than those 65 and older. The Pew data also shows that younger Americans are much less likely than older people to say abortion should be illegal, which is not reflected in the same way in the Post-ABC poll.

It’s not just about the possibility of getting pregnant, of course. These views are confounded with partisanship: Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to say abortion should be globally legal, and younger people are much more likely to be Democrats than Republicans.

Using data from the biannual General Social Survey (GSS), we can track views by generation over time. (Here we use Pew’s generational boundaries.) This is informative because it allows us to see how age groups have changed over time – were baby boomers more abortion-friendly when they were younger ? — and to compare the generations at the same time.

Here are the results of the GSS for two questions, one on the maintenance of the legality of abortion in case of risk to the woman’s health and the other on the maintenance of its legality whatever the reason.

First note that Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials have all seen growing support for keeping abortion legal for any reason over the past two decades. For millennials, the increase is brutal. Among baby boomers and Gen Xers, however, there has also been a drop in the percentage saying they want to keep abortions legal in case the woman’s health is at risk. That’s partly because those generational groups are more likely to be Republicans, and Republican support for that position has declined.

The thin dotted lines show views of Baby Boomers and Gen Xers when they were as old as Millennials are today. On the issue of abortion in case of health risk, there is not much difference. On the issue of the availability of abortion, for whatever reason, millennials are much more supportive now than previous generations were at the same age. In other words, it’s a change of opinion over time, not just age.

Consider what this means in the long run. Older conservative policymakers are acting against a view shared by most young Americans. After the 2012 election, the Republican Party explored a strategy of trying to appeal to the more diverse group of young Americans who had voted twice for Barack Obama. Then Donald Trump came along and showed a path to power by mobilizing older white Americans. But the question remains open of how long this will last or whether the party can both continue to appeal to this group and expand its reach to other voters. If the goal is to attract young voters with an eye to the future, this move seems unlikely to help.

Both the left and the right will defend their position on moral, not political grounds. But the political pattern is familiar: an old cemented power demanding that young Americans accede to their will.


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