Youth Attitudes on Abortion Encourage Pro-Life Groups

By Robert B. Bluey | July 7, 2008 | 8:04 PM EDT

( - Last week in Mississippi, the American Family Association rushed to the aid of a 16-year-old girl who pleaded for help when her parents told her she had to abort her child. A court intervened and temporarily blocked the abortion, but the episode represented an example of the rift between parents and their children on this contentious issue.

America's youth today are more inclined to be pro-life than their parents, according to a survey of college freshmen conducted this past fall by the University of California at Los Angeles. Last year, Zogby International released a poll that showed most young adults oppose abortion.

Stephen M. Crampton, an American Family Association attorney who represented the 16-year-old Mississippi girl, said he doesn't need statistics to see the change in attitudes. He said high school and college students recognize the value of life more than their parents.

"These kids are now 30 years post-Roe where the objective truth and devastating effects of abortion can be seen," Crampton said. "These kids are survivors of a holocaust. They've seen the effects on parents and friends who have undergone this procedure, and they know it's not just like going to give blood. They know there's a terrible price to pay."

The survey of college freshmen is a barometer used to weigh feelings on a host of hotbed issues. Attitudes about homosexuality, for instance, have seen a dramatic shift since the late 1980s. Then, about 50 percent said laws were needed to prohibit homosexual relations. The number dropped to 25 percent in 2002.

Prior to the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, nearly 86 percent of the students said abortion should be legalized. Many who were college freshmen in 1970 now have their own children attending college. In 2002, a little more than 53 percent said abortion should be legal.

The 53.6 percent of students who wanted to keep abortion legal in 2002 make up the second smallest percentage since the question was first asked 33 years ago. It was slightly lower in 1999. But the trend actually began in 1997, following strong support for abortion from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s.

One abortion supporter doesn't consider the survey an accurate assessment of the current climate of youth. Marjorie Signer, spokeswoman for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, said it would be more appropriate to ask whether the government should have a role in abortion instead of whether it should be legal.

Regardless of the poll's numbers, Signer said attitudes are already beginning to shift, thanks in part to the Bush administration's support of more restrictive abortion laws, as well as similar efforts in states across the country.

"There's a big change in attitude that we perceive will be coming up as the government becomes more and more repressive in terms of people making their own decisions about things," she said. "As young people begin to understand that, there's going to be a backlash."

Signer also said this generation of young people never had to experience a climate where abortions were illegal, which many of their parents saw firsthand. Few of them have heard the stories about what it was like for teenagers trying to have abortions, she said.

Pro-life advocates dismissed that idea as irrelevant. Sara McKalips, assistant director of Rock for Life, a group that spreads a pro-life message among teens, said this generation has a completely different perception.

"They don't see abortion as just a women's rights issue, they also see it now as a human rights issue," McKalips said. "They see that there is a baby inside the womb, there is a human person there, and they're increasingly becoming more pro-life."

While it is impossible to predict what will happen in the future - if, like Signer suggested, there will be a backlash in coming years - the trend is viewed as significant and encouraging for the pro-life movement.

A rally in Washington, D.C., on the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade drew thousands of young people, for instance. McKalips said other events are planned, such as a nationwide pro-life T-shirt day on April 28 and a tour of summer concerts this year.

Others who have studied the issue agreed that the poll numbers weren't nearly as important as they might suggest. Janice Crouse, executive director and senior fellow at Concerned Women for America's Beverly LaHaye Institute, still expressed optimism about the apparent trend.

"Those numbers are really very impressive, but I think it comes down to a matter of the heart," she said. "I think their parents saw abortion more in terms of an issue, and [young people are] seeing it more as a matter of conscience and real-life experience. It's not a theoretical thing because they have seen very personally the impact of abortion."

Signer couldn't disagree more with that hypothesis. She said the pro-life movement has been effective in a propaganda campaign targeted at youngsters. To counter that effect, her group created Spiritual Youth for Reproductive Freedom.

Societal changes have also had a major impact on the attitudes of youth, Signer said. Abortion supporters are no longer fighting to legalize the practice, she said, adding that things like comprehensive sex education have helped educate teenagers about sex and pregnancy.

As this generation ages, she said it will become more educated about abortion rather than less conservative, as some pro-life advocates suggest.

"As people grow up, their feelings change," Signer said. "Life is the greatest teacher of all, and sometimes, young people just haven't had enough experience."

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