The numbers don’t look good for the movement that calls itself “pro-life.”
After years of stasis, the most recent surveys are noticing a shift that bodes ill for the future of the movement that exists to eliminate legal abortion in the United States:
In the survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, or PRRI, respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 were more likely to report that their views on abortion had changed in recent years — and when they moved, they tended to move in favor of abortion rights. Of those young people whose opinions had changed, 25 percent said they became more supportive of legalized abortion compared to 9 percent who became less supportive.
That poll was taken in March, and while it did not show a noticeable change in overall support for the notion that abortion should be “illegal in all or most cases” from where it’s been for the past decade (43 percent, compared to 54 percent saying it should be “legal in all or most cases”), it’s not hard to see that the millennial generation is growing as a percentage of the public. If they continue shifting leftward on abortion, the overall numbers will follow.
A separate PRRI poll of even younger Americans, age 15-24, finds an even stronger shift: the cohort opposes making abortions more difficult to obtain by a 72-28 margin – and even 43 percent of Republicans in this group oppose abortion restrictions.
The Christian pollster George Barna is seeing the same thing: “In fact, when we compared the views of Millennials to those who are 30 or older, there were consistent differences showing that the younger generation is comparatively less supportive of life and more supportive of abortion.”
According to Barna, Millennials are 9 percentage points less likely to describe themselves as “pro-life,” less likely to believe abortion should be illegal “in all or most” cases by 11 percentage points, and more likely to describe themselves as pro-choice by 5 percentage points. Indeed, a majority of Millennials describe themselves as pro-choice in Barna’s survey.
A slightly older survey by the Pew Research Center, taken last year, likewise found people ages 18-29 to be more supportive of abortion (65-33 percent) than other age cohorts. It seems probable that the strong support of Millennials for abortion is driving a subtle increase in support for abortion nationally – according to Pew, those believing abortion should be legal in all or most cases hit 57 percent in 2016 and 2017, the first time it reached that mark in more than 10 years.
Some analysts, including Barna and PRRI, have connected these shifts with the rise of the “nones,” the religiously unaffiliated, among younger generations. No doubt this plays a big role. I want to make a slightly different argument: The concurrent shift of younger Americans away from Christianity and away from the pro-life movement can best be explained by looking at what has been happening at the U.S.-Mexico border:
The Trump administration’s policy of splitting up families is creating a burgeoning population of dislocated and frightened children, held in makeshift detention centers near the border, including one in a former Walmart, or scattered in shelters and foster homes across the country. As the children and parents experience the fallout of forced separation by US authorities, advocates are struggling to get even basic information about the location and status of these detainees. …
More than 650 children were separated from their parents at the border in the first two weeks after the policy was officially adopted in early May, according to Senate testimony of Department of Homeland Security officials. A month later, hundreds of children continued to be separated from their parents each week. …
Aleman-Bendiks, the public defender, said several of her clients have told her their children were taken from them by Border Patrol agents who said they were going to give them a bath. As the hours passed, it dawned on the mothers the kids were not coming back.
The stories pouring from the border are incomprehensible – and should be abhorrent to anyone who claims to value the sanctity of life, especially the lives of children:
What I heard from the women today being held at the detention center was heartbreaking. … They spoke of fleeing threats of rape, gang violence and political persecution. They spoke of their children who have been killed by gangs and their fear of being raped. The mothers could not stop crying when they spoke about their children – young girls and boys who were taken from them with no chance to say goodbye and no plan for reunification. …
Over a third of the women were mothers who had been forcibly separated from their children, who range in age from 1-year-old to teenagers. The vast majority of the mothers have not spoken with their children in weeks and they have no idea where they are. Most have been held in detention for more than two weeks and many for over a month. …
The women talked of being held in Border Patrol facilities that they termed the ‘dog pound,’ because of inhumane fenced cages, and the ‘ice box,’ because temperatures are frigid and detainees are given no blankets or mats. They also spoke of lack of access to food and water, and said they suffered humiliation and verbal abuse from border agents who called them ‘filthy’ and ‘stinky,’ and told them that their ‘families would not exist anymore’ and that they would “never see their children again.’
The psychological damage to the children is incalculable:
We learned from the children that Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, had taken them from their mother at the border. The 7-year-old told us how she cried and begged to be with her mother — she was clearly still in shock.
We later learned that their mother had been detained, transferred between various detention facilities over the course of about two weeks, and then deported. The children were told their mother had committed a crime by bringing them to the United States, and were promptly transferred to a shelter.
A few months later, as these two children sat in KIND’s office telling their story, their emotions were still raw. They are currently living with a member of their family whom they are not close with; it hardly feels like home to them. They remembered every detail of the horrifying moment when immigration officials took their mother away. The 7-year-old kept saying over and over how she was having trouble going to school because she missed her so much. Only her mom knew how to do her hair just right each morning, she said. Her brother, a few years older, told us he had to take care of his little sister after their mom was taken away. They were terrified of never seeing her again.
What could we tell them? We didn’t know if or how they would see their mother again, either.
Just to be clear, as pointed out above: These are parents fleeing for their lives and seeking asylum in the United States because of unimaginable violence in their home countries – violence that is in large part due to decades of American destabilization of their countries as part of the Cold War.
And of course the most recent blow: a decision to no longer grant asylum to victims of domestic or gang violence:
On Monday, Sessions reversed an immigration court’s ruling that granted asylum to a woman from El Salvador who said her husband had repeatedly abused her physically, sexually and emotionally. Sessions wrote that “generally” claims on domestic and gang violence will no longer qualify for asylum.
These separations are an insult to the values of this country – and an insult to the teaching of Christ. Followers of Jesus ought to have nothing to do with them.
We follow a Savior who said that in the day of judgment, the nations would be sorted based on their treatment of the poor, the prisoner and the stranger.
“Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
“Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’” (Matt 25: 37-40, CEB)
For a long time, pro-life Christians have seen America’s acceptance of abortion as a violation of that Matthew 25 principle. The examples are easy to find online; the language of “the least of these” is often applied to unborn lives.
But something has broken the moral clarity of the pro-life movement. Namely, the ends have become so important that they now justify any means – even means that violate the very principles of the movement itself.
During the 2016 election, I issued a series Facebook pleas to my pro-life friends and family, imploring them not to vote for Donald Trump. The tactic of supporting whichever candidate pledges fealty to the pro-life movement not only had failed to prevent multiple Supreme Court reaffirmations of Roe v. Wade over the previous four decades, but it was producing a crisis of credibility as the Republican Party grew increasingly unconcerned with any Christian values beyond opposing abortion. Supporting Trump would be a catastrophic mistake for the pro-life movement, I felt.
You can see the increasingly desperate arguments below.
From September 13:
After 43 years of failure, it is perhaps time to try a new political tactic – such as holding accountable the party that pays lip service to the pro-life movement while enacting anti-life policies regarding children once they’ve left the womb.
From October 7:
I understand, religious conservatives: Abortion. But Donald Trump does not care about abortion. He is not pro-life. How can he be, when he holds the lives and dignity of women in such contempt? At what point will you stop selling your souls to this craven, narcissistic bully? At what point will you reject this anti-Christ? Will you let go of Donald Trump’s hollow promises before they sink your testimony as a follower of Jesus?
From October 23:
I’ll make this final statement to my pro-life friends. If you are voting for Trump, let’s all be clear that you are choosing to support a misogynist who is comfortable with courting white supremacy and demeaning and debasing the lives and dignity of hundreds of millions of people based solely on their skin color, religion or gender – and one who can’t even bring himself to say he wants to overturn Roe v. Wade. …
Donald Trump is discrediting the pro-life movement, and the pro-life movement, rather than discrediting Trump, is discrediting itself. It is a sad moment to see so many earnest and compassionate people lash themselves so firmly to a mendacious and cruel man.
Only one friend took the time to defend their choice, in response to my first post:
Do I agree with Trump on everything, lol? NOOO! Hillary and Trump both name call. Name calling and insults may get under people’s skin, but abortion burns and destroys not only the skin, but the entire body of a innocent child that God created and gave life to. I’ve never believed that all sins are equal as I don’t believe that’s what the Bible says. Clearly murder is worse than name calling in God’s book.
That last sentence is telling. Setting aside the problematic conflation of abortion with murder (if that were true, mothers obtaining abortions should be jailed and charged with murder, but hardly anyone in the pro-life movement supports this logical consequence of the rhetoric), the dismissal of racism and sexism – including as it turned out reveling in his own sexual assault of the women around him – as “name calling” is sadly typical of evangelical defenses of Trump since he became the Republican presidential nominee two years ago.
The language of “innocent children” pervades the pro-life movement. Yet those claiming to be “pro-life” have evinced little concern for the lives of children once they escape the threat of abortion, beyond an almost pro forma recitation of free-market Republican Party principles. Those claiming to support the dignity and sanctity of life spent little time during the 2016 campaign objecting to Donald Trump’s disregard of the dignity and sanctity of women’s lives and bodies. All of that could be swept away as “name calling,” something all politicians do.
But even now, as the Trump administration treats innocent children as pawns, forcing them through psychological trauma in order to discourage other parents from trying to save their own children’s lives, the pro-life movement has very little to say. (And, I should point out, to the extent the Obama administration also separated families at the border, which it did to a far lesser degree, progressives, myself included, should have been more forceful in denouncing those policies.)
The pro-life movement, like broader evangelical Christianity, continues to unreservedly embrace Donald Trump, the most anti-life president since Nixon was carpet-bombing Cambodia.
To what end has this movement prostituted itself? What will it ultimately purchase with its 30 pieces of silver? Almost certainly whatever it hopes to gain through Trump’s judicial appointments will prove to be ephemeral.
The future of the pro-life movement can be seen in the recent vote in Ireland, where that heavily Catholic country was not all that long ago strongly pro-life. Last month, nearly 67 percent of Irish voters overturned the country’s constitutional amendment banning abortion, mirroring the support the amendment had received in 1983.
The history of public polling on abortion in Ireland is instructive. As recently as 2007, polling showed majority support for restricting abortion in Ireland. But polling of younger citizens found majority support for legalizing it as far back as 2004. By 2014, a majority of all Irish citizens supported repealing the anti-abortion amendment.
The pattern has been seen in the United States on gay marriage and marijuana legalization: When the younger generation turns against these kinds of restrictions, their days are numbered.
That’s not to say the pro-life movement in America is doomed, or that we’re less than 10 years away from abortion on demand in all 50 states. It may even be the case that the movement achieves its 45-year goal of placing five anti-Roe votes on the Supreme Court if Anthony Kennedy retires while Trump is president and Republicans hold the Senate.
But what then? How will the pro-life movement maintain its tenuous grip on power when the youngest generations – so attuned to spotting and rejecting establishment hypocrisy – become the bulk of the electorate?
How will pro-life leaders convince Millennials and their successors to take seriously arguments about the dignity of life when they so blithely ignored the sexual predations of the president? When a pro-life Christian argues that Jesus calls young people to defend the unborn, how will they answer when they realize this Christian aided and abetted the dehumanization and destruction of immigrant families?
Perhaps pro-life Christians will have an answer when Jesus asks them where they were when he was locked in a cage, crying for his parents. Whatever that answer is, the rising generations who will determine the future of abortion policy in America are unlikely to find it satisfactory.