Americans, regardless of generation, are deeply conflicted as they wrestle with the legality and morality of abortion, with large numbers identifying themselves as both "pro-choice" and "pro-life," according to a sweeping new survey.
While 56 percent say abortion should be legal in most or all cases, 52 percent say abortion is morally wrong.
The detailed and nuanced findings were released Thursday by the Public Religion Research Institute, based on a survey of 3,000 adults — one of the largest ever to focus on Americans' views of abortion.
"At the end of the day, Americans are committed to the availability of abortion, and conflicted about its morality," said the institute's CEO, Robert Jones. "I would call it a stable tension."
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The survey devoted particular attention to the views of young adults. It noted that 18- to 29-year-olds are far more likely than their elders to support same-sex marriage, but found there is no comparable generation gap regarding abortion.
Jones said both sides of the abortion debate were likely to find a mix of encouraging and discouraging findings in the new survey.
That is true in Kansas, where lawmakers passed several measures restricting abortion this spring.
Kari Ann Rinker, state coordinator for the National Organization for Women, said the results showing that a majority think abortion should be legal call the motives of Kansas' lawmakers into question.
"Are you really pushing forward the will of the people, or are you using this issue to advance your political career?" Rinker said.
Cheryl Sullinger, senior policy adviser for the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, said the poll doesn't reflect what her organization is seeing. The explosion of anti-abortion measures in Kansas and around the country this year show that a greater number of Americans want to see abortion outlawed than in the past, she said.
She also sees anti-abortion sentiment growing among young adults.
"Pro-life college groups are booming. Pro-choice college groups, they can't even get a couple of people to attend them," Sullinger said.
That most Americans also have moral qualms about abortion isn't surprising, said NOW's Rinker.
"It indicates the personal nature of it, that one doesn't know what they'd do if they were in that circumstance," Rinker said.
"Once many people find themselves in that personalized situation, their views can totally reverse."
Sullinger said poll results showing a conflict between the legality and morality of the issue may mean that people have a live-and-let-live attitude.
"Most people may think it's morally wrong, but they don't want to tell other people what to do," she said.
"But I think all that's going to change. The pendulum swings on issues like this all the time."
Abortion views stable
In addition to its new findings, the survey tracked other polls over the past 12 years to highlight a sharp discrepancy in attitudes toward the two most prominent hot-button issues of the culture wars.
Views on abortion have been stable, with 56 percent of Americans telling Gallup pollsters this year that it should be legal in most or all cases compared to 57 percent who said that in 1999. In contrast, support for same-sex marriage has surged — from 35 percent in 1999 to 53 percent in 2011, according to Pew Research Center polls.
A key factor in that discrepancy relates to attitudes of the so-called millennials between the ages of 18 and 29.
"Millennials strongly support gender equality and rights for gay and lesbian people," a summary of survey results said. "However ... younger Americans are no more supportive of abortion rights than the general population."
For example, 57 percent of millennials favor same-sex marriage, compared to 32 percent of baby boomers aged 50 to 64. Yet when asked about abortion, support for legal abortions was virtually the same — 60 percent among millennials, 59 percent among boomers.
Ambivalence was reflected in other responses from millennials: 68 percent said legal abortions should be available from health professionals in their community, while only 46 percent said having an abortion is morally acceptable.
The Public Religion Research Institute, which conducted the survey with funding from the Ford Foundation, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that studies the intersection of religion and public life.
One notable finding pertains to the labels "pro-choice" and "pro-life" — which are widely used by rival advocacy groups and are presented as either/or choices in most polls.
In the new survey, 70 percent of respondents said the term "pro-choice" describes them somewhat or very well, and nearly two-thirds similarly embraced the term "pro-life." In all, 37 percent said they had a mixed identity — either embracing or rejecting both labels equally. Only 12 percent identified as "strongly pro-life" and 13 percent as "strongly pro-choice."
Nineteen percent said abortion should be legal in all cases and 37 percent said it should be legal in most cases. Fourteen percent said it should be illegal in all cases; 26 percent said it should be illegal in most cases.
With the exception of white evangelical Protestants, majorities of major religious groups — including Roman Catholics — favor legalized abortion, according to the survey. Only 29 percent of white evangelicals said abortion should be legal in most or all cases.
The findings reflect a "decoupling" of the debates over abortion and same-sex marriage, according to Jones, who predicted the two issues "will increasingly go forward on their own tracks."
He noted that focus groups of millennials convened as part of the survey tended to depict same-sex marriage — but not abortion — in positive terms.
"Abortion is just a different kind of issue, even for those who support it," Jones said. "It's not the kind of issue that one celebrates."
Thomas Witt, state chairman of the Kansas Equality Coalition, said he's encouraged that the poll shows an increase in support for mixed marriages among young adults, but added polling numbers don't translate well to the realm of politics.
"Our own polling in Kansas shows widespread support for employment non-discrimination, but we can't get an up or down vote in the Kansas Legislature that would grant employment non-discrimination for gays and lesbians," Witt said.
The poll gives reason for hope, he said, "but it's not anything I would count on."
The findings mesh with recent commentary by some conservative leaders, who feel they can compete vigorously for the backing of young people on abortion issues but acknowledge setbacks in opposing same-sex marriage.
"We're losing on that one, especially among the 20- and 30-somethings," said Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, in a recent interview with World Magazine. "I don't know if that's going to change with a little more age — demographers would say probably not."