The Post-Roe Generation: Assessing Gen Z’s Abortion Attitudes as the Supreme Court Appears Poised to Overturn Roe
As cohort comes of age, their stance could shape the political landscape.
WASHINGTON — An age gap seems to be emerging when it comes to support for abortion, according to recent polling with Gen Z, those born in 1997 onward — showing more support for abortion than previous generations.
In response, pro-life advocates have embraced discussion on various social-media platforms to inform young people about the realities of abortion.
According to Pew, 74% of 18- to 29-year-olds say abortion should be legal, with 44% saying it should be legal with some exceptions and 30% who say it should be legal in all cases. Among those ages 30 to 49, there is a notable difference, with 42% saying abortion should be legal with some exceptions and 20% saying it should be legal in all cases.
Daniel Cox, a research fellow for polling and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute, noted at FiveThirtyEight.com that the University of Chicago’s “General Social Survey,” which monitors trends in U.S. society, found “on the question of whether someone should be able to get an abortion for any reason, 64% of 18- to 29-year-olds agreed in 2021, a 20-percentage point increase from a decade earlier.”
Cox told the Register that this shift in abortion attitudes from Gen Z is significant because “the early millennials were really less likely than the public overall to say that abortion should be available generally, and so what’s happening is that now we have Gen Z coming into adulthood — the oldest are now 25, 26 years old — their views on abortion are actually starkly different than the millennial generation.” As a result, “we’re really seeing something we haven’t seen before on this issue.”
He said that there could be many reasons for the increase in support for abortion among young people, but it may be tied to the pending Dobbs v. Jackson Supreme Court case that is likely to overturn Roe v. Wade and the perception that abortion could be banned. He added that it was a complex issue, as “a lot of people who say abortion should be legal may be somewhat uncomfortable with it. They want it available; they might not be celebrating it in the same way that you see on other issues.”
Cox referenced focus groups he and his colleagues ran among young adults a decade ago, saying that “the actions and feelings around same-sex marriage and abortion were distinctly different,” with less enthusiastic support expressed for abortion compared to same-sex marriage.
“I think that is reflective of some of the ambivalence that people feel throughout the issue,” he said, “but as it becomes more restricted, I think you’re going to see a shift, particularly among young people, particularly young women on this question.”
The Least Religious Generation
Another possible factor in Gen Z’s attitude toward abortion is that fewer of them see it as a religious or moral issue. According to March Pew polling, just 32% of 18- to 29-year-olds said abortion was morally wrong in all or most cases, compared with 47% of 30- to 49-year-olds and 53% of Americans age 50 or older. Cox highlighted those numbers as well as the huge rise in young people “not being affiliated with any religion.”
“Is that driving their attitudes or are political dynamics sort of moving them away from religion?” he said. “We know it kind of goes in both directions. At one time, it was generally assumed that politics was downstream through religion, but now we know that in many instances our religion, behavior, beliefs and attachment are influenced by politics.”
The American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life, which Cox directs, recently found that “in terms of identity, Generation Z is the least religious generation yet. More than one-third (34%) of Generation Z are religiously unaffiliated, a significantly larger proportion than among millennials (29%) and Generation X (25%). Fewer than one in five (18%) baby boomers and only 9% of the silent generation are religiously unaffiliated.”
Cox said that given the likelihood that Roe will be overturned, Gen Z may become more mobilized in response. He did note that abortion has not historically ranked highly as a top issue for voters, and “it’s animated people who oppose abortion more so than it’s animated people who support abortion rights,” but if Roe is overturned it would make the issue “much more salient than it has been in the past.”
Michael New, associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute and visiting professor at The Catholic University of America, told the Register that in addition to Gen Z being less religious, the numbers could be due in part to a shift in political messaging.
“Political leaders of the Democratic Party in the 1990s and early 2000s seemed somewhat defensive when talking about abortion and did not make strong arguments in favor of legal abortion. President Clinton said that abortion should be ‘rare,’” said New, who has a Ph.D. in political science and a master’s degree in statistics from Stanford University. “President Obama even talked about ways of reducing abortion numbers. However, today’s Democratic Party leaders are more outspoken in their support for legal abortion. I think that this is affecting the way some young people perceive the issue.”
New did point out that “this is not the first time that polls have shown a ‘generation gap’ in terms of abortion attitudes. During the 1970s and 1980s, nearly every poll showed that young adults were far more sympathetic to legal abortion than older-age demographics. This worried some pro-life political strategists. They thought that the older pro-life generation would die out and be replaced by a younger generation that was far more sympathetic to legal abortion — weakening the political power of the pro-life movement. However, that did not happen. Many people became more pro-life as they became older.”
Anna Lulis, a digital engagement strategist with Students for Life and a member of Gen Z, has an optimistic view of the outlook for Gen Z’s abortion stance. She told the Register that the Demetree Institute for Pro-Life Advancement at Students for Life of America found that the majority of millennials and Gen Z “don’t support Roe v. Wade once they find out the implications of what Roe v. Wade actually does, which is legalize abortion throughout all nine months of pregnancy.”
The Demetree Institute, through Vinea Research, ran a 10-minute online survey from Jan. 5-11 that included 900 respondents between the ages of 18 and 34, with weighting to match national census data and a margin of error of 3.5%.
In response to an initial question asking about their support of Roe v. Wade, 60% expressed support, and 40% expressed opposition. However, in response to a follow-up question that asked if they still supported Roe after learning “it allows for abortions to be performed in all nine (9) months of pregnancy, up until the moment of birth,” the number of those supporting decreased to 42%, with 58% expressing opposition.
Another portion of the poll asked, “At what point do you consider a human fetus to be a person with a right to live?” The results: 24% responded “when their heart begins to beat,” but 32% of those surveyed admitted in a separate question they “didn’t know” the answer to the question of when the fetal heart starts beating, and 15% incorrectly believed it began beating after 13 weeks of pregnancy rather than around week 5 of pregnancy.
Lulis said the polling really highlighted that “education was key, and as we kept informing them about certain things about human development, they tended to support limits.” She said social media was an effective way to tailor the pro-life message to different demographics, as, generally, the social-media app Tik Tok is geared “towards a younger audience, Instagram gears towards college-age students to young professionals and then Facebook tends to have an older demographic, so we do try to message differently on these various platforms to see what is the most effective.”
Lulis said “one big factor was millennials and Gen Z are really big on emotional appeal. So, how are we able to push the pro-life message, but in a way that it can be emotionally impactful?” She said that inspiring stories of women who have made it through crisis pregnancies in college push back “against the narrative that women need abortion in order to succeed.”
Christina Bennett, a correspondent for Live Action and member of the National Black Pro-Life Coalition, told the Register that Gen Z is increasingly inspired and motivated by social media, getting news and information from apps like Tik Tok. She added that they’re also “very politically active,” as people have “become more emboldened in their beliefs through social media.”
She cautioned that when it comes to polling data, “when people are answering questions about abortion, they’re answering them with the limited knowledge that they have, so if they are a Gen Z person and all they’ve ever really heard is that abortion is reproductive justice or reproductive freedom or liberation or women’s rights and then you ask them a question, that’s their framework.”
Bennett said this was true in her own life, noting that “if somebody asked me when I was a teenager or even in my 20s, I had never heard abortion talked about at home. I never heard it talked about at church. I’d only heard it talked about at school, and that was from the perspective of it just being a woman’s right to choose and for women’s health.” She added her view on that “changed drastically for me when I first found out that I was scheduled to be aborted: My mom walked out. That was the first eye-opening experience.”
When it comes to educating Gen Z about abortion, she referenced Live Action’s abortion-procedures videos with hundreds of thousands of views on Instagram, featuring former abortion doctors explaining first- and second-trimester abortion procedures and medical abortion. The videos depict what happens to the unborn child in these procedures.
Bennett is hopeful that if Roe is overturned, it will “generate so much conversation that it can cause hearts and minds to change even in states where the laws haven’t changed.”
Engaging With Peers
Ethan Potter, a rising sophomore at Franciscan University of Steubenville who led a Students for Life group at his public high school and runs “The Catholic Warrior” account on Instagram, told the Register that he believes the pro-life movement’s work on social media is “really reaching young people,” particularly when it comes to educational videos about what abortion looks like and the impact it can have.
Potter said that in his experience leading the Students for Life chapter, he welcomed debate from fellow students who disagreed and “went through these discussions with them, and eventually they just came to the point where they agreed; they didn’t have anything else to say. I think it gives a lot of people food for thought.”
He said he hopes that pro-lifers engaging peers with opposing views in discussions lay “the foundation for one day when Gen Z is to grow up, get older … might start to think about those things.” He also said that posting educational videos on abortion helps to show people “what abortion is and what abortion does.”
He said that if Roe is overturned, he expects there will be angry reactions, particularly from Gen Z, as many are “lost” on the issue of abortion and badly informed. To address this, “we will just have to show that we truly are pro-life. We’ll have to continue our pregnancy centers. We have to continue our outreach to young mothers, to mothers who are looking for answers. We’ll have to continue the diaper drives, the funding and all the resources.”
Potter quoted Pope St. John Paul II’s famous exhortation — “Do not be afraid” — saying that “the Church has existed for 2,000 years, and it has held the same stance: Abortion is wrong.” And if Roe is overturned, he said, the pro-life movement can successfully engage his generation if they “stand firm with charity and don’t back down.”