The Millennials, Religion and Abortion Survey , a new report out today from the Public Religion Research Institute, is one of the largest ever conducted on the relationship between people’s moral values and their views on abortion. The researchers surveyed more than 3,000 American adults of all generations, with a particular eye to explaining what the researchers call the “apparent paradox” of the Millennial Generation’s views on abortion-the rest of our views (on everything from religion to gender equality) should correlate with support for abortion rights, and yet we are still ambivalent. Although the study’s authors don’t come up with a single answer for the paradox, they do have some interesting new findings about the influences that shape opinion on abortion-one of the more surprising discoveries was that shows like MTV’s 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom , which depict young, usually unwed mothers, do sway Americans’ feelings about abortion.
In addition to asking their subjects the usual questions (religious affiliation, race, etc.) the researchers turned up four more novel factors that they say influenced people’s feelings about abortion: 1) Whether the person has a “situationalist” or “principle-based” approach to morality, 2) Whether they know someone who has had an abortion, 3) Whether they’ve watched TV shows like MTV’s 16 and Pregnant , and 4) Whether they’ve recently seen ultrasound images.
On the first point, the researchers divided people into two main categories: Those who believe that what is right or wrong depends on the situation, and those who believe that unbending principles dictate whether something is right or wrong. Most of the people in the first camp think abortion should be legal in most cases. A plurality of people in the second camp think it shouldn’t. On the second and third point, the study found that people who are friends with someone who’s had an abortion or who have watched a marathon session of Teen Mom are more supportive of abortion being legal in all or most cases. However, on the fourth question, people who have recently seen an ultrasound image are less supportive of abortion being legal in all or most cases.
Millennials are, according to the study, “significantly more likely” to be situationalists than other Americans-meaning they think right or wrong is determined not by unbending principles, but by the murky particulars of a given situation. The big irony here, though, is that Millennials are not very good at weighing other people’s circumstances. A 2010 study from the University of Michigan found declining empathy levels among college students over the past 30 years. These researchers found that Millennials were particularly unsympathetic to the misfortunes of others-they were 48 percent less so than the college students of the 70s-and were especially bad at imagining other people’s points of view. (Potential caveat: The PRRI researchers also asked questions about empathy, and found few differences between Millennials and other generations. But the Michigan study may be more credible on this issue: It did not rely on respondents to self-report empathy, as PRRI apparently did. The researchers instead asked questions that were meant to reveal indirectly whether the test-takers really were empathetic.)
If Millennials truly are bad at empathizing-if they have trouble making the intellectual leap required to put themselves in the shoes of a hypothetical stranger-then, barring personal experience with abortion, they won’t support abortion rights. And the other three factors the PRRI researchers identified as impacting views on abortion-“the friendship effect,” “the MTV effect,” and “the ultrasound effect”-could become especially important in shaping Millennials’ views on abortion.
And that’s where Teen Mom comes in. Once you frame the abortion issue in the context of a specific woman’s circumstances, whether she’s a personal acquaintance or someone on TV, PRRI found that opinion tends to favor abortion rights. Conversely, once you frame it in terms of a specific fetus’s circumstances-say, by recalling the ultrasound image of a friend’s growing fetus on her Facebook wall-opinion swings the other way.
For all the pro-choicers out there who are still complain that the fecund high schoolers of 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom glamorize teen pregnancy -you should stop complaining. The elevation of the stars these shows might help abortion remain legal for future generations.
Photograph of Kat from Teen Mom 2 © and TM MTV Networks