The trends aren’t dramatic, but they are noteworthy nonetheless. Americans are gradually becoming more pro-life. In 2012 Gallup polling found that the percentage of Americans who self-identified as pro-choice was at an all-time low (41 percent), while fully half regarded themselves as pro-life.
Perhaps most remarkable of all, young adults in their twenties and early thirties show surprising sympathy for the pro-life position. This is somewhat unexpected, given that their views are not in general conservative. Most don’t go to church, and they favor same-sex marriage and progressive taxation by substantial margins. Their ideas about sexual morality are markedly non-traditional. Despite all of that, their attitudes towards abortion are if anything less permissive than those of preceding generations.
How do we explain this strange decoupling of views? Is the transgressive thrill of the post-Roe era wearing off? Have medical advances (such as ultrasound) instilled a greater respect for embryonic and fetal life? Or perhaps pro-life campaigns are just working?
A new study suggests that the answer may partly lie in differential fertility patterns. Pro-life people are having more children than their pro-choice compatriots. By raising their kids to share their pro-life views, they may be tilting the country in a pro-life direction.
Northwestern sociologists J. Alex Kevern and Jeremy Freese examined the issue using data obtained through the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey (GSS). Since 1977 the GSS has been asking Americans about their attitudes towards abortion. Using this data, the team found that supporters of abortion on demand had, on average, fewer than two kids for every 2.5 born to parents who favored legal restrictions on abortion. Compared to other measures of public opinion (on gay rights, capital punishment, school prayer and so forth), abortion attitudes were a particularly strong predictor of family size. Over the thirty-four years covered by the GSS, pro-life people have on average had 27 percent more children than pro-choice people.
So, pro-life people have more kids. But that in itself won’t move the country in a pro-life direction, because children may not adopt their parents’ views. The GSS doesn’t supply data on parental attitudes, so it can’t measure their impact directly. However, it does ask respondents how many siblings they have. Using that data, Kevern and Freese examined the relationship between natal family size and abortion attitudes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people from larger families are more likely to be pro-life. We already know of course that larger families point to pro-life parents. What this data probably shows, then, is that parents are successfully persuading their offspring to share their views on abortion.
Factoring out the differentials in fertility, the sociologists estimated that without them, the American public would be more pro-choice by about 5 percent. That doesn’t fully account for the actual shift in attitudes. But it does suggest that fertility differentials have a real impact on public opinion.
One thing we should learn from the abortion issue is that there is nothing inevitable about our society’s growing progressivism. Trends can change. In the immediate aftermath of Roe, progressives mostly assumed that they had won that debate and that public opinion would follow in due course. That did not happen. The rejection of traditional morals is not simply written into our stars.
For the pro-life activist, this study may offer both hope and discouragement. On the one hand, pro-life people do seem to have bolstered their position by having larger families, and by faithfully teaching their children. That fertility differential still exists (and if anything seems to be widening), and it may bode well for the future. Perhaps over the long run, liberal progressivism will sterilize itself into irrelevance.
On the other hand, Kevern and Freese’s findings indicate that the pro-life movement’s success in changing minds (as opposed to making new ones) may be more limited than some had hoped. As our culture grapples with pressing moral questions, it’s a bit deflating to reflect that our strengths may lie in the long game of childrearing, and not in quicker, less onerous avenues of persuasion.
Applying these lessons to other issues (such as marriage) is even more challenging, but it’s still a worthwhile topic for reflection. The marriage movement is reeling right now after significant losses on both legal and cultural fronts. From the present vantage point, the larger trajectory of that cultural issue can be difficult to see. Are we in a post-Griswold moment, or is it more post-Roe? Once the left’s cultural energy for a particular issue is spent (and ironically, sudden victory can be devastating to social movements), the trend-lines can start to change. That’s the point at which a fertility advantage can really count.
This much at least should be clear. If you want to win the culture wars, have children. And teach them well.
Rachel Lu teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas.
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