Surprise Mom, I’m Against Abortion
For her high school class in persuasive speech, Afton Dahl, 16, chose to present an argument that abortion should be illegal. She graphically described the details of various abortion techniques, including facts about fetal heart development.
“The baby’s heartbeat starts at around 12 to 18 days, so it’s murder to kill someone with a heartbeat,” Miss Dahl said recently, recalling the argument she used in class in January. “I don’t believe in abortion under any circumstances, including rape. I think it would be better to overturn Roe v. Wade.”
Miss Dahl, a sophomore, attends Red Wing High School in Red Wing, Minn., a small city that is the home of Red Wing shoes and a town where a majority voted for Al Gore for president. Her abortion views are not something she learned from her parents: her mother, Fran Dahl, 47, maintains that abortion should be a woman’s choice.
“Nowadays kids don’t grow up knowing or being aware of what was going on when abortion was illegal,” said Ms. Dahl, a former nurse. “It’s not a choice that I would have taken personally, but for the future of women I want to see the right to an abortion maintained.”
This contrast between mother and teenage daughter illustrates a trend noted in polls: that teenagers and college-age Americans are more conservative about abortion rights than their counterparts of a generation ago. Many people who are old enough to have teenage children and who equate youth with liberal opinions on topics like gay rights have been surprised at this discovery. Miss Dahl was one of numerous students in her class who chose to make speeches about abortion, and most took the anti-abortion side. “I was shocked that there were that many students who felt strong enough and confident enough to speak about being pro-life,” said Nina Verin, a parent of another student in the class (whose oral argument was about war in Iraq). “The people I associate with in town are pro-choice, so I’m troubled — where do these kids come from?”
A study of American college freshmen shows that support for abortion rights has been dropping since the early 1990’s: 54 percent of 282,549 students polled at 437 schools last fall by the University of California at Los Angeles agreed that abortion should be legal. The figure was down from 67 percent a decade earlier. A New York Times/CBS News poll in January found that among people 18 to 29, the share who agree that abortion should be generally available to those who want it was 39 percent, down from 48 percent in 1993.
“Abortion isn’t a rights issue — it’s become for increasing numbers of young people a moral, ethical issue,” said Henry Brady, a professor of political science and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley who has taken surveys in this area. “They haven’t faced a situation where they couldn’t get an abortion.”
Experts offer a number of reasons why young people today seem to favor stricter abortion laws than their parents did at the same age. They include the decline in teenage pregnancy over the last 10 years, which has reduced the demand for abortion. They also cite society’s greater acceptance of single parenthood; the spread of ultrasound technology, which has made the fetus seem more human; and the easing of the stigma attached to giving up a child for adoption.
Ten to 15 years ago, said Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, an abortion-rights group, adoption was generally portrayed as an effort to find parents for needy children. Now, she said, that has changed, as infertile couples desperately seek children.
“Young people are idealistic,” Ms. Kissling said. “They think sacrifice is a good thing, particularly conservative Christian kids. One of the main sacrifices you can give is the gift of a child to a deserving couple.”
The most commonly cited reason for the increasingly conservative views of young people is their receptiveness to the way anti-abortion campaigners have reframed the national debate, shifting the emphasis from a woman’s rights to the rights of the fetus.
Abortion opponents celebrated on March 13 when the Senate passed a ban on a procedure that its critics call partial-birth abortion; the bill is expected to pass the House quickly and be signed by President Bush, and to immediately face a court challenge. Even though the procedure is used in only a tiny fraction of cases, graphic descriptions of it since the mid-90’s, and even the name its foes have given it (doctors call it dilation and extraction), have had an impact on young people. “There’s been so much media attention over the last seven to eight years on partial-birth abortion, we shouldn’t be surprised that some of it has had an effect on 12-to-14-year-olds, and it is a public relations coup for the National Right to Life Committee,” said David J. Garrow, a legal historian at Emory University.
Britni Hoffbeck, another speech student at Red Wing High who opposes abortion, put her argument succinctly: “It’s more about the baby’s rights than the woman’s rights.” Tom Cosgrove, a communications consultant in Cambridge, Mass., who has researched the views of young people for abortion-rights groups, said: “All the restrictions that the right-to-life movement has imposed, young people look at and say, ‘They’re a good thing, because it’s meant to protect a young woman’s health.’ They don’t want the label of pro-choice. The pro-life side figured out that this is about children, whereas the pro-choice movement is focused on women and choice.”
Some young people who oppose abortion, and who were born after the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 declared that there is a constitutional right to abortion, have adopted a new rhetoric. One is Kelly Kroll, a junior at Boston College and president of American Collegians for Life, who says she is a “survivor of abortion” because she was adopted. “Myself and my classmates have never known a world in which abortion wasn’t legalized,” she said. “We’ve realized that any one of us could have been aborted.”
Margaret Watson, a junior at Rutgers University who recently started an abortion rights group on campus, RU Choice, said that because the historical circumstances surrounding Roe v. Wade are distant, her peers take the right to an abortion for granted. “For my generation, we have always grown up knowing we could have an abortion,” she said. “I look at being pro-choice as being American, to have free will. I would hope that mothers do decide to keep their babies, but I just want women to be able to make up their own minds.”
One reason there may be less support for abortion among the young is that they are less likely to imagine having to consider an abortion, because teenage pregnancy rates are down. The pregnancy rate among girls age 15 to 19 declined 19 percent between 1990 and 1997, to 94 pregnancies per 1,000 girls from 116 per 1,000, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
Experts attribute the decline to greater awareness of AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases, which has led young people to become more cautious about sex. Studies show that fewer high school students engage in sexual intercourse, and that contraceptive use is up.
“There are better contraceptives — RU-486, the morning-after pill — along with an emphasis on sex ed, abstinence and slogans like ‘Not me, Not now,’ ” said a sophomore at Hunter College High School in Manhattan whose father did not want her to be identified. “Abortion isn’t such an issue, because getting pregnant isn’t such a prevalent problem among my peers.”
Some parents trace their teenagers’ anti-abortion views to sexuality education programs that stress abstinence as the only way to prevent pregnancy and disease, and that in the process sometimes demonize abortion. The federal government budgets $50 million annually to programs known as “abstinence only till marriage,” which are taught in 35 percent of public schools nationwide, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute.
Renee Walker gave permission for her seventh-grade son to participate in such a program last fall in his public school in Concord, Calif. But she said she became alarmed when, reviewing his class notes, she found a list of the disadvantages of abortion, including the circled words “killing a baby.” He said he had been told abortion “tears the arms and legs off.”
Ms. Walker sent a letter of complaint to officials of the district, Mount Diablo Unified School District, expressing her surprise that the abstinence curriculum had been created by First Resort, a Christian anti-abortion and pregnancy counseling group. “Most parents are busy, doing laundry, running around like me, and we’re trusting the schools to reflect public policy,” she said. “I had an anti-choice critter jump out of my son’s backpack and was running around my house.”
The district agreed with Ms. Walker that the First Resort program was overly graphic, a schools spokeswoman said. It asked for, and got, modifications, she said.
If today’s teenagers and young adults maintain their views on abortion, and if succeeding waves of students are also conservative, the balance could tip somewhat in America’s long-running abortion war, some experts speculate. It’s unclear whether the shift will ever be substantial enough to change the centrist position of a majority of Americans of all ages: that abortion should be legal, with restrictions.
In Red Wing, the certainty of the youthful opinions of the students reminded their speech-class teacher, Jillynne Raymond, of an earlier generation’s certainty.
“Teenagers have strong opinions,” Ms. Raymond, 41, said. “It’s no different than the 70’s when I was a teenager, but the difference is that the majority of speeches then were pro-choice. I wanted the right to an abortion as a woman. The focus then was not having the government tell me what to do with my body.”
“Today,” she said of her students, “the majority is pro-life.”
This article originally appeared in the 30 March 2003 edition of the New York Times.