Newswise — Washington, DC (January 18, 2013): On the 40th anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, more young people – all of whom were born at least 20 years after the decision – identify as “pro-choice” rather than “pro-life,” according to a national poll of more than 4,000 high school and college students conducted by Jennifer L. Lawless, professor and director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University and Richard L. Fox (Loyola Marymount University.

These labels, however, might obscure a deeper divide in youth political attitudes. Fifty percent of young people believe that abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances, and 50 percent believe it should be illegal in all circumstances or except in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. “The poll results suggest that the ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ labels might obscure our understanding of young people’s attitudes toward abortion,” says Lawless. “Nearly one-third of high school students, for example, do not identify with either label. Yet their attitudes about the circumstances under which abortion should be legal are clear.”

The overwhelming majority of high school (88 percent) and college (78 percent) students, however, are not “very worried” about the outlawing of abortion rights. In fact, respondents report being far more worried about war (55%), a terrorist attack (52%), global warming (44%), gun violence (36%), and illegal immigration (28%) than they are the outlawing of abortion rights.

“What emerges as striking from these poll results is the fact that the overwhelming majority of young people are not worried about the outlawing of abortion rights. Despite a presidential campaign that emphasized women’s rights and reproductive freedom, more than 80 percent of high school and college students do not feel threatened. Even if we focus only on Democrats in the sample, they are more concerned about war, a terrorist attack, the environment, immigration, and gun violence,” observed Lawless.

These results are based on a national sample of 2,100 college students (ages 18 through 25) and 2,166 high school students (ages 13 through 17). The poll, conducted by American University / GfK Custom Research LLC, was in the field from September 27 – October 16, 2012, and has a margin of error of +/- 2.2 percentage points.

Key Findings from the Poll of High School and College Students:

HIGH SCHOOL vs. COLLEGE GAP: Whereas more than half of college students (53%) consider themselves pro-choice, only about one-third of high school students self-assess this way. High school students are also twice as likely as college students not to identify with either the “pro-choice” or “pro-life” label.

GENDER GAP: Girls and young women (46%) are somewhat more likely than their male counterparts (39%) to consider themselves “pro-choice.” Women are also significantly more likely (21%) than men (13%) to report being “very worried” about the potential for outlawing abortion rights in the future.

PARTY GAP: As is the case among the adult population, Democrats are more than twice as likely as Republicans to consider themselves pro-choice (63% compared to 25%) and more than three times as likely to believe that abortion should be legal under all circumstances (35% of Democrats compared to 10% of Republicans). Finally, 26% of Democrats are very worried about the outlawing of abortion rights, whereas only 10% of Republicans express similar concerns.

Summary of Results – High School and College Students’ Attitudes Toward Abortion
 High School StudentsCollege StudentsTotal Sample
Self-Indentified Label
Pro-Choice32 %53 %42 %
Don’t Know311523
Attitudes toward Legalized Abortion
Should be legal under all circumstances222624
Should be legal under most circumstances232926
Should be illegal except in cases of rape, incest, and the life of the mother403437
Should be illegal in all circumstances151013
“Very worried” about outlawing abortion rights122217 
Sample Size215621104266
National poll conducted by American University / GfK Custom Research LLC, from September 27 – October 16, 2012. Margin of error of +/- 2.2 percentage points.

According to Lawless, “The gender gap in considering oneself ‘pro-choice’ or ‘pro-life,’ as well as attitudes about legalized abortion, are similar to the gender differences recent polls uncovered in adult populations. This finding suggests that attitudes about reproductive freedom are in place relatively early in the political maturation process.”

Lawless and Fox are available to discuss the survey results.

Jennifer L. Lawless is an associate professor of government at American University, where she is also the Director of the Women & Politics Institute. She is the author of Becoming a Candidate: Political Ambition and the Decision to Run for Office (2012) and the co-author of It Still Takes A Candidate: Why Women Don’t Run for Office (2010). She is also a nationally recognized speaker, and her scholarly analysis and political commentary have been quoted in various newspapers, magazines, television news programs, and radio shows. In 2006, she sought the Democratic nomination for the U.S. House of Representatives in Rhode Island’s second district.

Richard L. Fox is a professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University. He is the author of Gender Dynamics in Congressional Elections (1997) and co-author of It Still Takes A Candidate: Why Women Don’t Run for Office (2010), Tabloid Justice: The Criminal Justice System in the Age of Media Frenzy (2001). He is also co-editor, with Susan J. Carroll, of Gender and Elections (2010). He has written several op-ed articles that have appeared in national media outlets, such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.