The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

One important factor in abortion politics: Age

Demonstrators protest outside of the Supreme Court on May 4 in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP)
5 min

Washington is old. That’s true literally (at least in the American context): The city celebrates its 232nd birthday this year. But it’s also true in the metaphorical “Washington, the seat of American power” sense. President Biden is 79, the average age in the House is 58, the average age in the Senate is 64 and the members of the Supreme Court land at an average age of 61. If someone tells you 61 isn’t old, that is because they have already turned or will soon turn 61.

This is interesting to consider in the moment, given what the court appears to be poised to do. At some point in the next few months, it is expected that a majority of the court’s justices will vote to overturn Roe v. Wade and, with that decision, allow states to ban the practice of abortion. It is a decision that is unusual in that its affects are disproportionately weighted by age: Women who are in the age range where pregnancy is possible are more directly (though certainly not exclusively) affected than young men in the same age range or other older Americans.

It is, in other words, an older generation telling a younger generation what it can do. It’s a tension that’s grown increasingly familiar as the number of millennials reaches and surpasses the number of baby boomers in the population — but it’s a tension that, on this occasion, has very immediate and significant personal repercussions.

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Based solely on physiology, we would not be surprised to see a divide on views of abortion by age. And we do. Polling released this week from The Washington Post and our partners at ABC News is matched by polling from Pew Research Center released Friday: Younger Americans are more likely to say abortion should be legal in most or all cases.

In the Post-ABC polling, those under 40 were 10 points more likely than those 65 and up to say abortion should always be legal. In Pew’s polling, the younger segment of that group, those under 30, were 16 points more likely to hold that position than those 65 and over. The Pew data also shows that younger Americans are much less likely than the oldest to say abortion should be illegal, something not similarly reflected in the Post-ABC polling.

This is not solely about the ability to get pregnant, of course. These views are confounded with partisanship: Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to say that abortion should be broadly legal, and young people are much more likely to be Democrats than Republicans.

Using data from the biennial General Social Survey (GSS), we can track views by generation over time. (Here, we’re using Pew’s own generational boundaries.) This is informative because it allows us to see how age groups have changed over time — were baby boomers more supportive of abortion when they were younger? — and to compare generations at the same point in time.

Here are the GSS results for two questions, one about maintaining the legality of abortion in the event that the pregnant individual’s health is at risk and the other about maintaining its legality regardless of reason.

Notice first that baby boomers, Generation X and millennials all have seen increasing support for keeping abortion legal for any reason over the past two decades. For millennials, the increase is stark. Among boomers and Gen X, though, there has also been a decline in the percentage saying they want to maintain the legality of abortion in case the pregnant person’s health is at risk. This is in part because those generational groups are more likely to be Republican and Republican support for this position has declined.

The thin dotted lines show views of baby boomers and Gen X when they were as old as millennials are now. On the question of abortion in the event of a health risk, there’s not much difference. On the question of abortion being available no matter the reason, millennials are far more supportive now than prior generations were at the same age. In other words, this is about a change in views over time, not solely about age.

Consider what this means over the long term. Older conservative decision-makers are acting in opposition to a view held by most younger Americans. After the 2012 election, the Republican Party explored a strategy of trying to appeal to the more diverse group of younger Americans that had twice voted for Barack Obama. Then Donald Trump came along and demonstrated a route to power by mobilizing older White Americans. But it’s an open question of how long that will last or if the party can both continue to appeal to that group and expand its outreach to other voters. If the goal is to appeal to younger voters with an eye toward the future, this decision seems unlikely to help.

Both the left and right will argue their position on moral, not political, grounds. But the political pattern is familiar: old cemented power demanding that younger Americans accede to their will.