A recent poll from the Public Religion Research Institute revealed some striking attitudes about abortion. The survey of 3,000 adults found that while 56 percent of respondents believed that abortion should be legal in all or most instances, an almost equal number—52 percent—say that abortion is morally wrong. In addition, 70 percent of respondents identified as pro-choice, while almost two-thirds said they were anti-abortion.
What I found most interesting, however, was the influence that pop culture had on some respondents. According to the study:
Americans who have seen MTV’s shows “Teen Mom” or “16 and Pregnant” are significantly more likely than the general public to say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases (65% vs. 56% of the public) and to say that having an abortion is morally acceptable (48% vs. 40% of the public). They are also nearly twice as likely as those who have not seen these shows to say that at least some health care professionals in their communities should provide legal abortions (65% vs. 34% respectively).
“16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom” have both drawn a significant amount of flack for ignoring the issue of abortion, and also for glamorizing teen pregnancy. While I’m in the camp that criticized the former, I always found the latter argument a bit ridiculous. The teens profiled on both shows are perpetually stressed out, undereducated, struggling financially, and more often than not raising their children as single parents (with varying degrees of family support). But aside from a stand-alone special aired by the network last December, neither series seemed too eager to address abortion head-on; any discussion of that option was usually dealt with in a brief conversation, if that.
The attitudes of viewers, then, are not influenced by MTV explicitly addressing the issue. And while it’s impossible to know what factors resonated more in each respondent, there is something to be said for personalizing an issue. Abortion is so often discussed in abstract, overly political terms; it’s too easy to forget that this is an issue that affects real people, in eminently relatable circumstances. By dramatizing the struggles faced by parents in a direct and unaffected manner, MTV may have helped Americans recognize just how difficult a choice parenthood can be—and how vital it is that other choices be accessible as well.
Of course, I’m biased towards this theory (after all, I wrote a book based around it). But it does make intuitive sense, and it’s also apparent in the respondents’ attitudes towards gay marriage. Fifty-seven percent of people between the ages of 18 and 29, support same-sex marriage, as compared to 32 percent of baby boomers (ages 50-64). In explaining these results, Robert Jones, the study’s lead author, says that one reason may be because a majority of young people have a friend or close family member that is gay or lesbian.
There are many other interesting findings in the survey, about both abortion and same-sex marriage. But perhaps the most important lesson may be what a pro-choice activist once told me: “Women’s stories will always win the debate.”
Sarah's first book, Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement, will be out March 2013. For more information, follow her on Twitter @saraherdreich, or check out saraherdreich.com.