Abortion and the new generation

Maggie Gallagher
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Posted: Dec 02, 2002 12:00 AM
If you want to know the deepest reason why liberals have such trouble digesting the election news, take a look at the Harper's cover story by blast-from-the-past uberliberal George McGovern. The title says it all: "The Case for Liberalism: A Defense of the Future Against the Past."

Here lies bared the unexamined heart of small-l liberalism: the idea of Progress (with a very big P). The liberal faith is that history, shorn of God, is nonetheless marching irrevocably in liberalism's direction. In the minds of McGovern and his ilk, liberalism equals rationality. Therefore, while the weight of tradition, taboo and religiously inspired sentiments may slow down Progress, in the end, reason (read: liberal morals and mores) will triumph. We have seen the future and it is them. Or so they imagine.

McGovern's essay is mainly an extended critique of Bush war policy, but he pauses to chide Bush's backwardness on another issue: "The Bush administration, in an unvarnished revival of the know-nothing spirit of an earlier age, actually withheld $34 million in family-planning funds for the United Nations" because, as Colin Powell put it, the funds would allow China "to implement more effectively its program of coercive abortion." China is a country where government officials corral pregnant women, pressure them with sanctions to have abortions, and sometimes kill babies as they emerge from the womb in order to meet population targets. But to McGovern, pressuring China to reverse its coercive abortion policies is an example of unvarnished know-nothing politics. "Frankly," he sniffs, "I can't see much of a future -- for Americans or for anyone else -- in that brand of conservatism.

Well, George, look harder. The clearest rebuttal of the idea that the future belongs to liberalism is the abortion issue. The liberal myth of Progress assumes that, as the older generation, steeped in mystifying ancient religious taboos, gradually dies off, a new pro-abortion consensus would emerge as pols realized there was no profit in pro-life principles.

Instead, something remarkable and unheralded has happened. Not only is the country in general becoming more conservative in its attitudes toward abortion, but two new polls find that young people are significantly more anti-abortion than their parents' generation are.

In a poll of 1,009 adults conducted by Zogby International Nov. 12-14 (paid for by the Buffalo News), about one-third of those surveyed said their views on abortion had changed in the past decade. Twenty-two percent had become less in favor of abortion, compared to 11 percent who had become more in favor. Young adults were more likely than their parents or grandparents to support a total ban on abortion: One-third of people ages 18 to 29 said abortion should never be legal, compared to 23 percent for those ages 30 to 64, and about 20 percent for those over age 65.

A University of California, Berkeley, poll found a similar growing generation gap. Young people (ages 15 to 26) were about 10 percentage points more likely to support abortion restrictions than their elders, by a margin of 44 percent to 34 percent. They are also more supportive of prayer in school and government funding of faith-based charities than their elders. "We were surprised by the greater support among young Americans for some aspects of the conservative cultural agenda," said one of the authors. "If the youth of today maintain these positions on religious politics and abortion as the years go by, then the American public as a whole could become more conservative on these issues."

Polls like this show two things: There is something about targeting the unborn for extinction that does not sit well, 30 years after Roe vs. Wade. And the idea that history marches inevitably in any direction is just plain wrong.