After the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, some conservatives compared the issue to abortion. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council told Fox: “This is not going to go away. Just as Roe v. Wade did not solve the abortion issue, this is not going to solve the issue of what marriage is.”
Perkins is right in saying that Roe did not end the abortion debate. It remains a deeply contentious subject, and in the first quarter of this year alone, more than 300 bills were filed in state legislatures that would restrict access to abortion services.
But Perkins is profoundly incorrect in comparing the two causes. The tide of public opinion is shifting so strongly that gay marriage is rapidly losing its ability to disturb and divide the American electorate.
Sure, some politicians are trying to raise the tempers – and open the wallets – of conservative Christians by railing against the “tyrants” on the Supreme Court. But they are fighting a losing battle.
“Republicans are going to have to make inner peace about living in a same-sex marriage world,” Peter Wehner, a GOP strategist, told the Washington Post. “Our nominee can’t have serrated edges. Like it or not, any effort to create moral or social order will be seen as rigid and judgmental.”
No operative advises conservatives to “make inner peace” on the issue of abortion, and the polling numbers show why. Opinion has remained remarkably static and conflicted on that issue for many years.
In a recent Gallup poll, 1 in 4 Americans said abortion should be “legal under any circumstances;” 1 in 5 favored a total ban. About half said it should be legal “only under certain circumstances” – the basic framework of the Roe opinion. In 1975, two years after Roe, the numbers were almost exactly the same.
The contrast with gay marriage is stunning. In the latest CBS/New York Times poll, 57 percent of respondents favored legalizing same-sex unions, with 39 percent dissenting. Fifteen years ago, the numbers were almost exactly the opposite.
Moreover, the trend line is clear. Seven of 10 young people under 30 – including 6 of 10 Republicans – approve of same-sex marriage. “The country is changing, the culture is changing, the demographics are changing and politics is changing,” former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty told the Post.
These numbers reflect two very different dynamics. Abortion has tangible, identifiable victims. Even pro-abortion rights advocates must acknowledge that the procedure comes with a cost: A potential life is terminated, and a woman who ends a pregnancy can suffer remorse or worse. And medical advances are altering the whole notion of when a fetus can be considered “viable.”
That’s why many liberals have long adopted the mantra that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.”
Gay marriage has no comparable downside. No supporter says it should be “rare.”
Yes, some conservative Christians are truly offended by the whole notion of gay marriage. And yes, some conflicts still have to be worked out. Should a religious college be required to provide married student housing for gay couples? What about the florist or baker who won’t service a gay wedding?
Opponents make a big deal about these occasional cases, but really, most of them will resolve themselves. Gay couples are unlikely to choose a school that doesn’t want them. And there are plenty of bakers and florists who would love the business turned down by others.
The real difference between abortion and gay marriage is simply experience. Ending a pregnancy can be traumatic. Starting a marriage is usually uplifting. The same-sex couples flocking to the altar are not trashing traditional values; they are embracing them.
As Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion, “The plaintiffs respect marriage so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves.”
Reality has triumphed over fear. Ever since Massachusetts became the first state to sanction same-sex unions in 2003, opponents have warned that the institution of marriage would somehow crumble under the weight of such sinful participants.
That was always hogwash, and still is. If anything, the institution has been strengthened, not weakened, by so many gay couples eager to join it.
Megyn Kelly made this point on Fox, telling Perkins that James Obergefell, the plaintiff in the gay marriage case, was “a dear man who is standing out in front of the Supreme Court today, honoring his partner.”
Forty-two years after Roe, the abortion debate still rages. But because we all know a James (or Jane) Obergefell, the debate over same-sex marriage is all but over.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.