States of Devotion, a publication of NYU’s Hemispheric Institute edited by Ann Pellegrini, has a new “dossier” of articles that address same-sex marriage in the U.S. Pellegrini’s introduction reads:
That same Christian Century article contrasts the rising support for gay marriage, especially among younger Americans, with public attitudes towards legalized abortion. The survey found that support for abortion held steady over the past five years, but so did opposition to it. More significantly, there was no demonstrable generation gap, as there is on the same-sex marriage issue. That is, both support for and opposition to legalized abortion held steady across age groups. One clear implication of these trends for younger evangelicals and, I’d venture, for younger Americans more generally, is a developing cleavage between legalizing gay marriage, which they increasingly support, and legalized abortion, which they continue to oppose. As PRRI researcher Robert Jones concludes, “The survey reveals a decoupling of the social issues of same-sex marriage and abortion, which have traditionally been mentioned in the same breath in the public discourse.”
Well, yes and no. Rather than see these two issues as “decoupled,” I actually see a disturbing connection between rising support for same-sex marriage and the continued and, even, hardened opposition to legalized abortion (and that opposition is gaining traction at state legislatures around the U.S. in the wake of Republican victories in the 2010 elections). When rhetoric in favor of same-sex marriage equates marriage with personal responsibility and psychological maturity—as so many of the advocates have argued—it promotes the idea that gays and anyone else who does not want to buckle down and marry are childish, at best, dangerously irresponsible, at worst. Such arguments for marriage equality turn into pleas for heterosexuals and the state to help homosexuals grow up and get on with the business of being responsible, disciplined adults.
But this equation—marriage equals developmental maturity and the capacity to exercise responsibility over oneself and to one’s larger community—in turn contributes to a larger moral economy in U.S. public life in which sex becomes the place where we measure whether an individual is “properly” self-disciplined or moral at all. Wanna get married? You pass. Want or need an abortion? Not so fast. Abortion conjures raced and classed images of an out of control female sexuality. An unwanted or unplanned pregnancy, which can happen for so many reasons—including failed contraception or a failure to educate young people about contraception at all (hello, abstinence-only sex education)—is instead recast as a woman’s failure in self-discipline and sexual morality.
The “responsibilization” of sexuality thus cuts both ways, towards a growing acceptance and, even, promotion of same-sex marriage and towards the declining fortunes of abortion access and reproductive freedom more broadly nation-wide. Proponents of same-sex marriage are not to blame for the ratcheting up of laws aimed at limiting women’s and girls’ legal access to abortion. But they do contribute to a public political climate in which such laws make a kind of moral common sense.