I finished Putnam and Campbell's Amazing Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us last week. In Chapter 11, titled Religion in American Politics, the authors look at how attitudes towards gay marriage and abortion have changed over the recent decades.
The authors cite a 1988 General Social Survery in which only 12% of respondents supported same-sex marriage. In the 2006 Faith Matters survey, 34% of respondents supported gay marriage while another 30% supported civil unions. Support for same-sex marriage rises among younger generations.
Putnam and Campbell attribute greater acceptance towards gay marriage among people to two main factors. First, younger Americans "have become politically and socially aware during a period in which homosexuality has been increasingly featured positively in the popular media. Gay characters are common in TV programs and movies and many prominent gay celebrities project an image of respectabilty."
Second, "[y]oung people are also the least religious age group. Since religiosity is such a strong predictor of attitudes toward same-sex marriage, and homosexuality more generally, it comes as no surprise that the most secular cohort of the population is the most accepting of gay marriage."
The trend towards increasingly liberal views among younger Americans with regard to social issues like gay marriage or premarital sex is not matched by increasing acceptance for abortion. The authors note that this does not mean that younger Americans are increasingly supportive of banning abortions completely, but rather are more in favor of restricting abortion in certain circumstances.
Putnam and Campbell do offer "another hypothesis for young people's unease with abortion that...remains a plausible hunch rather than a tested proposition - the prevalence of in utero ultrasound images."
This could explain why the anti-choice movement has its best successes when it aims to chip away at abortion rights a piece at a time here and there. For example, Texas passed a law last year requring women seeking an abortion to view an ultrasound image of the fetus before getting an abortion. Other states, like South Dakota have sought to impose mandatory waiting periods and to require women seeking an abortion to visit a crisis pregnancy center. But when the anti-choice movement tries to go for the whole enchilada, as with the Personhood ballot initiative that was shot down by voters in Mississippi last year, they tend to lose badly.
Another factor cited by the authors, and one that I have seen mentioned elsewhere, is that younger voters today are far removed from the era of backalley abortions that existed prior to Roe v. Wade. In a way, the very success of the pro-choice movement to provide safe, legal abortions for such a long period of time has seen the coming of age of a generation that knows almost nothing about the conditions that gave rise to the pro-choice movement in the first place.
While probably true, there is another reason that attitudes towards abortion have not matched the increasingly liberal views towards gays and same-sex marriage, and that would be the personal factor. In this day and age, I think it is safe to say that an overwhelming number of people in the United States who are heterosexual have a family member, friend or acquaintance who is gay and who is known to that heterosexual to be gay.
It is a lot easier to demonize homosexuals when they are some abstract other, reduced to crude stereotypes of parading drag queens and limp-wristed sissies. It is not so easy to be homophobic when the person who admits his/her homosexuality to you is your beloved sibling, uncle, close friend, popular teacher or someone else you have long admired. A person with negative attitudes towards gays in such a situation finds themselves faced with a dilemma. Does one's loathing towards homosexuals outweigh the high regard held for the person who has come out to you as a homosexual? Or does one's love and affection for that person tip the scales towards acceptance? If this person will be a part of your life for years to come, the realization seeps in that not only is this person a homosexual today, he or she will still be gay tomorrow, next week, next month, next year and so on.
Of course, having a family member or close friend who is gay does not automatically translate towards acceptance of homosexuals. Think Newt Gingrich and his lesbian half-sister Candace. Phyllis Schlafly, one of America's longest serving right wing culture warriors, who has a gay son. And then there's Alan Keyes and his lesbian daughter Maya. What probably does happen for most people in such a situation is a gradual shift in attitudes towards gays. Accepting a close family member or friend who is homosexual might result at first in a grudging acceptance, sort of "Well, this one is okay, but the others are still just a bunch of queers!" to gradual feelings of repulsion at hearing homophobic rhetoric when one realizes, "Wait a minute, my best friend is gay, so how can you say that?"
With abortion, the personal factor greatly diminishes. As I wrote above, a person who is gay today will be gay tomorrow and for the remainder of that person's life. Abortion, on the other hand, is something a woman who opts for the procedure might need once or at most twice in her life. Unplanned pregnancy and abortion is generally a private matter that a woman in such a situation will keep entirely to herself. No woman will tell her boss, "I need to have next Thursday off. I just found out I'm three weeks pregnant and I need the day off to get an abortion." She won't walk out of the clinic after the procedure sporting a button on her shirt that reads "Be Nice To Me. I Had An Abortion Today."
Because abortion is such a private matter, the personal factor does not come into play like it does with gays. We probably all are related to or are friends with women who have had abortions but have no idea that they have had an abortion. It probably makes it a lot easier to support restricting or even banning abortion when you do not know of any women who have ever had one, and just as importantly, why they felt they needed it. The secrecy of abortion might also contribute to the phenomenon of women who have gotten abortions themselves but who still believe that abortion is wrong.
One of the reasons why acceptance of homosexuality increased in recent years was due to an active campaign by the gay community to encourage gays to come out of the closet, which forced many heterosexual Americans to face the choice that I described above. With a record number of abortion restriction measures being introduced, and in some cases passed, by state legislatures in 2011, perhaps the time has come for a similar Out campaign by women who have had abortions. I'm sure that there are some women who are pro-choice activists who do speak about their own personal experiences when lobbying and advocating for abortion rights. Indeed, when I was at a Planned Parenthood rally in downtown Manhattan last February, several of the women speakers did say that they themselves had an abortion at some point in their lives. Still, I don't think it is as easy to form a large scale campaign for women who have had abortions that could match the gay Out campaign. As I reiterated already, gay people will always be gay. A 47 year old woman who had an abortion when she was 20 because she didn't want to have kids before she finished college and who will likely never need to have an abortion again at her age might see it as something from her past better left undisturbed.
That being the case, with the anti-choice movement trying to push personhood amendments and fetal hearbeat bills in state legislatures, there is going to have to be a strong pushback from the abortion rights to put the focus where is belongs, back on the women whose bodies the forced birthers want to hijack with the backing of the coercive apparatus of the state. One way of doing that would be a vocal campaign made up of large numbers of women who have had abortions, thereby putting a true human face back on the debate instead of ceding the debate to ultrasound pictures.