A Gestational Issue
Why millennials care more about the rights of gays to marry than about the rights of women to get abortions.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.
On Thursday the House wasted its time (and by extension, yours) voting on yet another pointless abortion bill. This bill is mainly predicated on the assumption that President Obama is a liar. Part of the legislation would "prohibit federal funds from being used to cover any part of the costs of any health plan that includes coverage of abortion services." If that sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because the Hyde Amendment already does that. Still, the bill’s supporters and sponsor, Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., claim that this law is necessary to make sure that the Hyde Amendment really, truly extends to the Affordable Care Act. The president has already signed an executive order saying that it does. But he lies, they say. Enter the “Protect Life Act.”
The other noteworthy element of the bill is a “conscience” provision that would allow hospitals to turn away women who need abortions, based on policy set by religious leadership. The provision ensures that the approximately 600 hospitals affiliated with the Catholic Church will now be legally protected if they turn away women seeking abortions medically necessary to save their lives. Oddly enough, Pitts says the conscience provision is redundant, as it’s simply “preserving the same rights that medical professionals have had for decades.” So that makes both provisions of the bill redundant—or maybe only one is while the other literally gives hospitals cover to allow women to die. Rock on, Party of Life!
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has described the bill as "savage," telling reporters that the legislation could ultimately lead women to “die on the floor of health care providers.” The president has promised to veto the bill if need be. (It needn’t be, because it won’t pass in the Senate). And Rachel Maddow has wondered how pointless anti-abortion legislation would create jobs, an issue on which the GOP is supposed to be laser-focused. Meanwhile, a national coalition of anti-abortion groups has announced it is pushing legislation in all 50 states that would force pregnant women to see and hear a fetal heartbeat before terminating a pregnancy.
So here’s a question that’s been bothering me for a while now: If it’s true that one woman in three has had an abortion in her lifetime—and that support for legalized abortion has been creeping upward—then why aren’t young people going all mental over this? I talked about all this with a bunch of high school kids on Wednesday, and they were pretty much as stumped as I was.
Recent polling confirms that while millennials are generally pretty liberal, their support for abortion hovers at about 60 percent—the same as their parents. But on gay marriage, they are “nearly 20 points out ahead" in approval rates. Theories abound for why young people are so much more enthusiastic about gay rights than they are about choice. Writing for the Huffington Post in 2010, James Wagoner argued that it’s about familiarity, pure and simple: “The sheer volume of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) people who have come out over the last 25 years has helped to transform public perceptions of same sex relationships. Millennial youth have known GLBT people as family, friends, fellow students, and work colleagues for decades. They know their stories and have glimpsed the reality of their lives.” (Memo to the Republican leadership: Wagoner notes that millennials “also support comprehensive sex education (82%), access to contraception for women who can't afford it (82%), the morality of same sex relationships (57%), and the morality of sex between an unmarried man and woman (70%).” In short, the more the Republican war on abortion is revealed to be an all-out war on contraception and sexuality, the faster they’ll lose the millennials.)
Another blogger, a self-proclaimed millennial, makes a similar point: “The leadership of the pro-choice movement in this country has put all its focus and resources into political and legal strategies. While these areas are incredibly important, they have left the cultural conversation about abortion to be defined almost entirely by the anti-choice movement. We do not hear the personal stories of women who had abortions before Roe v. Wade, and women’s contemporary narratives are silenced in the current debate as well.” I heard one such story yesterday. There are millions more.
Amanda Hess has argued that the “decoupling” of these issues “does not reflect an embrace of progressive values, but rather an expansion of conservative ones.” In her view, by embracing conservative institutions—marriage, family, and the military—supporters of gay rights have gained support among even evangelical Christians. Megan McArdle strongly disagrees. In her view, the difference in support is attributable to the fact that “while the harm from gay marriage is pretty nebulous, the harm from abortion is pretty obvious to everyone.” (I’m not so sure the supporters of California’s Proposition 8, which outlaws gay marriage, would agree. The “harms” they attempted to prove were neither vague nor nebulous.)
All of these are interesting possibilities to which I would offer several more: Americans—and especially Americans under the age of 50—have no memory of life before Roe v. Wade. Millennials can’t imagine back-alley abortions or flights to Japan any more readily than my children can imagine life before cellphones. By failing to paint a vivid or enduring picture of what came before, we are asking them to imagine a return to a past that must seem Paleolithic.
One other possibility that occurred to me as I discussed this with high schoolers Wednesday: Gay rights have been framed as an equality issue, and young people understand equality. But by framing abortion as a privacy right, we may have lost a generation of young people for whom that is a less and less precious value. As Daniel Solove has argued so persuasively in his book Nothing To Hide: The False Tradeoff Between Privacy and Security, Americans today devalue their own privacy in all sorts of staggering ways. Millennials understand that better than anyone. I can’t help but wonder whether the abortion debate, framed as an equality issue, might have resonated more with young Americans today.
One final thought: Maybe it’s just that Americans are simply the most romantic people on the planet. And for a dreamy aspirational nation, there’s just nothing like a wedding. Jack Shafer explained this better than anyone when he deconstructed American tabloids. Part of me keeps wondering if, optimists that we are, we all just find it easier and more pleasant to imagine ourselves at a gay wedding, than at a Planned Parenthood clinic. At the very least, we find it easier to talk about it.
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.