Katha Pollitt asks why reproductive rights are losing while gay rights are winning.
Indiana’s attempt to enshrine opposition to gay marriage under the guise of religious freedom provoked an immediate nationwide backlash. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has allowed religious employers to refuse insurance coverage for birth control—not abortion, birth control—to female employees; new laws are forcing abortion clinics to close; and absurd, even medically dangerous restrictions are heaping up in state after state. Except when the media highlight a particularly crazy claim by a Todd Akin or Richard Mourdock, where’s the national outrage?
You could ask the same question about Ireland (and some people did and do). The result of the referendum was amazing, but why are reproductive rights so far behind?
Marriage equality is about love, romance, commitment, settling down, starting a family. People love love! But marriage equality is also about tying love to family values, expanding a conservative institution that has already lost most of its coercive social power and become optional for millions. (Marriage equality thus follows Pollitt’s law: Outsiders get access when something becomes less valued, which is why women can be art historians and African-Americans win poetry prizes.) Far from posing a threat to marriage, as religious opponents claim, permitting gays to marry gives the institution a much-needed update, even as it presents LGBT people as no threat to the status quo: Instead of promiscuous child molesters and lonely gym teachers, gays and lesbians are your neighbors who buy Pottery Barn furniture and like to barbecue.
It’s true. Taslima and I had a little conversation about that on Twitter on Saturday. I think it’s complicated, and that same-sex marriage can undercut the patriarchal quality of marriage, but still…marriage itself isn’t a radical institution.
Reproductive rights, by contrast, is about sex—sexual freedom, the opposite of marriage—in all its messy, feckless glory. It replaces the image of women as chaste, self-sacrificing mothers dependent on men with that of women as independent, sexual, and maybe not so self-sacrificing. It doesn’t matter that contraception is indispensable to modern life, that abortion antedates the sexual revolution by thousands of years, that plenty of women who have abortions are married, or that most (60 percent) who have abortions are already mothers. Birth control and abortion allow women—and, to a lesser extent, men—to have sex without punishment, a.k.a. responsibility.
I think the real crux though is that marriage equality doesn’t conjure up an (imagined) personal victim. With marriage equality you get marriage; with abortion you get an imagined “pre-born child.” Katha puts it this way:
In marriage equality, there is no loser. But many, including some who call themselves pro-choice, feel that abortion creates a loser: the embryo or fetus. You have to value women a lot to side with the pregnant woman, with all her inevitable complexities and flaws, over the pure potentiality of the future baby.
Aaaaaaaaaaand…most people don’t.