Your neighbors who buy Pottery Barn furniture

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.


  1. deepak shetty says

    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.
    Thats an interesting question.
    One possible reason(speaking for myself) , who are pro-choice , are also parents who wanted children and had them.
    During the pregnancy , we never thought of it as a embryo or foetus – it was always our child , along with the pet names and guesses about whom the baby would take after. There was also dread (What if the Down’s syndrome test came positive? What would we do ? ). So even though I am pro choice , it’s pretty hard to treat this as a purely rational argument.
    On the other hand random people who think they can tell (or pass laws) expectant parents to abort or not abort can go fuck themselves – That is such an intensely personal decision for most people.

  2. anat says

    Well, as someone who was pro-choice long before I became a parent, for me my embryo/fetus was always a potential child until I held them in my arms. Whatever thoughts I had about my future child were so vague. I couldn’t imagine forming a connection with someone who wasn’t there yet. I accepted that whatever they were going to be was a mystery that I will uncover over time, starting from when I meet them. Before that I had too little to work with.

  3. Lady Mondegreen says

    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

    It’s easy to “love” a fetus. It exists in imagination. You can sentimentalize it all you want, and it won’t do anything to counter your notion of it. It’s pure–unlike the selfish, shameless hussy who houses it.

  4. says

    I’ve often thought it strange how women who have children out of wedlock aren’t viewed as having saved a child from not existing.

  5. says

    deepak – True, true, and I’ve felt fainter versions of the same thing about the pregnancies of close relatives and friends. That’s all perfectly reasonable and desirable. But then people extrapolate that feeling to the unwanted pregnancies of strangers, drat them.

    It’s a simple rule. Wanted pregnancies? Bond with them all you like (short of intruding on the pregnant women, like those people who touch bellies without asking, ugh). Unwanted pregnancies? Not your business.

  6. karmacat says

    I think it helps to hear about more personal stories about abortion. Most Americans are somewhere in the middle about abortion. But there is the myth that the only women who have abortions are selfish and lazy. When I got pregnant a 2nd time, I worried about having enough money and the relationship with my boyfriend was not going well. My toddler at the time was still not sleeping through and I was exhausted. I also worried how it all would affect my 1st child. In the end, I had a very early miscarriage. The point is women think about what is best for everyone including the potential baby. It is telling that certain people don’t trust women to make the right decisions

  7. Blanche Quizno says

    why reproductive rights are losing while gay rights are winning.

    I know! I know! It’s because one involves men and the other doesn’t! What do I win??

  8. Blanche Quizno says

    There was a comment on another site, something to the effect of, “How can you look at a newborn baby and not believe in God?” or something like that. Clearly, the people who think like this are not imagining looking at an anencephaly baby, or a hideously deformed stillbirth. A lot of religious people do this peculiar mind-game where they only credit their “god” with the good stuff and either dismiss or ignore the bad stuff, or claim that’s somehow OUR fault or something equally ridiculous.

    For example, the argument that Beethoven was unwanted and born to the most unpromising of women, as a way of saying “You never know and the world may be forever impoverished if this child is not permitted to be born.” Well, Ted Bundy was likewise born to one of the most unpromising of women – an unwed mother – and she chose to keep him even though the norm was for such babies to be given up for adoption. Ted Bundy didn’t learn until he was in his teens, I think, that his mother was, in fact, his mother and not his sister as he had grown up thinking. Notice the ire with which the research that linked the legalization of abortion with a significant drop in violent crime 18 years later. “Correlation does not imply causation!!!111!!!” Yes, actually, it does. Unless there is correlation, how are we supposed to discern a causal relationship?? Not ALL correlation is the result of causation, but without correlation, causation can never be discovered.

  9. Blanche Quizno says

    A young, married friend of mine had an abortion just before I met her. She was a foreign exchange student whose student visa had expired; she had a toddler herself, who was not quite 2; she couldn’t drive; she had no job or green card; she was living with her mother-in-law, who was cruel; and her husband had just been arrested on armed robbery charges which would put him away for almost 4 years. She couldn’t possibly manage a newborn under these circumstances. I’m prochoice for exactly these reasons. Because only the woman herself can possibly decide whether or not she can handle it.

  10. culuriel says

    I suspect that part of the motivation behind anti-choice laws is to force women and girls back to the days when having the baby and giving it up for adoption was a woman’s only realistic option. Which would explain the demonization of single mothers by conservatives, too. If you’re really pro-birth, demonizing single mothers makes no sense unless that’s your ultimate goal.
    The next question is- why the need by conservatives to pretty much force women and girls back to the adoption as your only option setup? Sure, conservatives can fool themselves that every kid gets adopted by a rich couple who raise it. But the rest of us don’t get to ignore the kids that end up in group homes, and pretty much booted out of the foster system at 18. I’m not really sure why conservatives want us to return to a system that: 1- didn’t work; and 2- increased human misery.

  11. Bluntnose says

    Yes, I think it is obviously true that marriage equality is victimless in every sense and so less controversial (lately anyway) whereas abortion has a victim and is therefore a much more complex issue.

  12. Bluntnose says

    Perhaps I should have said something like ‘a possible’ victim or a ‘postulated’ victim. Whether that is an imagined or real victim is at the heart of the argument, isn’t it? That’s why this is a hard case, unlike the question of gay marriage.

  13. says

    1, 12, & 13.

    I dunno. Personally, and possibly because I’m male, I have a hard time saying I’m for abortion.

    If my daughter were to become pregnant, and ask my advice, I’d advise, not dictate, not shame, not coerce, but advise, that she continue the pregnancy to term. BUT, she already knows that whatever she decides, I’ll be there for her, that I won’t condemn, and that she might have to calm me down when some… Able Henry… dares to criticize her decision.

    That is what I’m against; that anybody but her thinks it’s any of their freaking business.

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