States are cracking down on abortion—and legalizing gay marriage. What gives?

March 26, 2013

Tuesday marked for a watershed day for gay rights activists as the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on a case with the potential to legalize same-sex marriage across the country.

Across the country and 1,500 miles west of Washington, an equally notable event took place: North Dakota enacted the country's most restrictive abortion law, barring all procedures after six weeks.

For decades, support (or opposition) for gay marriage and abortion went hand in hand. They were the line-in-the-sand "values" issues that sharply divided the political parties.

Not anymore. "As recently as 2004, we talked about abortion and same sex marriage in the same breath," says Daniel Cox, research director at the Public Religion Research Institute. "They were the values issues. Now, it doesn't make sense to lump them together anymore. We've seen a decoupling."

Younger Americans have become increasingly supportive of gay marriage in a way that hasn't necessarily happened for abortion rights. Young Americans' views on same-sex unions look nothing like previous generations. But when it comes to abortion rights, Millennials look a lot more lilke their parents.

Millennials, PRRI has found, have similar views to the general population on the morality and legality of abortion. Fifty-two percent of the general public thinks abortion is "morally wrong." Among Millennials, that number stands at 50 percent. Fifty-six percent of all Americans think abortion ought to be legal, compared to 60 percent of the younger crowd.

Separate data from the Pew Center on Religion and Public Life show that 50 percent of Americans under 30 believe abortion ought to be legal in all or more cases, compared to 54 percent of Americans in their 30s and 40s and 55 percent of those in their 50s and early 60s.

"Abortion remains sharply polarized," Cox says."Support for legality over the last 30 years hasn't really moved much." The landscape on gay marriage, however, is a totally different story: Millennials look nothing like their parents. Across party lines and religious groups, young Americans tend to be more supportive of gay and lesbian couples' rights to marry.


"There's more of an emerging consensus among young people with gay marriage," Cox says. "Democratic young people and Republican young people are on the same side of the issue, which is kind of amazing when you think about what a polarized time we're in."

The divergence in public opinion correlates with divergent state-level policies. For the past decade, the gay marriage movement has gained momentum. Ever since Massachusetts legalized gay marriage in 2003, eight states have followed to allow similar unions.

The landscape on abortion rights, however, has moved in the opposite direction.  States passed more abortion regulations in the 2000's than they did in the 1990s. And no law to expand access has passed in at least five years.

There's no one explanation for why the two issues, once grouped together, moved in different directions. Cox thinks that it might have a lot to do with public awareness of gay and lesbian individuals, in a way that might not be true for abortion. More Americans say they know someone who is homosexual, and that tends to correlate pretty strongly with support for same-sex marriage.

"In our research having a close friend that's gay or lesbian can have a profound impact on support," Cox says. "We see this across Democrats, Republicans, and Evangelicals. It really cuts across a lot of demographics and, in a lot of ways, is more powerful than ideology."

 

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