While Congress is in the midst of trying to toughen abortion restrictions, Barbara Bush (junior) has joined the ranks of the children of prominent Republicans who endorse gay marriage. For many conservatives, abortion and gay marriage both strike at the heart of the family. But children of prominent Republicans do not often raise their voices in support of abortion. Indeed, Bristol Palin, post-teen birth, has become a strong supporter of abstinence education. Why is this?
While support for gay marriage has increased among all age groups, there is a particularly strong base for people under the age of 30. Consider that in 2001, 21% of the "Silent Generation" (those born between 1928-1945) supported gay marriage -- a number that climbed to 29% in 2010. By contrast, 49% of the Gen Xers supported gay marriage in 2001, and 48% do so today. For those born since 1981, 53% support gay marriage.
For abortion, however, the opposite has happened. More people describe themselves as "pro-life" today -- among all age groups -- than did in 2001. Forty-three percent of the youngest group, those age 18-29, described themselves as "pro-life" in 2001; today, 47% of that age group views themselves as "pro-life." Those aged 65 and older have gone from 47% to 54%.
Children of prominent conservatives reflect the views of their age groups. But class is an overlooked part of the difference in attitudes -- a topic that we don't like to talk about. People with higher incomes are more likely to vote, and the most recent census data show that same-sex cohabiting couples have higher incomes than married couples. By contrast, women who have experienced an abortion are more likely to be poor; the rate of unintended pregnancy is significantly higher for poor women and for women with less than a high school education.
All of this, however, cloaks two basic facts. First, abortion is still critical for the middle class in holding the line on single parent births. While abortion rates have plummeted for college graduates, almost half of the unplanned pregnancies of the "responsible" middle class still end in abortion, a higher percentage than for any other group. The middle class, recognizing that abstinence until marriage at thirty is not going to happen, has embraced the pill. As a result of more effective contraceptive use, abortion rates have fallen dramatically and abortion has become a sign of failure, of carelessness. It is no longer an ordinary part of college life, but back in the shadows. It's rare enough to be easy to overlook, yet still critical for those on the road to the good life.
For poorer women, on the other hand, abortion is once again a sign of desperation. In another time, the stigma associated with non-marital births drove women to back alley abortionists. Today, it is the desperation associated with poor women's inability to provide for the children they already have. A major change is the number of women seeking to abort who already have children. Middle class women who have children find it harder to abort a child simply because the pregnancy is inconvenient. For poor women, the abortion may involve a choice between continuing an unwelcome pregnancy or feeding and buying medicine for the children they already have.
The cutbacks in welfare, medicaid, and other social programs for the poor are largely invisible; indeed, conservatives are still on the airwaves railing about welfare programs that no longer exist. The only sign of the hunger and desperation of poor women's lives that receives attention is their willingness to abort. For politicians, abortion is a symbolic issue that does not affect anyone they care about.
In contrast, every community has gay and lesbian members. As our sons, sisters, and uncles come out of the closet, appreciation for the struggles of same-sex couples increases. Barbara Bush, who is reported to have had many gay and lesbian friends at Yale, is much less likely to have spent time with women talking about their abortions. The increasing empathy for gays and lesbians enriches us. The decreasing empathy for the circumstances that produce abortion diminishes all of us and allows the most vulnerable to be used as pawns in a fight that has little to do with the reality of their lives.
June Carbone is the Edward A. Smith/Missouri Chair of Law, the Constitution and Society at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Naomi Cahn is the John Theodore Fey Research Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School. She is the author of numerous books and law review articles on gender and family law.
Cahn and Carbone are the co-authors of Red Families v. Blue Families.