In spite of the nearly unprecedented velocity of change in American attitudes on the legality and acceptance of same-sex marriage, according to Gallup polls — from 68 percent to 27 percent opposition during President Bill Clinton’s years to 53 percent-46 support after President Barack Obama’s re-election (a swing of 48 percent of the population in favor of same-sex marriage in just 16 years) — American voters have not undergone a mass conversion to liberalism on the so-called “social issues.”
You want evidence for that assertion? Consider the following: Twenty years ago, when Americans were asked, “In general, do you feel that laws covering the sale of firearms should be made more strict, less strict or kept as they are now?” a full 70 percent of respondents in 1993 supported “more strict ” gun laws, and just 24 percent opted for no changes in the existing gun laws.
With only impermanent spikes in support after mass shootings following Columbine and Tucson, public backing for “more strict” gun control has dropped during the Obama presidency to an average of 44 percent (until a 14 point jump following the slaughter of the innocents in Newtown, Conn.) endorsing tougher gun laws.
Over the last generation, Americans, always unpredictable, can be said to have moved dramatically to the left on gays and steadily to the right on guns.
But what about abortion? No liberal groundswell on this relentlessly divisive issue, either. When asked, “With respect to the abortion issue, would you consider yourself to be ‘pro-choice’ or ‘pro-life’?” just 44 percent of Americans on average during the Obama years have described themselves as “pro-choice” to Gallup, while 48 percent chose the “pro-life” label. This represents a consistent drop in the “pro-choice” number from that found during the President George W. Bush White House years.
When asked, irrespective of their attitudes on the legality of abortion, whether they personally “believe that in general it is morally acceptable or morally wrong,” the split in 2004 when the strongly pro-life Bush was re-elected was 50 percent “morally wrong ” and 40 percent “morally acceptable.”
By 2012, when the strongly pro-choice Obama was winning re-election, the results were basically unchanged — 51 percent “morally wrong ” and 38 percent “morally acceptable.”
Why, some 40 years after the milestone Roe v. Wade case that legalized the medical procedure nationwide, does abortion remain an open wound in the body politic? Obviously, because of the unresolved (maybe unresolvable) debate over the legal and philosophical status of the pre-born.
Is its value determined only by the subjective opinion of the woman who is carrying him or her? No happy mother-to-be has ever joyfully announced: “Congratulate me! We’re having a fetus.” That fetus, with her own heartbeat, represents either life or potential life.
And what about the competing rights of the pregnant woman? Do the circumstances of her impregnation not endow her with greater rights than the potential son or daughter growing within her?
Whatever the answers to these and all the other painful questions surrounding pregnancy and birth, we do know that an abortion is not anything like, as some have argued, an appendectomy. A mass of protoplasm does not have its own unique DNA. We also know that Americans have no intention of arresting and convicting any woman who, after consulting her conscience, her confessor and her physician, chooses to abort.
On abortion, Americans in practice remain simultaneously pro-choice and anti-abortion. On the issue of same-sex marriage, Americans are accepting and even welcoming. This must be shaped by the report from the December Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll that 65 percent of Americans “personally know or work with someone who is gay or lesbian.”
In that same survey, 51 percent overall favored allowing same-sex marriages and 40 percent opposed. But among those with a family member who is gay or lesbian (read, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio), 64 percent back same-sex marriage and just 27 percent do not.
However you analyze it, same-sex marriage and abortion are totally different questions.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.