On the surface, the abortion rights and gay rights movements have some clear similarities. They’re pet progressive causes with a clearly identified constituency – women and the LGBT+ community, respectively. But while they’re often both labeled “culture wars”, and have both supporters and opponents in common, their struggles have been very different.
The past few years have seen the right to same-sex marriage gain ground in many countries, including notoriously conservative ones like Ireland. Since the Netherlands became the world’s first country to legalize in 2000, 21 countries have followed suit. At the same time, abortion rights are more threatened than ever. Spain only last year abandoned far along plans to severely tighten their previously liberal abortion laws, and in the US, GOP Congress members are threatening to hold the country’s legislative system hostage over funding to Planned Parenthood, who, among many other services for women, provide abortions (though these are exclusively funded by private donations).
Catholic country Poland has already backed down on a previously liberal abortion legislation, opting instead for a law that forbids abortion in any case except where the mother’s life is at risk, or when the pregnancy is the result of rape.
The difference is perhaps most neatly exemplified by the current American political climate. Ever since the Supreme Court case United States v. Windsor struck down some key parts of the anti-gay marriage Defense of Marriage Act in 2013, the gay rights movement has been scoring victories left and right, the grand prize being Obergefell v. Hodges, which brought marriage equality to all fifty states earlier this year. While there has been some resistance – maybe most famously the Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples – there is a general feeling of inevitability, and even of relief among conservative political candidates who might otherwise have had to deal with expressing their increasingly unpopular anti-gay-marriage opinions in a campaign.
Free access to an abortion was also a fight won at the Supreme Court, in the case of Roe v. Wade, all the way back in 1973. But despite the fact that it’s been more than forty years, the backlash is still as vehement and persistent as ever. Only this year, new laws and regulations that are medically unnecessary and even dangerous have piled up, forcing abortion clinics to close down left and right.
So, why is this? While these progressive struggles may seem similar in many ways, there is no doubt that they’re perceived as very different. Same-sex marriage, though a civil rights cause, and one that’s generally championed by progressive liberals, also fundamentally has a conservative component. It’s about expanding the conservative notion of the family unit to include a wider range of couples, sure, but you can still argue the case using words like “family values”, “settling down” and “commitment”. As Katha Pollitt puts it in The Nation, “gays and lesbians are your neighbors who buy Pottery Barn furniture and like to barbecue”.
Abortion, on the other hand, can easily be framed as the opposite. While same-sex marriage is about love, abortion is about sex. Not only that, but it’s clearly an anti-conservative cause, since it largely concerns sex outside of a “settling down” context. Research shows that context based support for abortion is stronger where, for example, someone has an abortion to be able to finish high school, rather than where a woman gets an abortion because she doesn’t want to get married.
When it comes to the constituencies of concern for the respective causes, there’s a clear difference as well. While typically you’d think of women as a group as the beneficiaries of free access to an abortion, that’s not entirely true. Middle class and upper class women, who have private doctors and access to birth control even if it’s not reasonably affordable, are not dependent on publicly available options in the same way as working class women and poor women, who by definition are the group of women with the least resources.
In much the same way, the entire LGBT+ spectrum does not benefit from same-sex marriage to the same extent. While lesbian couples are getting married in larger numbers than gay couples, the face of the cause has largely been middle class white gay men – that is, the most affluent subgroup of the LGBT+ community. Same-sex marriage also doesn’t apply specifically to trans people at all, which happens to be the group most likely to live in poverty.
The socio-economic weight of the issue is especially clear in the recent Planned Parenthood controversy in the US Congress. While Planned Parenthood does provide abortions, these are not funded by government money, as that’s been illegal since 1976. It’s also the only women’s healthcare provider to take Medicaid in many areas, which means that poor women will disproportionately lose their access to things like breast cancer screenings – the things that actually are funded by the money parts of Congress are threatening to take away. This context suggests that maybe the reason that abortions – and Planned Parenthood specifically – are such easy targets has something to do with the socio-economic standing of the people it primarily affects.