Remember the the New York Times piece about young people and social conservatism that Matthew Schmitz wrote about here yesterday? On The Corner, Michael J. New weighs in and mentions the (seeming) paradox that young people are less supportive of abortion but more supportive of gay marriage than their elders. He puts his finger on what I think explains the approval gap: “Unlike same-sex marriage, there is a clear, suffering victim in abortion.”
But it’s a little more complex than this. Pro-choice groups agree that there’s a clear, suffering victim in abortion: the woman. They mention not the women who are married and could afford to bear and raise a child, but the women who are young, poor, single, unhealthy, or raped. (And obviously these women do suffer — I’m not denying the difficulty and pain of their situations.) If they mention the unborn baby at all, it is to dismiss its status as a human being deserving of protection. So abortion is a situation involving a victim; however, the victim is never the child, only the mother. The pro-life movement has gained public approval in part by drawing attention to the baby as another human being who (along with the mother!) deserves our protection and concern. The mother may be a victim, but so is the child.
With same-sex marriage, on the other hand, most of the victims (from society’s perspective) are theoretical. Who are they? First, the people who would be harmed if changing the institution of marriage turns out to undermine it. As the libertarian blogger Megan McArdle once pointed out, that possibility is more likely than it sounds: With the advent of no-fault divorce and the extension of welfare benefits to unmarried mothers, the late twentieth century demonstrated that marriage is both more important and more fragile than reformers had thought. The other (mostly theoretical) victims are the children, adopted or otherwise, of gay and lesbian couples, who may face the less than ideal situation of lacking parents of both sexes. Since these theoretical victims, if they’re remembered at all, are counterbalanced in young people’s minds by the real victims of historic anti-gay violence and by today’s gays and lesbians who would like to get married, same-sex marriage seems to be a no-brainer.