Speaking of Women's Rights: Bringing Abortion Out of the Closet

Friday, May 25, 2012

Bringing Abortion Out of the Closet

by David Ward

Earlier this week, a Gallup poll found that only 41%of Americans identify themselves as pro-choice –  the lowest percentage since Gallup started polling on the question in 1995.   The same day, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 53% of Americans support marriage equality for lesbian and gay couples, up from just 36% in 2006.
These polls suggest that marriage equality now enjoys greater public support than abortion rights.  And this is a trend we’re starting to see reflected in policy-making.  In Washington, for example, the State Legislature considered both issues earlier this year – with very different results. 
First, the Legislature passed a marriage equality bill by margins of 55-43 in the House and 28-21 in the Senate.  The margins of victory were surprisingly comfortable and included some strong bipartisan support.
But an abortion rights measure known as the Reproductive Parity Act faced a tougher road.  This legislation would have required health insurers in Washington to cover abortion services if they also cover maternity care services.  The bill passed the House, but with a thin margin of 52-46 – and no bipartisan support.  And in the Senate, the bill died when legislators twice voted by 23-26 margins against bringing the bill to the floor. 
Why the disparity in support?   The abortion rights and LGBT rights movements have a great deal in common.  Both are dedicated to protecting individual rights, autonomy, and privacy.  Both movements tend to face the same opponents.   In general, leaders in both movements strongly support each other, and recognize the close links between the two causes .   But to the public and to lawmakers, it’s looking like abortion rights are now considered more controversial than marriage equality for same-sex couples. 
The best explanation I’ve seen for this phenomena comes from the columnist Ellen Goodman in this piece she wrote in 2008.  She quoted Stanford law professor Pam Karlan, who summarized the issue neatly:  "Gays have come out of the closet, and women who've had abortions have gone back into the closet."

This feels true.  It’s no secret that support for marriage equality has grown as more and more LGBT Americans have come out.  According to this week’s polling, 71% of Americans now say they have a friend, family member, or acquaintance who is gay or lesbian – and support for marriage equality is 20% higher among those who say they know someone who is LGBT.    
I couldn’t find any polling on how many Americans say they know a friend, family member, or an acquaintance who’s had an abortion.  But I’m betting that it’s not 71%.
Of course, women who’ve had abortions shouldn’t need to “come out” in order to make people understand the importance of abortion rights.  But is that what it’s going to take to make Americans realize that being “pro-choice” means supporting the rights of their friends and families?