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Why The Supreme Court’s Rulings On Marriage Equality Have Nothing To Do With Roe v. Wade

By Tara Culp-Ressler  

"Why The Supreme Court’s Rulings On Marriage Equality Have Nothing To Do With Roe v. Wade"

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As the Supreme Court takes up two landmark cases for marriage equality this week, the impending decisions have sparked comparisons to another one of the Court’s rulings on a so-called “social issue” — the Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion rights exactly 40 years ago. Since a politically contentious battle over abortion rights has continued throughout the four decades after Roe, some pundits argue the Justices moved too quickly to grant legal rights to reproductive care, and a similar move toward marriage equality before the country is ready could incite the same kind of public backlash.

But the idea that Roe created the Religious Right — fueling public outrage over abortion that spurred religious conservatives to mobilize across the country — is actually a myth. As Sally Steenland, the Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress, explains, religious conservatives actually began organizing to prevent the IRS from revoking tax-exempt status from a Christian college that was practicing racial discrimination. Evangelicals didn’t welcome what they perceived as “government intrusion” into privately funded, faith-based institutions, and a movement began brewing. In fact, abortion wasn’t added to the Religious Right’s agenda until several years after Roe, when the movement’s leaders began seeking to expand their issues.

And it wasn’t necessarily political backlash from the Religious Right that began chipping away at reproductive rights in a post-Roe nation. In many cases, it was actually the Court itself. In 1980, Harris v. McRae upheld the Hyde Amendment, which bars low-income Americans in the Medicaid program from getting abortion services covered by public insurance. In 1992, Planned Parenthood v. Casey narrowed Roe‘s broad abortion protections to a less rigid standard — specifying that states may restrict abortion as long as they don’t impose an “undue burden” on women seeking to terminate a pregnancy — which paved the way for today’s state-level restrictions, spanning everything from mandatory waiting periods to forced ultrasounds.

Even aside from the unfounded myths about the history of the United States’ abortion rights battles, there’s even more evidence to suggest that Americans won’t revolt if the Justices advance LGBT equality. Although abortion and gay marriage have been the two pillars of the Religious Right’s “values issues” for the past two decades, serving as political wedge issues that go hand-in-hand, that’s not necessarily the case anymore.

“As recently as 2004, we talked about abortion and same sex marriage in the same breath,” Daniel Cox, the Public Religion Research Institute’s research director, told the Washington Post. “They were the values issues. Now, it doesn’t make sense to lump them together anymore. We’ve seen a decoupling.” Cox explained that’s partly because of the increased visibility of LGBT people, and the personal connections with gay and lesbian people that are leading growing numbers of Americans to support pro-equality policies — the kind of public awareness that doesn’t necessarily exist for women who have abortions.

So, although support for legal abortion has remained fairly steady throughout the past three decades, without much of a discernible shift between different age groups, the support for gay marriage has recently soared to historic highs — particularly among young people. The nation didn’t actually erupt into a political firestorm directly as a result of the Court’s decision on abortion rights, and there’s no evidence to suggest that a ruling in favor of marriage equality will spark that response, either.

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