Why U.S. Politicians Aren’t ‘Evolving’ On Abortion Rights

This past week, as the Supreme Court took up oral arguments that could have big implications for marriage equality, a growing number of politicians have been spurred to announce their support for the freedom to marry. Just as President Obama credited his own personal evolution on the subject as his impetus for changing his position on marriage equality, Democrats and Republicans alike have begun to speak about their own journeys on the issue.

Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), a socially moderate Catholic who has opposed abortion rights and full marriage equality during his time in office, is one of the latest politicians to reverse his position on LGBT rights. Since abortion and gay marriage have traditionally been the twin “values” issues of the Religious Right, does that suggest that moderate lawmakers like Casey could also have a personal evolution on women’s access to safe and legal reproductive services?

Probably not. According to Daniel Cox, the Public Religion Research Institute’s research director, there’s been a recent “decoupling” of abortion rights and LGBT rights — whereas they were assumed to go hand-in-hand as recently as the mid-2000s, that’s not necessarily the case anymore. The shifting reality is evident in the polling over the past several decades. As support for legal abortion has remained fairly steady, hovering at just over 50 percent, support for marriage equality is on a clear upward trajectory and recently soared to a record high.

So why are social conservatives losing the battle against LGBT equality but winning the war on women’s reproductive rights? There’s no one answer to explain the growing momentum for marriage equality and the simultaneous record-breaking restrictions on abortion services, particularly since the LGBT movement and the reproductive rights movement have very different histories. But Cox told the Washington Post that it could partly be due to public awareness and the increased visibility of LGBT people. “In our research, having a close friend that’s gay or lesbian can have a profound impact on support,” Cox explained. “We see this across Democrats, Republicans, and Evangelicals. It really cuts across a lot of demographics and, in a lot of ways, is more powerful than ideology.”


The same isn’t true for women who have abortions. Most Americans know someone who is gay or lesbian, but they often don’t have the same personal connections with women’s own abortion stories. That’s not because women who have abortions are rare — in fact, one in three U.S. women has had an abortion by the time she is 45 years old — but rather because of a lingering stigma surrounding this aspect of women’s reproductive care. That societal stigma ultimately dissuades women from being open about their experiences with abortion by reinforcing messages about how the procedure is morally depraved, something to be ashamed of, and something women always regret.

That’s why women’s health advocates encourage a “coming out” model for the women who have chosen to terminate a pregnancy, similar to the process within the LGBT community. If politicians like Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) can “evolve” on pro-equality policies because they have personal connections with gay and lesbian individuals, perhaps they will also consider supporting a wider range of pro-woman policies if they hear more from women in their lives who have chosen an abortion. But that isn’t likely to happen soon, particularly if women still don’t feel safe to share their stories without shame and stigmatization.