Recently, several prominent voices on both sides of the same-sex marriage debate have made comparisons between the Supreme Court’s controversial 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade and the forthcoming Supreme Court rulings that could overturn the Defense of Marriage Act (United States v. Windsor) and legalize marriage for same-sex couples in all 50 states (Hollingsworth v. Perry).
Public opinion data prove these comparisons to be woefully misguided. Americans simply do not view abortion and marriage in the same light.
A clear majority of the country favors providing same-sex couples with the ability to marry, while opinion on abortion has remained closely divided for almost 40 years. A March poll by ABC News and the Washington Post found that 58% of Americans support gay and lesbian Americans’ legal right to wed — a record high. That majority will likely grow into a broad-based consensus in the not-too-distant future, as polls reveal that more than four out of five voters under 30 support legalizing same-sex marriage.
By contrast, abortion has always been a controversial issue. Here, consensus is derived from compromise: a recent Gallup poll found that 52% of Americans believe that abortion should be legal only under certain circumstances. And unlike with same-sex marriage, there is no looming opinion shift on the issue — young voters are just as divided on abortion as their parents and grandparents.
Moreover, while attitudes toward same-sex marriage have shifted quickly and decisively over the last decade, beliefs on abortion have been incredibly stable. Just nine years ago, support for same-sex marriage was at only 32% according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll, but since then it has grown an amazing 26 percentage points. The shift in opinion has been even more pronounced in states where same-sex marriage is already legal.
On abortion, attitudes have barely changed: the percentage of Americans preferring a middle ground on abortion — that it be legal only under certain circumstances — has moved only two percentage points over the past four decades. While the controversy over abortion continues, the fight over same-sex marriage is almost over.
Of course, there are also legal and practical differences between the issues. Roe v. Wade established a new right, while the Supreme Court has already affirmed marriage as a fundamental right 14 times in previous decisions. Further, in the absence of a ruling that affirms same-sex couples’ legal right to marriage, support for marriage rights will surely grow faster than activists can navigate the legal and political hurdles to overturning the 30 existing statewide constitutional bans on same-sex marriage. Indeed, polls show that nearly two-thirds of Americans would rather the Supreme Court decide the issue for all states on constitutional grounds than allow each state to make its own law.
When, in a recent speech, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg suggested that Roe moved our nation too far, too fast, many concluded that her feelings about Roe could have implications for this year’s same-sex marriage cases. But it seems clear that the same-sex marriage cases before the Court have arisen under a vastly different set of circumstances.
Ultimately, same-sex marriage and abortion are just fundamentally different issues — as ordinary Americans seem to understand. Hopefully the members of the Supreme Court do as well.
Alex Lundry is the vice president and director of research at TargetPoint Consulting, where he works as a data analyst. He most recently served as the director of data science for Mitt Romney’s campaign.