Why supporting the pro-life cause is different from defending traditional marriage

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Over at MereOrthodoxy.com, Matthew Lee Anderson explains why traditional marriage and the pro-life movements are seeing different results:

The differences between the issues are considerable. For one, the pro-life movement has been helped by the advent of ultrasound technologies, while the steady decoupling of sex and procreation by techniques like sperm donation and IVF have weakened the link between heterosesual marriage and biological childbirth. What’s more, Hollywood has by and large demonstrated something of an aversion to presenting abortion in a positive light—there seems to be some intuitive appeal to the idea that a mother keeping a child is a noble sacrifice and a better story—but on homosexuality has clearly taken a different approach.  And the “harm argument” by pro-lifers has a good deal more persuasive force than the somewhat more nebulous, further removed case of the marriage movement. “Babies are killed in the womb” is an easier claim to defend than the institutional erosion argument that marriage advocates must make.

Technological advancements and pop culture have been far kinder to the pro-life cause than to the traditional marriage cause. What is more, it’s easier to imagine the harm an abortion does to a baby than to imagine the potential long-term harm to society that might come from shifting long-standing cultural institutions, etc.

Anderson continues:

Perhaps more importantly, though, from a political and social standpoint the central difference between the two is that the pro-life case has gone forward within a progressive social temperament while evangelicals have largely framed their support of marriage in terms of “defense” and “conservatism”…

This is a fascinating point — and one worthy of further discussion.

The pro-life movement is in many ways comparable to past, progressive causes. For one thing, after Roe, pro-lifers were suddenly on the losing side. Being pro-life, thus, became the rebellious, anti-establishment movement. It was they who had been cheated by a court that decided to overrule the will of the people by fiat. What is more, the pro-life side had nothing to lose, and everything to gain. Ironically, being perceived as a cheated minority bestows a certain moral high ground upon a cause.  There is a certain psychological advantage to being a rebel — to fighting against an injustice.

But there’s more to it than that. As I’ve noted before, many pro-lifers admire William Wilberforce, the British Parliamentarian who led the fight to ban the British slave trade. As such, many pro-lifers see the right to life cause as being analogous to the abolitionist cause. But defenders of traditional marriage — even as they firmly believe they are on the side of the angels — have a harder time finding heroic parallels. Fair or not, they are more likely to be compared to segregationists than to abolitionists. This is a problem.

This is also consistent with something else I’ve been writing about lately — the tension between what social conservatives call virtue and what liberals and libertarians call liberty — and about how our modern individualistic society has tilted greatly toward the latter.

By arguing that there is a fundamental “right to life” — rather than framing themselves as “anti-abortion” — the pro-life movement tacitly acknowledged that, for better or worse (and I think it is sometimes both), the trend is toward more individual rights, with less concern about communitarian values, etc. To be sure, advocates of traditional marriage would still prefer to not be defined as “anti-gay marriage,” but either way, they are playing defense.

So aside from technology and pop-culture causing them problems, the traditional marriage activist is also facing an inhospitable political environment, which continues to trend against them. It’s usually a bad idea to play defense, which, I suppose, is an inherent problem for anyone trying to defend traditional cultural values.

H/t: Rod Dreher

Matt K. Lewis