The Kids Are (Comparatively) Pro-Life

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Over at Secular Right - which I intend to read, er, religiously, though I'd rather its creators were expending their energy on a less self-segregated platform - Razib/David Hume wonders if there's any empirical evidence for the contention that the younger generation is more pro-gay but also more pro-life than their elders, and then conjures up with some data from the General Social Survey that supports the proposition:

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Making the question about "abortion on demand" arguably tilts the overall results in a pro-life direction, but the intergenerational trend is notable no matter what. Other data I've seen - for instance, this Pew survey of "millenials" - suggests something slightly more modest: That teens and twentysomethings are no less pro-life than their elders, even though they're more socially liberal most other fronts. The deeper question, of course, is why this should be so - why are social conservatives holding their ground (and maybe gaining some) on abortion even as the country moves leftward on the nest of issues surrounding sexual orientation?

There are lots of possible answers, but the simplest one probably has to do with the nature of a liberal society, the kind of arguments that find traction in a liberal regime - and the kind that don't. Here I think it's worth quoting from an essay Peter Berkowitz wrote for Policy Review in 2005; he's talking about the Supreme Court's jurisprudence, but his arguments apply as well, or even better, to shifts in public opinion:

On the touchstone issues, the Court has given a substance to equality in freedom that has extended the protected sphere of individual choice and has expanded the privileged range of individuals who enjoy it. This in turn has prepared the way for further extension and expansion. The Court has done so in the face of respectable alternative interpretations of the substance of equality in freedom, which stress the social costs of expanding choice, particularly the damage done to the material and moral preconditions for maintaining a society of free individuals. Both interpretations of the substance of equality in freedom -- that which focuses on releasing individuals from fetters and that which concentrates on the need to restrain individuals and prepare them for the responsibilities of freedom -- belong to the liberal tradition. Yet in the contest between them, the liberal spirit naturally prefers measures that enlarge the realm of individual autonomy or promote a more egalitarian society over those that seek to contain the social costs of those measures and to conserve the background conditions that keep autonomy from deteriorating into anarchy.

But this tendency has very different implications for the debate over abortion than the debate over same-sex marriage. On abortion, it's unclear which side the "liberal spirit" should favor:

... we refer to conservatives on the abortion question as pro-life and progressives as pro-choice, yet both camps are pro-personal freedom. Proponents of a woman's right to terminate her pregnancy defend the personal freedom of women in the form of their interest in maintaining control over their bodies and their lives. Woman can enjoy neither freedom to live their lives as they see fit nor equality in politics and the marketplace, pro-choicers argue, if they must unwillingly carry a fetus to term and bear the burden of an unwanted pregnancy.

But conservative opponents of abortion also invoke personal freedom. They emphasize the rights of the unborn child -- who, they contend, is a living person in the morally relevant sense. While they do not reject a woman's right to control her body and determine the shape of her future, they do maintain that the unborn child's right to life supersedes it. Alternatively, conservatives invoke the freedom connected to federalism and self-government, arguing that justices of the United States Supreme Court, with no foundation in the Constitution, have invented abortion rights, thereby imperiously deciding a moral question that the Constitution leaves to the free choice of the people through their democratically elected state legislatures. Powerful conservative voices do oppose abortion on religious grounds, out of belief that the unborn child is an embodied soul, that is, even in the earliest stages of development, a unique human being. But when they participate in the public debate, the pronounced tendency of conservative opponents of abortion is to make their case in the language of freedom. This is certainly true when they sit on the United States Supreme Court.

Contrary to Professor Laurence Tribe, who famously argued that it presented a clash of absolutes, the public debate over abortion reveals a clash of competing interpretations of freedom. Or rather, it presents a tendency on the part of partisans to absolutize competing imperatives that arise out of a shared belief in the fundamental importance of freedom.

By contrast, Berkowitz notes, "is it is more difficult to translate arguments against same-sex marriage into the language of freedom," and the debate over gay marriage and gay rights tends to pit "liberal principles and goods on one side against some other kinds of principles and goods on the other." And in a liberal society, advancing "principles and goods" that partake of pre-liberal, non-liberal or illiberal premises is almost always a losing fight in the long run, because "the rights in terms of which the liberal tradition defines freedom are essentially expansive in nature, steadily eroding the limits on individual choice established by law and custom." This leads Berkowitz to conclude that "should the issue find its way to the Supreme Court, the ability of proponents of same-sex marriage to make their case straightforwardly in the language of freedom and the inability of opponents to frame their legitimate concerns in that language will likely result in same-sex marriage's being enshrined in the supreme law of the land." Whether he's right about that or not - and it's certainly been true in many state courts - I'm pretty sure his logic applies in spades to the court of public opinion.

There's an interesting philosophical argument among conservatives, especially of a traditionalist bent, about whether the anti-abortion movement, by advancing their arguments in liberal, rights-based terms, has essentially conceded too much to their opponents, and framed the debate in a manner that makes it impossible to win. I think the lesson of the debate over same-sex marriage, where the non-liberal argument started from a position of seemingly unassailable strength but has more or less crumbled over less than a generation of debate, is that pro-lifers are playing the best hand they possibly can. (For a more thorough go-round on this point, see this old exchange between Larison, Millman and myself, in which I quote the same Berkowitz essay; blog long enough, and you'll always come round to the same topics again.)

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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