Opposition to Abortion and Same-Sex Marriage

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I recently found this interview with Richard Rodriguez, which raises some interesting suppositions about why social conservatives oppose same-sex marriage, tying it to a desire to maintain a traditional view of the family. On one level, this seems right. Much of the actual rhetoric from socially conservative groups, e.g. the Family Research Council, links same-sex marriage to the breakdown of the family, a claim that on the face of it seems absurd. How does the ability of two gay men to call their union a marriage somehow make my heterosexual marriage more likely to break down? One common argument for same-sex marriage is that it will actually strength the institution of marriage by promoting long-term relationships among a demographic that has a much higher tendency to avoid them.

In some ways the level of vitriol and forcefulness of resistance to same-sex marriage does seem to me to reflect a misplaced set of priorities when there are much more immediate problems within the very communities that oppose same-sex marriage. Evangelicals (as traditionally defined by the media, anyway) have as much of a problem with divorce as the country at large (although if you look at the stricter criteria of George Barna to define evangelicalism, the gap widens considerably). Roman Catholicism still hasn't responded in a way that has satisfied enough people to the priest sex abuse scandal. Mormons still endorse polygamy as in principle perfectly fine and the right way to do things during certain periods. Given their opposition to same-sex marriage on grounds of supporting the traditional family, black Americans have a  disturbingly high rate of single parenthood and, for that matter, abortion with respect to the general population. While we certainly shouldn't assume individual cases are all a result of hypocrisy, Rodriguez is at least prima facie right to raise that spectre as a worry.

Nevertheless, when it comes down to the details, some of Rodriguez's claims seem to me to be so off-base that I find it amazing that someone could put them forward seriously. Is the resistance to same-sex marriage based fundamentally in a desire to prevent women from becoming too dominant in society? After recognizing that society is now at a place where we hardly even wonder where someone's father is when only his mother shows up at the Olympics to see him win medal after medal, he goes on to offer a sweeping generalization to explain the opposition to same-sex marriage:

The possibility that a whole new generation of American males is being raised by women without men is very challenging for the churches. I think they want to reassert some sort of male authority over the order of things. I think the pro-Proposition 8 movement was really galvanized by an insecurity that churches are feeling now with the rise of women.
It's certainly true that some churches want to reassert the view that authority should be primarily in the hands of men. Some extend this to society as a whole, but far more limit it (as the Bible does) to leadership in the family and authoritative teaching and leading in the church. But is that the explanation for opposition to same-sex marriage? It doesn't have anything to do with the fact that a lot of people think same-sex sexual relationships are morally wrong? Rodriguez just seems to me to be confusing two separate issues that don't actually have much in common theoretically. It's true that one argument against homosexuality has to do with how the Bible treats a marriage relationship as reflective of role relations within the Trinity. But if you listen to Rodriguez, you get the sense that all the outrage against gay couples wanting to call their relationships marriages stems from some visceral desire to prevent women from becoming too uppity, which just sounds crazy. I know several people (although it's actually a pretty small percentage of people I know who think same-sex sexual relationships are wrong) who seem to base their opposition on a visceral disgust at the idea of two men having sex with each other. That has nothing to do with women and authority. The more common reason comes from simple observation of biblical texts as traditionally interpreted, and the basis of those interpretations doesn't lie in one's attitude toward women.

Along the way, he gives a similar argument with respect to abortion:
 
Monotheistic religions feel threatened by the rise of feminism and the insistence, in many communities, that women take a bigger role in the church. At the same time that women are claiming more responsibility for their religious life, they are also moving out of traditional roles as wife and mother. This is why abortion is so threatening to many religious people -- it represents some rejection of the traditional role of mother.
It's completely crazy to try to explain opposition to abortion entirely in terms of preventing women from being in control. It's certainly true that arguments within pro-choice feminism see the abortion issue that way, but there's no way that's the important issue for pro-lifers. If Rodriguez doesn't understand that the main reason so many people oppose abortion is because they think it's despicable to take an innocent life for reasons that usually amount to lesser importance than the life issue, then he's living in a bubble. Since Rodriguez is Catholic, he should know better.

7 Comments

I would be curious as to your thoughts on Michael Craven's series at the link below on the defense of traditional marriage.

http://www.battlefortruth.org/ArticlesDetail.asp?id=296

I think it’s kind of silly to try to explain opposition to abortion entirely in terms of any single issue, whether it be controlling women or protecting innocent life. Interestingly, statutory criminalization of abortion in the late 1800’s seems to have been driven as much by the medical profession as by any other interest group. Under the common law, there does not appear to have been any prohibition against the termination of pregnancy pre-quickening. Although they certainly understood that it was a human being forming in the woman’s womb, they seem to have viewed the fetus as a part of the woman’s body rather than an independent human being.

Permit me a brief response to your question "How does the ability of two gay men to call their union a marriage somehow make my heterosexual marriage more likely to break down?"

Let me first recommend that you adopt humility by becoming less opinionated and more rational. You strike quite the odd pose with your attempt to step into the fray of same-sex marriage--while attempting to maintain a facade of "Christianity" on your blogsite.

Second, consider that Jesus always presumes that marriage is between male and female--man and woman.

Third, from a strictly secular perspective, consider that same-sex anything contributes to the disintegration of society. The institution of family is elemental, and the erosion or dissolution of directly threatens the society upon which it rests. Just consult your ancient Greek and Roman history books.

Please call yourself not a Christian, unless you would be willing to follow Christ.

Good day.

JV

I don't think there's much evidence for your third point. It's not even close to true as stated, for one thing. Same-sex bathrooms don't contribute to the disintegration of society, nor do same-sex friendships. I could think of a host of counter-examples. Now I'm sure you meant a much more limited kind of same-sex anythings, and it may well be that same-sex romantic relationships contribute to disorder in other ways. But most likely those disorders are already present and probably even led to looser standards on this issue. In Romans1, that's how Paul describes the order of events. I don't think there's a very clear historical argument behind this sort of claim, given how difficult it is to understand correlation vs. causation on such a large scale even in the present.

You're right that Jesus always presumes that a marriage is between a man and a woman. The scriptures very clearly set up the institution of marriage to be between the first man and the first woman, and there's never any indication in scripture that it's ok to depart from that structure. I never denied any of that, so I'm not sure why you bring it up as if it's contrary to anything I hold. You must take me to hold a very different view from what I do hold if you think this point is even relevant.

Humility doesn't mean not offering arguments for positions, which is all I've done. It does mean being willing to listen to arguments for the opposing side, which I'm certainly willing to do and have a very strong track record of doing on this blog. In fact, that's part of what leads to posts like this. Humility also means actually paying attention to what someone says before criticizing it, which it seems you didn't do.

Facade? As should be clear to anyone familiar with my blog, I'm a conservative evangelical, and by conservative I mean both politically and theologically. I've defended a relatively conservative position on this issue. You tell me to be rational, but you argue against me first by name-calling before you even give any actual arguments, and then when you give arguments you fail to give any against the position I actually hold.

What is it about the mere discussion of this issue that makes one's Christianity suspect? Do you think real Christians never discuss this issue at all, and you judge their faith based on the relative priority they assign to how vocal they should be on different issues? Isolation from honest engagement with ethical issues is not a sign of any Christianity in the pages of scripture. But by your own standards, you are a false believer too, since you're here discussing it. So I hope you're not maintaining a facade of Christianity while discussing this issue the way you're claiming I am for discussing the issue.

I wouldn't normally be so snarky, but accusations that someone is a false believer are about as severe as you can get, and it's strikingly ironic that you can lift yourself to such heights as to engage in divine judgment of someone's very salvation based on irrelevant and badly-understood facts, all the while telling someone else to be more humble.

SCS, I've posted a lengthy discussion of Craven's arguments here.

Vinny, I think there's a good reason why earlier generations that didn't know the science we know know didn't make pre-quickening abortions illegal, namely that they didn't know the science we now know. It was once thought that quickening was the point of ensoulment, because movement couldn't be detected before that point. We now know that quickening is just the point at which a mother can detect her child's movement but that movement occurs much earlier. There's also no reason to connect ensoulment with movement, which is why those who try to find a spot for ensoulment after conception usually place it at the time when cell differentiation occurs, because by then you've got an organ controlling development, and organ then eventually becomes the brain or brain stem (or something like that; I'm a bit fuzzy on the details, since I haven't looked at this in a while). But the most likely candidate for ensoulment is conception if you're going to think in terms of substance dualism.

I am skeptical of that explanation for a couple of reasons.

First, pro-lifers do not impress me as the type of people who change their views on moral or political issues based on the conclusions reached by modern science. The same people who take a strong anti-abortion seem to be more likely than others to reject the consensus of the scientific community when it comes to questions like evolution or climate change.

Second, I am skeptical that the movement to criminalize abortion in the eighteenth and nineteenth century can be tied to any specific scientific discovery or any increase in scientific understanding among the general population. I suspect that social and political factors explain the changes better although I confess that my knowledge in this area is not what I would like it to be.

Third, I don’t think that this was ever really a scientific question. I suspect that people have always recognized that there is a certain arbitrariness in picking any particular point in the pregnancy as the moment of “ensoulment.”

Why should we assume the current generation of pro-lifers is culturally anything like those who wrote and passed abortion laws in the years up to the early 70s? What contemporary pro-lifers are like doesn't seem to me to have any bearing on what those lawmakers were like.

But leaving that issue to the side, I think it's pretty clear that many on both sides of the political spectrum ignore the science they choose to ignore while complaining about the other side doing the same thing. Environmentalists regularly ignore science and facts to smear the Bush Administration, often with outright lies. See Robert Kennedy, Jr. for some clear examples. It's mostly from the same community that you get conspiracy theories about the government "knowing" of some connection between autism and vaccines, even though every proposed connection has been disproved. The scientific merit for demonstrating the severity and human role in climate change isn't anywhere near what Al Gore says it is. His work on that is filled with inaccuracies, and it contradicts the scientists who received a Nobel prize at the same time he did. As for evolution, most opponents of intelligent design are so incapable of making important distinctions between science and non-science (and between different views that get called ID or creationism) that it's hard for me to take them seriously, even if it's also true that intelligent design proponents make confused statements and that a portion of them accept bad science.

Besides, I gave an actual piece of scientific information that pro-lifers really do pay attention to that wasn't known or widely talked about in earlier years. So these more general issues are really beside the point.

For the second point, I'm not talking about the movement to criminalize abortion. My specific point was about the movement from criminalizing abortion only after quickening to criminalizing it before quickening as well. I'm not sure the details of when this took place, but my proposed explanation seems like a good hypothesis that would explain why they saw a fetus as part of a woman's body at one point even though science now shows that a fetus is a separate organism (in fact even a developing embryo clearly is its own organism).

There's always a philosophical move beyond the scientific question. But there's a perfectly scientific question as to when life begins, and it's clearly conception. We know that now. Those who thought life begins at quickening were scientifically wrong, even it's a separate move to conclude somthing about an immaterial soul.

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