WASHINGTON -- Just 20 years ago, pro-life and anti-homosexual rights views seemed to overlap entirely. They appeared to be expressions of the same traditionalist moral framework, destined to succeed or fail together as twin pillars of the culture war.
But in the years since, the fortunes of these two social stands have dramatically diverged. A May 2009 Gallup poll found that more Americans, for the first time, describe themselves as "pro-life" than "pro-choice." A February 2010 CNN/Time poll found that half of Americans, for the first time, believe that homosexuality is "not a moral issue." This divergence says something about successful social movements in America.
Pro-life activists have made far less legal progress than have advocates for gay rights, in part because the courts have played an active role in discouraging democracy on abortion. But it is a remarkable achievement that 37 years after Roe v. Wade attempted to settle the abortion question, it remains unsettled. Fifty-two percent of Americans believe that having an abortion is "morally wrong." Fifty-three percent oppose public funding in health reform legislation. The provision of abortion remains stigmatized within the medical profession. And the abortion rate in America has dropped significantly since the 1980s.
Part of this continuing unease results from technological innovation. Increasingly vivid sonograms have provided a window to the womb, revealing the humanity of a developing human.
But the pro-life movement also shifted its political strategy, moving away from judgmental moral arguments toward a language of civil rights aspiration. Pro-life activists and politicians, influenced by Catholic thinkers such a Richard John Neuhaus, began talking of an expanding circle of legal inclusion and protection that includes the unborn -- a welcoming society that values the vulnerable. In this narrative, abortion is not only wrong but also unjust.
The advances of the homosexual rights movement have been broader. Its progress is perhaps the most pronounced social change of the last few decades. Homosexual marriage remains a two-sided debate, but two-thirds of Americans now favor civil unions for homosexual couples. The claim of basic rights for homosexuals -- to be left alone, free from harassment -- is conceded even by most critics of homosexual marriage. While there is serious opposition to gay nuptials, there is no serious movement for the return of sodomy laws and social discrimination.