The Great Unweaving


I’m sitting outside a downtown Starbucks with two George Washington University undergraduates, talking about sex, politics, and religion. Michele Walk and Conor Joseph Rogers fit my stereotype of contemporary American college students. They’re sincere, confident, and hyperaware of the ways in which they’re different from their parents.

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Michele and Conor also represent a growing demographic: They consider themselves both pro-life and supporters of gay marriage.

Although polls are volatile on both issues, there are strong indications that young adults increasingly support gay marriage, and weaker indications that they are increasingly pro-life. A 2005 poll of high school seniors found that, while 60 percent believed Roe v. Wade should not be overturned, they were as likely to consider themselves “pro-life” as “pro-choice,” and 67 percent said that abortion was either “always” or “usually” wrong.

Meanwhile, a 2006 poll found 61.2 percent support for “legal marital status” for gay couples among college freshmen, and this percentage has been increasing since 1997. A February 2010 Washington Post-ABC News poll found, for the first time, that a majority of young adults “strongly” favored gay marriage. Discussions of gay marriage now include phrases like “cohort replacement” — a euphemism for “old people dying off.”

Liberal poll maven Nate Silver summarized the shift in 2009:

[T]here is some decent evidence that Gen Y’ers are less inclined to take the pro-choice position than Gen X’ers or Baby Boomers — although they are still more pro-choice than the voters they are gradually replacing in the voting pool…. This is in spite of the fact that young Americans are considerably more liberal than their peers on issues like gay marriage and marijuana legalization, issues on which there is more tangible evidence of “momentum” in favor of the liberal position. There are evidently an increasing number of pro-life, pro-gay marriage Americans, particularly among Generation Yers, a position it would have been very unusual to encounter just a few years ago.

The Sonogram Generation

Today’s young adults grew up with their baby brother’s sonogram pictures on the refrigerator door. Their sister’s post unborn-baby photos on Facebook. Meanwhile, doctors are learning how to save ever-tinier premature babies: 11 ounces, 9 ounces; 25 weeks, 21 weeks. Conor notes, with barely suppressed emotion, “There are some states now where abortion is legal at the stage when I was born.”

Moreover, even as genetic testing leads many parents to abort children diagnosed with potential birth defects — the vast majority of all children with prenatal diagnoses of Down Syndrome are aborted — other parents, and their children, draw a different lesson. Jake, a law student, told me, “I’ve had an older brother and my younger sister [who] died when they were infants due to a rare genetic defect. When my mom became pregnant with me the doctor yelled at her and made her cry, and said she should have an abortion. I ended up being born fine and my younger sister was okay; and unfortunately my youngest sister passed away. We have experienced the joy [of being with my youngest sister] for a short while.”

And finally, one consequence of the shocking American abortion rate — about one in five pregnancies end in abortion every year, for a total of about 1.2 million per year — is that many, many people know women who have aborted. And many of those women describe some level of grief, regret, and guilt. Even when post-abortive women say they made the right decision, or simply don’t address that question when describing their feelings, the people who love them hear their distress. The Feminists for Life slogan, “Women deserve better than abortion,” may strike tough-minded abortion-rights advocates as platitudinous. But for many young adults, including those who have had abortions, the slogan represents the wisdom of experience.

But does telling a pollster you’re pro-life really represent a belief strong enough to change behavior? Although the abortion rate has fallen from its 1990 peak, it’s leveled off above the million-a-year mark. And every abortion-clinic worker’s blog mentions how often self-described “pro-life” women come in for abortions — for themselves, for their daughters. Although the teen abortion rate has fallen, young adults remain one of the most abortion-vulnerable populations: A Guttmacher Institute survey found that 57 percent of all abortions in 2004 were performed on women in their 20s, and another survey found that about a third of all abortions are performed on women age 20-24.

If the abortion-rights movement can’t stop the effects of ultrasound technology, the pro-life movement is even more helpless against the broad economic changes that have made abortion one of the “structural sins” of contemporary America. An economy based on the two-earner family and, increasingly, on not merely postsecondary but postgraduate education is an economy hostile to women’s fertility. Add blithe romanticism about premarital sex (“as long as you’re ‘committed’!”), preference for self-image over practicality (“I’m not the kind of girl who goes on birth control”), and the usual American self-righteousness followed swiftly by self-justification, and the numbers should come as no surprise.

Finally, Roe v. Wade may make it easier for young adults to call themselves pro-life. As long as there’s no chance that abortions will be outlawed, and only popular restrictions like parental notification can be enacted, pro-lifers don’t need to confront the hard facts of forcing women to bear unwanted children. When abortion is legal, the horror stories are almost all on one side. That won’t be true if Roe is ever overturned. Today, pro-lifers can focus on “helping women make the choice for life,” and on a lot of other (necessary and wonderful) actions that make people feel fluffy about themselves. If South Dakota, say, ever outlaws abortion, jailing doctors and perhaps fining or even jailing pregnant women, I would expect the percentage of people who tell pollsters they’re pro-life to plummet. What Conor cleverly called “the sonogram generation” has never had to face the possibility of life after illegal abortion.

‘The First Civil Union I Ever Went To’

The rising generation’s shift on gay marriage is often presented as if its explanation is obvious: Young adults today grew up knowing gay people. A 2004 poll by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network found that 72 percent of high school students know someone who is gay or lesbian. Chris Pagliarella, a Yale undergraduate, told me, “The first civil union I ever went to was my grandmother’s two neighbors. They’ve always taken care of my grandmother. They’re both doctors. And that struck me as entirely my ideal commitment: both completely dedicated to each other and the community.”

But young adults embrace gay marriage not solely because of their beliefs about gay couples, but because of their beliefs about marriage. They typically view marriage as the capstone on their accomplishments, to be attempted only once they’ve crossed off all the other major items on life’s to-do list. A friend of mine, who got engaged right after graduating from college, said he’d had to make a mental shift: He wasn’t missing out on the twenty-something years of drifting and experimenting and “living a little,” but was instead getting an early start on his real life, married life.

The biggest change in our understanding of marriage might be called “the Great Unweaving.” A whole host of concepts that used to converge in marriage have now been unlinked: sex, commitment, cohabitation, procreation, and child-rearing now appear mix-and-match rather than bundled. In the 2000-2005 school terms, researchers replicated a 1940 study of students’ attitudes toward premarital sex and deliberate childlessness. The contemporary students were more accepting of premarital sex, and vastly more accepting of voluntary childlessness, than their World War II-era predecessors. Young adults are familiar with commitment outside of marriage, and when they discuss marriage they talk almost exclusively in terms of a couple, childless and isolated from the extended family.

The notion of marriage as a haven for procreation, a promise to tie the child to her biological father and to keep him from dividing his energies between many families, rarely occurs to them when they discuss marriage. The exceptions, which have always been with us — some women raise their children alone, some couples adopt or remain childless — are now viewed as undermining the rule, making it impossible for young adults to view the biological family as a norm or ideal.

There is one typical exception to young adults’ Chinese-menu approach to relationships: sexual exclusivity. Both gay and straight college students seem to view “open relationships” as suspect. These are typically the only kind of relationships young adults will even tentatively pass judgment on. Although they hedge with reflexively tolerant clauses like “I don’t think it’s my business,” their typical attitude is strongly negative. (That updating-the-1940s study similarly found that today’s students were more negative toward extramarital sex than their predecessors.)

I’m not certain how long this vestigial traditionalism will last. Polygamy gets terrible press, but rebrand it as polyamory — egalitarian, excruciatingly ethical — and the media changes tune. The weblog Poly in the Media argues that polyamorists are “winning the race to define ourselves,” citing a score of positive mainstream media stories. Moreover, while the gay students I’ve spoken with were as adamant about sexual exclusivity as their heterosexual cohorts, a January New York Times story suggests that age and experience may complicate their purity: “A study to be released next month is offering a rare glimpse inside gay relationships and reveals that monogamy is not a central feature for many.” If knowing happy and productive gay couples led young adults to support gay marriage, will knowing people in happy and productive “open relationships” lead them to unweave yet another thread?

Meanwhile, the legal and sacramental aspects of marriage, which were once mutually reinforcing, are now viewed as conflicting. Michele summarizes a common view: “Any marriage that the government gets involved in should be called a civil union, because marriage is a religious term, a religious sacrament. It never should have been co-opted by the government. The government calling something marriage is like the government standing on the corner handing out saltines and saying that’s communion!” This is why most young adults I speak with think it would be fine — maybe even best — if government stopped recognizing marriage entirely. They often view this solution as “impractical,” but rational and fair.

American marriages are under tremendous pressure, since they are almost the only form of relationship we honor and on which we depend. All the other roles that once had public status and popular honor have become mere accessories: neighbors, friends, godparents, extended family. All of these are nice, if you happen to get a job near one of them, but especially in more affluent communities (interestingly, the ones much more likely to get married), these roles impose no special obligations. They are neither forms of love nor forms of duty. A 2004 study purported to find that one-quarter of Americans have no confidants at all; though later research suggests that this is an exaggeration, the trend is still toward increasing isolation and fewer close relationships.

This pressure on marriage makes gay marriage appear more necessary. If nothing but marriage is honored, then marriage seems like the only possible way to honor the social and personal goods provided by gay couples. I would prefer to see us honor a far wider variety of nonmarital loves and obligations, acknowledging that they are different from one another as well as from marriage. Civil unions address the legal needs of gay couples while, one hopes, preserving the concept of marriage as something distinct and tailored to heterosexual couples’ needs. A couple of states recognize “reciprocal beneficiaries,” in which two people not eligible for marriage can nonetheless share various legal benefits and obligations. Ryan T. Anderson and Sherif Girgis proposed something similar in 2009 in The Public Discourse.

But legal distinctions can be undermined by cultural shifts: Although the United Kingdom has “civil partnerships” rather than gay marriage, the cultural effect is that newspapers say gay couples are “wedding” and heterosexuals refer to their “partners” rather than their husbands or wives. And many forms of nonmarital kinship don’t need much legal accommodation; what they need is social honor and support. If we began treating our closest friend as kin, how would our lives change? If we treated our godchildren as ours, what would we need from others to support that kinship?

My sense, based on necessarily unrepresentative conversations with young adults, is that they are much more open to the possibility that marriage is a heterosexual institution when they are offered other ways of acknowledging, honoring, and supporting the good work done by gay couples. There will be limits to how much honor many religious Americans can give these relationships; but the answer cannot be “don’t give any legal support to gay couples raising children,” for example.

Equality or Sameness?

When I described this article to some undergraduates I interviewed, they wondered what the connection between abortion and gay marriage could be. And I wondered, myself, whether the old “social issues” mantle had been a seamless garment or a patchwork coalition.

But there is one major way in which opposition to abortion conflicts with support for gay marriage — one feature of a pro-life stance that reveals the major flaw in the gay-marriage argument.

If abortion is morally neutral, an unpleasant but basically acceptable form of backup birth control, then heterosexual relationships look vastly more like homosexual relationships than they do if abortion is wrong, horrific, or tragic. If abortion is outlawed; or if enough women become sufficiently pro-life that they choose life for their babies, even when the pregnancy feels like a cruel joke; or if enough men and women lose their naiveté and wishful thinking and begin to make sexual choices knowing that they may be creating a child… then the tragedies and the culture of heterosexuality will be starkly different from the tragedies and culture of homosexuality. If there’s one social evil a gay relationship will virtually never produce, it’s an abortion. And yet, for most heterosexual couples to avoid abortion, they must make a lot of difficult choices again and again.

Thinking this way should underline the ways in which homosexual relationships were always different from heterosexual ones. Because men and women are different — biologically different, and differently situated socially — men and women face different risks and rewards in a straight relationship. The norms and culture of marriage arose to meet the needs of heterosexual couples: to minimize the damage of unregulated intercourse and maximize the great social good of childrearing within the natural family. (To take one obvious example, try to find someone who holds up “abstinence until gay marriage” as an ideal. I did find one guy who said this, but he’s very much in the minority.) Can we sustain or, more pointedly, renew the marriage norms and culture which heterosexuals and their children desperately need, while pretending that heterosexual relationships face the same challenges as gay relationships and need the same rules?


  • Eve Tushnet

    Eve Tushnet was born in 1978 and grew up in Washington, D.C. She was received into the Catholic Church at Yale University in 1998. Her hobbies include sin, confession, and ecstasy. Her writing can be found on her blog and She writes a lot about being gay and Catholic. Her patron saint is Elizabeth of Hungary. She has worked full-time for the National Catholic Register and the Manhattan Institute (one year each), and part-time for the Institute on Marriage and Public Policy, the Bible Literacy Project, and the National Organization for Marriage. She has written for publications including Commonweal, the New York Post, the Washington Blade, and the Weekly Standard. Mostly she writes the art reviews for publications people don’t read for the art reviews.

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