What marriage defenders can learn from Roe

Carolyn Moynihan
29 July 2014
Reproduced with Permission

The situation of marriage in the USA and much of the Western world today is unprecedented, the very institution in danger of collapsing into a chaos of sexual relationships of any shape or size. But looking beyond the history of marriage there is an important precedent, says Ryan T Anderson in a new article in National Review Online (registration/small payment required).

That precedent is the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, which effectively created a national regime of abortion on demand throughout all nine months of pregnancy, a ruling "more sweeping and more extreme than anyone had expected." And yet supporters of marriage can learn from the pro-life response to Roe, Anderson argues, how to effectively defend marriage in the public square.

We should not forget that more than half of Americans today are pro-life.

As American judges fall like dominoes before claims about "marriage equality" and a Roe-type Supreme Court decision looms; as business people are sued for refusing to facilitate same-sex weddings and opponents are generally demonised as bigots and dinosaurs, the situation can look dire.

But we should avoid the temptation to prognosticate about the future in lieu of working to shape that future. We are citizens in a self-governing society, not pundits watching a spectator sport, not subjects of rulers. We are participants in one of the most significant debates any society has ever had.

Anderson draws a number of lessons from the pro-life movement. The following are excerpts from his article.

1. Like pro-lifers, we should start by building alliances with those concerned about judicial activism and committed to sound federalism.

In the run-up to Roe, the rallying cry should have been that the Constitution is silent on the question of abortion - and so the people remain sovereign. Now we must defend our constitutional authority as citizens to make marriage policy.

Whatever the Court does will cause less damage if we vigorously defend a classically liberal form of limited government and highlight the importance of religious liberty. Even if the Court were to redefine marriage, government should not require third parties to recognize a same-sex relationship as a marriage. After all, protecting religious liberty and the rights of conscience does not infringe on anyone's sexual freedom.

2. Ultimately, we cannot protect religious liberty without defending our substantive views.

This is one key lesson from the pro-life movement. While liberal elites disagree with the pro-life position, many at least understand why a pro-life citizen holds the views she does, and why government thus shouldn't coerce citizens into performing or subsidizing abortions. Will those who favour marriage redefinition view - and thus treat - their dissenting fellow citizens as, in the words of Justice Scalia, "enemies of the human race"? Or will they treat us as they do pro-lifers?

Just as the pro-life movement explained why its members care about the unborn, we must help our fellow citizens understand why we believe what we do about marriage. Even if they keep their convictions, they might well acknowledge the reasonableness of ours, and respect our right to govern our lives in accord with them.

We must work harder so that they hear our voices. In doing this, we must understand that many of our neighbours haven't rejected the argument for marriage; they simply haven't heard it. We must make that argument in new and creative ways.

3. Good ideas can persuade but only if we are willing to present them in a winsome manner. In the long run, the truth wins.

Anderson here sums up the content of the book, Man and Woman: A Defense , which he co-authored with Sherif Girgis and Robert P George two years ago. (The Harvard Law Journal article the book is based on is downloadable here .)

In it we argue that at stake in our national debate are two competing views of what marriage is, and we make a philosophical argument that the conjugal view of marriage is correct.

Marriage, so understood, is a comprehensive union. It unites spouses at all levels of their being: hearts, minds, and bodies, through the two-in-one-flesh union of a man and woman. As the act that unites spouses can also create new life, marriage is especially apt for procreation and family life. Uniting spouses in these all-encompassing ways, marriage calls for all-encompassing commitment: permanent and exclusive.

The state cares about marriage because of its ability to unite children with their mother and father. Marriage increases the odds that a man will be committed both to the children that he helps create and to the woman with whom he does so.

Most Americans haven't thought about these dimensions of the debate, but my experience on scores of college campuses during the past year suggests there is hope. After almost every lecture, students approached me to say that they had never heard a rational case for marriage. Christians often said that they always knew marriage was between a man and a woman, but never knew how to defend it as a policy and legal matter.

4. Truth needs a messenger. We must be bolder, better organized, and more strategic.

We need conservative intellectual forces - think tanks, scholars, religious leaders, and politicians - to actively engage.

Creating such a network is what the pro-life movement has done for 40 years. The free-market movement did something similar: Citizens committed to economic freedom backed their beliefs with their billfolds and built a network of well-funded free-market think tanks and advocacy groups, university programs and scholarship competitions, media groups and marketing campaigns. While social conservatives have made great strides, we still have a ways to go.

5. We must exercise greater foresight when engaging on this issue.

Whatever happens, it is essential to take the long view and to be ready to bear witness to the truth, even if law and culture grow increasingly hostile. There are lessons to be learned from the pro-life movement here too.

Consider February 1973, just weeks after Roe. Public opinion ran against it, by a margin of two to one. With each passing day, another pro-life public figure - Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, Al Gore, Bill Clinton - "evolved" to embrace abortion on demand. The media kept insisting that all the young people were for abortion rights. Elites ridiculed pro-lifers as being on the wrong side of history. The pro-lifers were aging; their children, increasingly against them.

But courageous pro-lifers put their hand to the plow, and today we reap the fruits - a majority of Americans are pro-life. Everything the pro-life movement did needs to happen again, but on this new frontier of marriage.

Mr. Anderson is a co-author of What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense , and the William E. Simon Fellow at the Heritage Foundation .