On April 2, a group of 100 conservative lawyers and university professors filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court arguing, in part, that marriage equality will cause 900,000 abortions over the next 30 years. The claim may come as a shock to those who completed seventh grade and are under the impression that pregnancy was the result of sex between a man and a woman.
The argument, as summarized by former Antonin Scalia clerk Gene Schaerr, who served as the brief’s author, is that “a reduction in the opposite-sex marriage rate means an increase in the percentage of women who are unmarried and who, according to all available data, have much higher abortion rates than married women.”
The brief is accompanied by swaths of empirical evidence demonstrating that, in fact, in countries where same-sex marriage is legal, opposite-sex marriage declines. The problem, Christopher Ingraham points out in a piece in The Washington Post, is that the “chain of logic does not prove causality.” The decline in marriage rates in states where same-sex marriage is legal, which is adduced as proof that it is harmful, ignores the fact that marriage rates are on the decline everywhere and have been for decades.
Even if the statistics were indisputable (and Ingraham points us in the direction of some important counter-evidence), there’s no real way to link the legitimization of same-sex marriage and abortion. Correlation, as everybody’s high school history teacher used to say, is not causation.
It’s easy to dismantle the faulty logic in the brief. And, shucks, the jokes write themselves. I mean, I guess when you believe in the Virgin Birth it seems reasonable that same-sex marriage could lead to unplanned pregnancies. (Full disclosure: I’m a Papist myself.)
All the same, the signatories on the brief are academics and lawyers. One signatory on the brief, John Cavadini (professor of theology and director of the Institute for Church Life), is my colleague at the University of Notre Dame. While I strongly disagree with his argument here and the spirited manner in which he tries to make his vision of the world a reality, I know him to be intelligent and sincere. So how does this argument hold together for smart people? Why assume that marriage equality and abortion are necessarily linked?
Part of what ties them together in the minds of the signatories is the idea that both are part of what Catholics call the “culture of death.” For conservatives the historical impetus for this new cultural movement was the 1960s and the birth of the sexual revolution, feminism, and gender theory. And liberal academics would likely agree that these movements did generate social change, even if they would not evaluate that change negatively.
But the relationship between feminism, gay rights, and other parts of the “liberal agenda” is not just a question of historical impetus for conservatives. It also has a systematic, almost cosmic, quality.
We can see this if we look at the way that conservatives talk about the relationship between the horrifying religious persecution that takes place around the world and the so-called “war on Christianity” and religious freedom in the U.S. The two phenomena are linked in the language and rhetoric of right-wing media pundits and clerics.
For example, I recently attended an Association for a Better New York breakfast at the Mandarin Oriental, where Cardinal Timothy Dolan rightly expressed concern about the devastating persecution of Christians by Boko Haram and ISIS. He commendably referred to the persecution of members of other religious groups around the globe—and then added that there was an “organized” and “systematic” attack on Christianity in the world. These are words that imply agency and deliberation. To this we can add the slew of books talking about widespread Christianophobia, a Global War on Christians, and the Global Assault on Christians.
The underlying worldview is that of an apocalyptic battle between good and evil. There is the culture of life and there is the culture of death, and if you’re not with us, you’re against us. It’s a biblically-based take on the world.
But who is behind this global war? Who is organizing the attack on Christianity? Satan? The Illuminati? The Gay Rights Lobby? Even if liberals did have it in for Christians, something, probably this, tells me ISIS and gay-rights advocates don’t have a lot in common when it comes to definitions of marriage. There’s no global war on Christianity, and there’s no causal or inherent relationship between marriage equality and abortions.
The problem isn’t just that the division of the world into two organized and warring parties vying for control of social norms and spiritual destiny leads to ill-conceived arguments like this one. It’s also that it mischaracterizes and polarizes the world. We need to deal with ISIS as a specific terrorist organization, not as part of some larger, all-encompassing conspiracy. Similarly, conservative groups would have a more convincing case if they could keep marriage equality and abortion separate, rather than lumping them together into an incoherent jumble.
This Supreme Court brief sounds like a story in The Onion, but it’s paradigmatic of an internally consistent worldview among conservative Christians. We have to understand their overarching position if we are to have any hope of understanding what they’re doing here.