David: This is not altogether in my wheelhouse, as I don’t do much by way of what could be called grassroots fighting on abortion or gay marriage, but I see it differently. I think, broadly speaking, Americans strongly tend to, perhaps even always, move in the direction of expanding “rights.” This is why abolition, womens’ suffrage, civil rights, the ADA all succeeded in the end.
And it’s why virtually all reform groups on the right and the left try to shape their arguments in terms of rights whenever possible. The very term “entitlement” is a marketing innovation to make welfare into “a right not a privilege” as the old welfare activists used to say. As that suggests, sometimes what passes for rights are not rights in the classical sense or even in a logical sense. Health care is not a right. But if you tell Americans that it is long enough, eventually many of them will believe it. Ditto: education, housing, etc. One of the problems with young people today — particularly of the Occupy Wall Street variety — is that if they want something badly enough they come to believe they deserve it. And in an entitlement culture, if you feel like you deserve something you think you have a right to it.
When it comes to gay marriage and abortion, regardless of the merits behind the various arguments, I think the gay-marriage advocates have largely won the battle of casting their cause as a rights issue. It is certainly the strongest argument for gay marriage whether you’re ultimately persuaded by it or not.
Abortion’s a tougher case to cast as a straightforward rights issue, even if the “reproductive rights” forces insist it’s crystal clear. The right to life trumps the right to choose, at least for many people.
Again, I don’t want to rehearse what are obviously well-worn arguments, but if you oppose same-sex marriage it seems to me that you have to deal with opponents’ strongest arguments not their weakest ones.