Increasingly, Young Americans Are Pro-Life; Marriage Is a Another Story

Abortion is a human-rights issue on campuses, but what about the marriage debate?

A Pro-Life Youth Rally the evening of the Jan. 22 at Watkins Mill High School, Gaithersburg, Md., drew about 500 young people the night before the March for Life in Washington.
A Pro-Life Youth Rally the evening of the Jan. 22 at Watkins Mill High School, Gaithersburg, Md., drew about 500 young people the night before the March for Life in Washington. (photo: Jeffrey Bruno )

WASHINGTON — Victor Bermudez, the president of Franciscan University of Steubenville’s pro-life group, accompanied 400 students from Steubenville, Ohio, to the nation’s capital for the March for Life this week. Back on campus, he directs a slew of activities, from prayer vigils at abortion businesses to baby showers for mothers in crisis pregnancies.

But ask the energetic sophomore about where pro-life students come down on same-sex “marriage,” and he’ll explain that his membership remains focused on life issues.

“Abortion is the prime issue because of the sheer numbers of abortions performed in the nation. Same-sex ‘marriage’ is not something that most people want to debate,” said Bermudez, who added that “students here hold closely to Catholic teaching, and most won’t defend ‘gay marriage.’”

But what about young people on the whole?

A 2009 survey by the Gallup organization reported that “younger Americans have typically been much more supportive of same-sex ‘marriage’ than older Americans, and that is the case in the current poll. A majority of 18- to 29-year-olds think same-sex couples should be allowed to legally marry, while support reaches only as high as 40% among the three older age groups.”

A variety of studies also confirmed that Catholics were more likely than Protestants to support same-sex “marriage” and regular churchgoers were more likely to oppose it.

Yet, at the same time that college students have become more accepting of same-sex unions, traditional marriage has hit the skids. A Pew Research Center report released last month confirmed that barely half of adults in the nation are married—a drastic decline fueled by the postponement of marriage among college graduates—and increasing numbers of high school graduates begin families outside of wedlock.

While pro-life outreach has become a commonplace feature of campus life at many Catholic and secular colleges, many students who oppose same-sex “marriage” think twice about speaking out.

“There is diversity of opinion on that among kids coming to our conferences,” agreed Kristan Hawkins, 26, president of Students for Life, which has experienced a rapid increase in membership. Since the group opened its doors in 2005, the number of affiliated schools and colleges and graduate programs has jumped from 181 to 670.

“A lot of students will have qualms about ‘gay marriage.’ But where the rubber hits the road, they will be quiet on that issue. Some student leaders disagree with us on this. They are pro-life, but they are pro-‘gay marriage,’” said Hawkins.

She said her generation’s exposure to the destructive consequences of abortion has fueled a steady reassessment of life issues.

“They are personal witnesses to abortion. They have grown up with this. We talk about abortion as a human-rights issue. With ‘gay marriage,’ you are not stopping murder. But with legal abortion, every day children are dying; women are scarred forever.”

Personal Experience

However, personal experience has largely taken young Americans in a different direction on marriage. “They have grown up with friends who are gay; family members are gay. It’s difficult for them to say, ‘I don’t think you have the right to be married,’” she noted.

Hawkins observed that it would be a mistake to underestimate the power of political correctness and a narrow, secular mindset on many U.S. campuses, including some Catholic colleges.

“It’s enough for students to say they are Christian. There is no way they will [publicly] oppose ‘gay marriage.’ It is a problem. We don’t take a stance. It will take time to deal with this issue,” she concluded.

At Grand Valley State University in Michigan, junior Raymond “R.J.” McVeigh, president of the campus Students for Life group, echoed this judgment.

His group of 30 members concentrates on helping peers struggling with crisis pregnancies, providing a range of support, from meals to babysitting.

“Our group solely focuses on life issues, and we are classified as a service and advocacy group, as opposed to a religious group. We stay away from other themes,” he said, adding that their advocacy focuses on abortion as a human-rights issue, not a religious issue.

“The challenge our members face is the dilemma of moral relevancy: How can they relate and talk about something that is intrinsically good or evil? In an increasingly secular society, many students who are Catholic and Christians are careful about coming out with their beliefs. They try to find different ways to talk about abortion as a human-rights issue, not as a religious issue,” he said.

Catherine Palmer, a pro-life leader at the College of William and Mary, applauded Students for Life’s “Pregnant on Campus Initiative.” She described the program as “first, to love the pregnant and parenting women on our campuses, serving them, holistically, as best we can. Resources ought to be in place for them to both care for their child and finish college, should they so choose.”

Meanwhile, her organization “takes no official stance on same-sex ‘marriage.’ My position on the matter is that same-sex ‘marriage’ is a significant sociocultural concern. Surely, homosexual persons are owed profound love and respect, bearing dignity as any other person. Yet marriage, in its perennial sense, between one man and one woman, contributes intuitively to the common good, and particularly to the needs of children.”

Staying Focused

For now, most campus pro-life leaders will stay focused on the fight against abortion. But their hand could be forced as the advance of “marriage equality” flattens conscience provisions that could ultimately affect pro-life Americans in the workplace. Down the road, pro-life and traditional-marriage activists could find themselves making it a common cause.

Indeed, Emily Bissonnette, a former president of the pro-life group at Franciscan University who now works as a theology of the body education coordinator at Ruah Woods in Cincinnati, suggested that Catholic students should take time to grapple with the moral and theological connection between two hot-button issues.

“Pope John Paul II … said that the root of the culture of death is ‘an eclipse of the sense of God and of man.’  Through that lens, we can see the link between same-sex ‘marriage’ and abortion and, consequently, the link between defending life and defending marital love between one man and one woman,” said Bissonnette. 

“If we look at abortion primarily as a matter of rights, then it can be difficult to see how marriage should be promoted within pro-life clubs on campus. But when seen as a matter of the dignity of the human person through ‘adequate anthropology,’ then the two issues can be seen as standing or falling together,” she added.

Victor Bermudez, who still has two more years ahead of him at Steubenville, agreed that same-sex “marriage” needs more attention. But he thought that secular arguments would have more traction with his generation.

“There is a secular way to defend traditional marriage. It’s in society’s best interest to protect traditional marriage because it’s the best environment to raise a child: with a mother and father. It’s the best way to build up society because families are the anchor for a society,” he proposed. 

To underscore the state’s interest in upholding traditional marriage, which focuses on the rearing and education of future citizens, he offered an analogy his peers might understand: “The government gives us an incentive when we recycle cans, and it’s fair that it provides incentives for strong families,” said Bermudez.

But just as the destruction wrought by legal abortion could only be acknowledged in hindsight, he wondered if his own generation might not wake up until long after the damage has been done. “I could see same-sex ‘marriage’ being legalized,” he said, “and then people realizing their mistake.”

Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.