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Why Supreme Court's gay marriage ruling won't be like Roe v. Wade

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Roe's establishment of a new right was sudden and shocking to many Americans. It ruled on a topic that had not played out sufficiently in national dialogue or democratic processes. Legal eminences likened the Roe decision to a bolt from the blue, a ruling so severe that it froze in time the social framework around the issue, cementing a deep division that has changed little since the ruling.

While Americans remain divided on both abortion and gay marriage, the tide of public opinion has shifted dramatically in recent years to be in favor of same-sex marriage.

In contrast, attitudes about abortion have shifted only marginally in the intervening period since Roe v. Wade. The percent of those who believe abortion should be legal under rare circumstances – a threat to the mother's health, rape, or incest – have dipped by just two points, from 54 percent to 52 percent. (According to the same figures cataloged by Gallup, only one quarter of Americans believe abortion should be legal under any circumstances.)

Unlike with Roe, the consideration of marriage rights is not a new frontier to the democratic process, public opinion, or most important – for the court. As far back as 1888 and as late as 2003, the high court has ruled on marriage rights in 14 separate decisions.

The evolution of public opinion concerning the right to marry for gays and lesbians, too, follows a divergent track from abortion. Whereas the public sentiment on abortion has remained largely static since the Roe ruling 40 years ago, an uncommonly decisive shift in attitudes in recent years concerning gay marriage has radically reorganized the political landscape.

The support for same-sex marriage recently reached a record high, at 58 percent in a March survey by ABC News and The Washington Post. That number represents a 26-percentage-point growth over the span of just nine years. And in those 12 states where same-sex marriage is already legal, the support trend line is even more pronounced. In the few months since the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on gay marriage, three states changed their laws to afford equal rights and protections for gay marriage.

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