As the co-authors of Red Families v. Blue Families, we often give talks about the recent rise in whats called the nonmarital birthrate, or the idea that more than 40 percent of children are now born to women who arent married. Sometimes at our talks someone will come up to us, confess his or her encounter with single parenthood, and say something like: When my daughter got pregnant and decided to keep the child, we were OK with that because we are Christians. When she decided not to marry the father, we were relieved because we knew he would be bad for her and the marriage would never work.
They express these two beliefs that they are Christian and thus uncomfortable with abortion and that they are relieved their daughter decided to raise the child alone as if they are not connected. But in fact this may be one of the stranger, more unexpected legacies of the pro-life movement that arose in the 40 years since Roe vs. Wade: In conservative communities, the hardening of anti-abortion attitudes may have increased the acceptance of single-parent families. And by contrast, in less conservative communities, the willingness to accept abortion has helped create more stable families.
Researchers have considered many reasons for the rise in the nonmarital birthrate the welfare state, the decline of morals, the increasing independence of women, even gay marriage. But one that people on neither the left nor the right talk about much is how its connected to abortion. The working class had long dealt with the inconvenient fact of an accidental pregnancy through the shotgun marriage. As blue-collar jobs paying a family wage have disappeared, however, so has early marriage. Women are then left with two choices: They can delay childbearing (which might entail getting an abortion at some point) until the right man comes along or get more comfortable with the idea of becoming single mothers. College-educated elites have endorsed the first option, but everyone else is drifting toward the second. In geographical regions and social classes where the stigma for having an abortion is high, the nonmarital birthrate is also high. Without really thinking about it or setting up any structures to support it, women in more conservative communities are raising children alone.
In Red Families v. Blue Families, we pointed out the irony that blue states, despite their relatively progressive politics, have lower divorce and teen birthrates than red states. In fact the college-educated middle class, partly by postponing having children, had managed to better embody the traditional ideal: that is, a greater percentage of children being raised in two-parent families. In response, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat admitted that it isnt just contraception that delays childbearing in liberal states, its also a matter of how plausible an option abortion seems, both morally and practically, depending on who and where you are.
Hes right. The big secret very few are willing to discuss is that abortion rates do seem to correlate with greater commitment to marriage. Although the college-educated have a relatively low number of abortions, a higher percentage of their unplanned pregnancies end in abortion than for any other group. The college-educated almost certainly think of themselves as embracing the pill and resorting to abortion only in the relatively rare cases where contraception fails. Yet the bottom line is that the willingness to abort, however infrequently it occurs, makes it possible to reinforce the norm against having a child outside of marriage.
This creates the dilemma Douthat identified for those who see abortion as immoral. The Christian right preaches that contraception is not perfect, sex inevitably risks pregnancy, and abstinence provides the only solution. Indeed, as the number of abortions has dropped, the rate of unmarried women giving birth has increased.
If abortion is not an option, then more single-parent births are pretty inevitable. Think of it as the Bristol Palin effect, after Sarah Palins 17-year-old daughter announced her pregnancy shortly after her mothers selection in 2008 as the Republican vice-presidential candidate. Republican women applauded the Palins choice to support their daughters decision to have the child. They wrote that unlike other Republican leaders, the Palins were sticking to their values rather than doing what others had done and quietly arranged an abortion. Democratic women were appalled mystified why anyone thought having a 17-year-old raise a child was a good idea. Liberal and conservative women did agree on one thing, however: Neither group thought there was any point in having Bristol marry Levi Johnston, the father of the child.
Cahn is a law professor at George Washington University. Carbone is a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
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