Does Abortion Lead to More Stable Marriages?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Jan. 22 2013 2:48 PM

Did the Pro-Life Movement Lead to More Single Moms?

A legacy conservatives have not grappled with.

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So why do those wringing their hands over the rise in single-parent families never blame, much less even mention, opposition to abortion? They certainly mention everything else. Welfare comes up often as the killer of the traditional American two-parent family, even though there is very little evidence to support this connection. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, author of the 1965 study that called attention to the increase in black nonmarital births, pointed out that the change in family structure began before the expansion in welfare benefits and accelerated after they were cut. Indeed, nonmarital births continued to increase after the Aid for Families with Dependent Children program was abolished in 1996. 

A second shibboleth has been same-sex marriage. In 2009, Maggie Gallagher observed in the National Review that in the preceding five years, the increase in nonmarital births “had resumed its inexorable rise.” She then speculated, “Is it mere coincidence that this resurgence in illegitimacy happened during the five years in which gay marriage has become (not thanks to me or my choice) the most prominent marriage issue in America—and the one marriage idea endorsed by the tastemakers to the young in particular?” Again, there is no evidence whatsoever that single-parent families have anything to do with same-sex marriage. 

It is time to consider another possibility. If abortion is not an option, then more single-parent births are pretty inevitable. Think of it as the Bristol Palin effect, after Sarah Palin’s 17-year-old daughter announced her pregnancy shortly after her mother’s selection in 2008 as the Republican vice-presidential candidate. Republican women applauded the Palins’ choice to support their daughter’s 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.

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Therein lies the rub. Moynihan argued in 1965 that the proximate cause of the increase in African-American nonmarital births was the disappearance of steady jobs for inner-city black men. Today, stable employment has been disappearing for all but the best educated men (and more recently for less educated women). 

The big increase in African-American nonmarital births occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. For whites, the development has been more recent, and it has occurred at the same time as the emergence of anti-abortion sentiment as a key constituent of conservative political identity. Has the hardening of anti-abortion attitudes among white working-class conservatives helped cause the increase in white nonmarital births? Did it contribute to the erosion of the stigma on nonmarital births?

As scholars, while we suspect that the answer is yes, we have to admit that we have no definitive data. We do know that in spite of conservative denials, contraception reduces abortions and early births: A 2012 study found, for example, that providing women with free contraceptives resulted in lower abortion rates and lower teen birth rates compared with regional and national statistics. So we wouldn't be surprised to find that a well-funded and influential anti-abortion movement contributed to the growth of single parenthood. Conservatives should at least start to be more open about whether this is a price they are willing to pay.

Naomi Cahn is a law professor at George Washington University. She is the co-author of Red Families v. Blue Families and is a member of the Homeward Bound project.

June Carbone is the Robina Professor at the University of Minnesota Law School. She is the co-author of Red Families v. Blue Families.

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