The XX Factor

What Does Ross Douthat Blame Roe v. Wade for Today?

Ross Douthat

Photo by Josh Haner/New York Times

Once again, we appreciate how Ross Douthat has helped to clarify the issues underlying a very important debate. Responding to our recent piece in Slate in which we argue, on the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, that the pro-life movement has yet to grapple with its legacy of single moms (which we call “The Bristol Palin effect”), Douthat writes that it’s not abortion stigma but Roe itself that was “instrumental in creating the kind of sexual culture that makes the Bristol Palin dilemma as commonplace as it’s become.”

The dynamics among abstinence, abortion, contraception, and the decline of marriage are complex, but here we’ll give the short version of an argument that we’ve made in various law-review articles and will continue to make in our forthcoming book, Family Classes. We think the big story of the past 40 years is the disappearance of the shotgun marriage. The shotgun marriage used to hide nonmarital pregnancies. It has disappeared not because of abortion, but because it didn’t work. The shotgun marriage kept couples together only when women had no ability to leave. The sexual brinkmanship of the 1950s (as teens discovered the car and lovers’ lanes) increased the number of brides pregnant at the altar to highs last seen in the 18th century and fueled the divorce revolution of the 1970s. Douthat is right that a young woman with a promising future preferred the security of the pill and abortion to early marriage to a man who happened to get her pregnant. He refers to a perceptive study by economists George Akerlof and Janet Yellen that observed that once women took charge of their own reproductive futures, men no longer had to “volunteer” to marry the women they had impregnated. The economists, however, were referring to the combined effect of abortion and the pill; a more recent study by economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz found that, between the two, contraception was a key development in the norm shift that began with college graduates. Douthat leaves that part out.

All of this, however, is so 1980s. In the era Akerlof and Yellen studied, men no longer had to propose to women who, after all, had the option of using contraception and had failed to do so. Something different is taking place today: The “Bristol effect” is that the women reject the men who do propose, and then they still have the child. They do so because marriage is no longer a good deal for women with more reliable incomes than the men in their lives. Blue-collar wages flatlined for white men in the ’90s (and did so a generation earlier for black men). During the same period, blue-collar jobs generally become much less stable. The men became less reliable earners at a time when women’s workforce opportunities continue to increase. And while wages alone do not determine marriage, the behavior that often accompanies the lack of a steady job is a turnoff. These trends had already begun in the ’80s for the worst-off portions of the population, but they accelerated for most of the working class in the ’90s.  

So the issue is not whether we are going to use anti-abortion sentiment to bring back the scarlet letter. Certainly, not with Bristol celebrated on reality TV. Instead, the question is whether we are going to face up to the challenge of caring for the children who result and the pretense that abstinence can cure the problem.

In the Kansas heartland, the single moms we meet are in tears because the same politicians who oppose abortion are cutting health care and education funding, raising taxes on the poor to finance income tax cuts for the wealthy, and eviscerating protections that had helped keep single mothers employed. Let’s recognize that the celebration of the unintended birth comes with an obligation to care for all our children.