The Big Idea

Whatever Happened to Family Values?

How the GOP gave in to anti-abortion absolutism.

In the 1980s, the rising conservative movement tried to frame the pro-life cause as part of a broader family-values agenda that included reducing rates of illegitimate childbirth, welfare dependency, and divorce. To Ronald Reagan and many of his most ardent supporters, abortion-on-demand was the pre-eminent example of the breakdown of traditional morality brought about the sexual revolution. Few remember it this way, but Reagan’s “evil empire” speech, delivered to the National Association of Evangelicals in 1983, had more to say about the right of parents to prevent their daughters from receiving contraceptives without their consent than it did than about the Soviets.

In fact, these two conservative social goals—ending abortion and upholding the model of the nuclear family—were always in tension. The reason is that, like it or not, the availability of legal abortion supports the kind of family structure that conservatives once felt so strongly about: two parents raising children in a stable relationship, without government assistance. By 12th grade, 60 percent of high school girls are sexually active or, as Reagan put it, “promiscuous.” Teen-pregnancy rates have been trending downward in recent years, but even so, 7 percent of high-school girls become pregnant every year. And the unfortunate reality is that teenagers who carry their pregnancies to term drastically diminish their chances of living out the conservative, or the American, dream.

Forget the Juno scenario—in the real world, only a tiny fraction of unwed mothers give their babies up for adoption. If you do not allow teenage girls who accidentally become pregnant to have abortions, you are demanding either that they raise their children as single mothers or that they marry in shotgun weddings. By the numbers, neither choice is promising. Unmarried teenage moms seldom get much financial or emotional support from the fathers of their babies. They tend to drop out of high school and go on the dole, and they are prone to lives of poverty, frustration, and disorder. Only 2 percent of them make it through college by the age of 30. The Bristol Palin option doesn’t promote family happiness, stability, or traditional structure, either. Of women under 18 who marry, whether because of pregnancy or not, nearly half divorce within 10 years—double the rate for those who wait until they’re 25.

I’ve long expected the Republican Party to resolve this conflict in its social vision by moderating its stance on abortion. Politically, pro-life absolutism has never made much sense. A significant element within the GOP—libertarians, economic conservatives, Barbara Bush—favors leaving Roe v. Wade alone. A majority of the country agrees. Meanwhile, the percentage of people on either side of the debate who say they’ll vote only for a candidate who shares their views has been steadily shrinking. Since Lee Atwater’s heyday, pragmatic Republicans have been trying to figure out how the party can become a “big tent,” making room for a pro-choice as well as a pro-life faction. Until recently, the modernizers included John McCain himself, who in 1999 said, “Certainly in the short term, or even the long term, I would not support repeal of Roev. Wade, which would then force women in America to [undergo] illegal and dangerous operations.” That was only one of several attempts on McCain’s part to evolve his position. If Roe ever were repealed, there would follow a fight in every state about whether to ban abortion by statute. Politically, this could be the best thing to happen to liberals since the New Deal. We got a taste of this dynamic after the Supreme Court’s 1989 Webster decision, which allowed states to restrict abortion in certain ways. As my colleague William Saletan has argued, fear of Roe being overturned contributed to Democratic electoral gains in 1989 and 1990 and to a wave of more conciliatory rhetoric from the GOP.

But renewed evangelical dominance of the GOP in the Bush years has pushed McCain in the opposite direction—to the point of letting Phyllis Schlafly revise the abortion plank in the party’s 2008 platform. The new version actually eliminates language from the 2004 edition rejecting “punitive action against women who have an abortion.” This “base” bias explains how McCain ended up with a wildly underqualified running mate, instead of his preferred pro-choice veep picks, Joe Lieberman and Tom Ridge. It’s the reason social conservatives have wholeheartedly embraced Sarah Palin, who chose to raise a child with Down syndrome rather than terminate a pregnancy. And it’s why a pregnant, unmarried 17-year-old and her boyfriend appeared onstage in St. Paul with the Republican presidential nominee last week. A pregnant teenager as role model, Mary Cheney’s gay parenting, the primary caregiver to a special-needs infant working a second, 24/7 job—the Republican right is prepared to overcome its objection to all of this and more as the price of an uncompromising pro-life agenda.

Give the anti-abortion extremists credit for living their principles. If they weren’t deadly serious, they wouldn’t sabotage their party’s political prospects or sacrifice so many other values they hold dear for the sake of denying exceptions in cases of rape and incest. But Sarah Palin’s pro-life extremism is as ethically flawed as it is politically damaging to the GOP. By vaunting their pro-life agenda over everything else, conservatives are abandoning one of their most valuable insights: that intact, two-parent families are best for children and for the foundation of a healthy society. The evidence here is overwhelming. Children with two parents, whether of the same sex or the opposite sex, are vastly better off. By every measure social scientists have devised, those raised by two parents grow up healthier (physically and psychologically), wealthier, and wiser, on average, than those raised by a single parent, divorced parents, or even a parent and a stepparent.

About this, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Bill Bennett, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and, yes, Dan Quayle were entirely correct. Remember Murphy Brown? I always thought the former vice president was on solid ground when he called it morally irresponsible to encourage women without the TV character’s resources to embark on child-rearing on their own. In today’s GOP, Quayle wouldn’t condemn Murphy Brown. He’d call her up to the stage and salute her for choosing life.