Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

01.25.13

Did Legalizing Abortion Cause Single Motherhood to Spike?

A question rarely asked

"Did the Pro-Life Movement lead to more single moms?" asks the headline to this Slate piece.   

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. Sociologist Averil Clarke points out that unmarried white college grads, who have maintained a 2 percent nonmarital birthrate for the last 20 years, terminate a higher percentage of pregnancies than other groups. And urban theorist Richard Florida finds that the higher a state’s abortion rate, the lower its divorce rate, with an even greater negative effect on the likelihood that residents will be married multiple times.

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. And nonelite young women often give their opposition to abortion as an explanation for why they went ahead and had the child, even if in other ways religion has not influenced them much. In their book Premarital Sex in America, sociologists Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker report on a conservative, moderately religious young couple who have a child without marrying: “Some semblance of Christian morality may have prompted Andy and his girlfriend to keep their baby rather than elect abortion,” they write, “but beyond that, the evidence of religious influence on sexual decision-making is slim.”

So why do those wringing their hands over the rise in single-parent families never blame, much less even mention, opposition to abortion?

It seems to me that this is the wrong question.  When we want to know why something is increasing, we look at things that have changed, not things that have stayed the same.  Abortion sentiment has fluctuated over time, but not by very much, and it has gone both up and down in the decades since Roe.  Single motherhood, on the other hand, has soared.  To put it another way: if being pro-life causes high rates of single motherhood, why did anyone at all get married in the 1950s?  

The best answer to the question I just asked is that pro-life views do not, by themselves, drive single motherhood, but that they can exacerbate it if other conditions change.  But then it seems worthwhile to look at the conditions that actually changed, rather than putting all our focus on the things that didn't.  Which is to say: liberal sexual mores, and legal abortion.  You can argue that in light of legal abortion, people who think that abortion is wrong will be forced to endorse single motherhood; even if it's worse than not becoming a single mother, it's better than abortion.  The authors do argue this.  They make a convincing case.

But they go to great lengths not to actually say it; instead, they put all the emphasis on the static variable. For example, they rely on latitudinal comparisons of pro-life views between regions, but not longitudinal data about views over time (except to say that pro-life views have "hardened").  Naomi Cahn and Julie Carbone, the authors, say that the movement's contribution to single motherhood is "a legacy the pro-life movement has not really grappled with."  But I'd say that it's Cahn and Carbone who are doing some pretty fancy contortions to keep from directly engaging with the implications of their argument.

So let's turn their question around: why do Cahn and Carbone, while wringing their hands over single motherhood, never blame legal abortion?  

It's a rhetorical question, of course.  And the answer is presumably rhetorical too.