Ross Douthat made waves last year when he joined the New York Times as a columnist. A social conservative, Douthat’s views are generally well to the right of both the paper’s editorial positions, as well as those of its star pundits such as Maureen Dowd, Nicholas Kristof, Thomas Friedman and Paul Krugman.
Today, Douthat wrestles with what must be an uncomfortable truth for any righty: “blue states” tend to have a better track record on family values than “red ones.” (For background, see this Pew report and this National Journal article). Douthat:
…from divorce rates to teen births, nearly every indicator of family life now varies dramatically by education, race, geography and income.
In a rare convergence, conservatives and liberals basically agree on how this happened. First, the sexual revolution overturned the old order of single-earner households, early marriages, and strong stigmas against divorce and unwed motherhood. In its aftermath, the professional classes found a new equilibrium. Today, couples with college and (especially) graduate degrees tend to cohabit early and marry late, delaying childbirth and raising smaller families than their parents, while enjoying low divorce rates and bearing relatively few children out of wedlock.
For the rest of the country, this comfortable equilibrium remains out of reach. In the underclass (black, white and Hispanic alike), intact families are now an endangered species. For middle America, the ideal of the two-parent family endures, but the reality is much more chaotic: early marriages coexist with frequent divorces, and the out-of-wedlock birth rate keeps inching upward.
Douthat and his allies are in a pickle. Clearly, the widespread availability of abortion and contraception have not led to the decline of those families whose members are most likely to support access to these two critical rights. The dichotomy is stark: those most likely to pay lip service to family values (and to vote Republican) are those whose personal choices are most at odds with those same values. Those most likely to delay having children — but to have children in wedlock — are those whose politics lean left. Even more simply, the evidence is stark that access to safe and legal abortion and effective methods of contraception have strengthened rather than weakened “traditional families”. What a painful conundrum for conservatives to confront!
To be clear, I don’t agree with Douthat that the rise in single-parent households is lamentable. The reality is more nuanced. To the extent that the rising numbers of babies born to unmarried women reflects the happy reality that the stigma against “illegitimacy” is waning, that’s cause for at least as much celebration as sorrow. To the extent that community networks and social programs can reduce women’s reliance on unstable or abusive male partners, this is also a good thing. (When it comes to understanding poor women’s choices about reproduction and marriage, there’s no better resource than the magisterial Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage , which I reviewed here.)
From the progressive perspective, marriage ought to be a choice rooted in mutual desire rather than a necessity rooted in desperation. Better fewer marriages, but happier ones — that’s a reasonable goal. And it’s a goal that, as Douthat notes, a fair number of “blue state” Americans have pursued successfully. But he suggests that the price of all of this stability and happiness has been too high:
Liberals sometimes argue that their preferred approach to family life reduces the need for abortion. In reality, it may depend on abortion to succeed. The teen pregnancy rate in blue Connecticut, for instance, is roughly identical to the teen pregnancy rate in red Montana. But in Connecticut, those pregnancies are half as likely to be carried to term. Over all, the abortion rate is twice as high in New York as in Texas and three times as high in Massachusetts as in Utah.
So it isnâ€™t just contraception that delays childbearing in liberal states, and it isnâ€™t just a foolish devotion to abstinence education that leads to teen births and hasty marriages in conservative America. Itâ€™s also a matter of how plausible an option abortion seems, both morally and practically, depending on who and where you are.
Shorter Douthat: you liberals may be healthier and wealthier and happier, but y’all had to kill your poor blessed babies to achieve these fine things, so you ought to feel ashamed of yourselves. Continue reading