The collapse of marriage — combined with high rates of unwed birth — has given liberals an opening to push long-term, “temporary” sterilization as the “default” approach for low- and middle-income young women and minorities.
Marriage rates have hit their lowest point in a century. Today, according to a recent Pew report, one-in-five adults fall into the never-married category. (By comparison, in 1960, never-marrieds numbered about one-in-ten.) Falling marriage rates have given rise to another problem: unwed births. Forty years ago, when the trend towards later or delayed marriage took hold, American women generally postponed childbearing until marriage. Not so today. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that “nearly half of women aged 15- to 44-years-old ‘cohabited’ outside of marriage between 2006 and 2010,” and about “20 percent became pregnant” and gave birth during the first year of a cohabiting relationship.
The latest figures from the CDC reveal that 40 percent of all U.S. births and 48 percent of first-time births are to unmarried women, chiefly twenty-somethings. As a result, marriage experts say, American society is at a tipping point, “on the verge of … a new demographic reality where the majority of first births in the United States precede marriage.”
The unmarried mom trend has taken hold not only among poor women, but also among the largest demographic group of young women — “Middle American” women — that is, moderately educated women with a high-school diploma and perhaps a year or two of college.” As these women continue to forego marriage in favor of cohabitation, the number of unmarried mothers will remain high.
Should we be worried?
Yes, for two reasons. First, because real women and real children suffer when marriages don’t happen and “fragile families” result. “Births to unmarried women” is not just a statistical category. It’s the first page in the troubling life stories that unfold over decades for many of the children born to these single moms.
You’ve met these women.
They’re nurse’s aides in your grandpa’s assisted living facility, clerks at your local grocery store, and nighttime cleaners in your office building. They’re the women shivering at bus stops in the chilly dawn, toddlers in tow, headed to daycare or work. They have jobs, not careers, and often have low-commitment, unreliable, sometimes abusive men as partners — but not husbands. Many of these women find joy and meaning in their children, and thepromise of a better life to come. But all too often, that promise never materializes, for them or their children.
The children suffer most. In spite of often-heroic parental efforts, children raised by unmarried mothers typically endure the disadvantages that come from too little parental time and money. They also tend to suffer from what scholar Isabel Sawhill calls “household churning” — the “family instability” that results from “a series of cohabiting relationships with different partners.” Children raised by an unmarried parent fare worse than children raised by two married parents on almost every measure of wellbeing. More likely to drop out, do poorly in school, abuse alcohol or drugs, engage in teen sex, be incarcerated, and suffer abuse at the hands of their mother’s sexual partner, their troubles continue well into adulthood.
Family instability and the attendant disadvantages for mothers and children are problematic enough. But there’s another reason to worry.
The combination of the collapsing marriage culture and the stunningly high birthrates among unmarried women has smoked out the eugenics enthusiasts on the left. Masquerading as benevolent policy-makers or fiscally-prudent guardians of the public treasury, eugenics-minded liberals have found a socially palatable reason to campaign for the long-term “temporary” sterilization of America’s young women, on a massive scale.
Recall how this all started.
More than fifty years ago, the sex-with-no-consequences philosophy washed over the culture, cheered on by feminists, radicals, and lusty college students. Out-of-wedlock births began to climb. As the Pill, backed by legal abortion, became widely available, liberals exclaimed that a new day had dawned — a new era of freedom for women. Freedom from unintended pregnancy would allow women (and adolescents) to shape their lives according to their own desires. Brookings Institute scholars George Akerlof and Janet Yellen summed it up in 1996, “The legalization of abortion and dramatic increase in the availability of contraception gave women the tools to control the number and timing of their children.”
And so, grownups quit frowning at premarital sex, “living in sin” became a joke on late-night TV, and getting pregnant outside of marriage lost its stigma. But in spite of the Pill’s popularity, more sex begat more babies. Both teen pregnancies and abortions hit record levels around 1990-1991.
So liberals campaigned to “end” teen pregnancy and the crisis of “babies-having-babies” by convincing legislators, school boards, doctors, and parents that “the problem” was lack of access to condoms and contraceptives. Teens are going to have sex anyway, they said, so the best way to reduce unwed childbearing was to ensure that young people were “protected,” armed with latex, pills, and directions to Planned Parenthood for an abortion (“just in case”). Unwed pregnancy? As Sawhill, who serves as President of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, wrote in her book, Generation Unbound: Drifting Into Sex and Parenthood Without Marriage (2014): “The pill was supposed to change all of that. It was supposed to usher in a world of children by choice, not chance.” But, Sawhill astutely observes, “That hasn’t happened.”
It turns out (surprise, surprise) that young women, especially teens, aren’t so great at using contraception correctly and consistently. Furthermore, women typically discontinue their chosen contraceptive methods within a year or less (most often due to unpleasant or dangerous side effects), sometimes switching to another method — or maybe not. Even when women receive contraceptives for free, roughly half discontinue their use within a year (58% of contraceptive patch users, 47% of Pill users, and 49% of vaginal ring users discontinue use within 12 months.)
Still, teen pregnancy rates have declined, significantly, over the past few decades. More teens are abstinent or waiting longer to become sexually active. And if they have sex, they’re more likely to use contraceptives.
Overall, however, unwed pregnancies remain high, driven by young women in their 20’s. Their pregnancy rates, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, reflect “changing norms for sexual behavior and a decrease in marriage rates.” Put differently, these are women who, in decades past, would have shopped for a wedding dress before they shopped for cribs and carseats. No longer.
So, what’s a liberal to do?
Sawhill’s book captures well the approach of reproductive rights advocates, the political left, and Obama’s Health and Human Services Department. She acknowledges that marriage benefits children, but thinks it’s too late to “to put the marriage genie back in the bottle.” Although she worries about the wellbeing of children born to unwed mothers, she concedes that, “very few of us … want to turn back the clock. I certainly do not.”
Instead, she envisions marriage as an “evolving” institution, a“commitment device” flexible enough to support same-sex pairings, childfree marriages, and whatever comes next. Rather than reviving traditional marriage, she believes it’s time to create a “new ethic of responsible parenthood” that says, ironically, “it’s O.K. not to be a parent.” (Perhaps that’s personal regret talking. A mother of one, she describes herself as an “indifferent parent.”)
Sawhill’s core idea, however, is less about marriage and more about babies and how to keep most people from having them. Forget thecoming demographic disaster. Sawhill’s utopia depends on reducing fertility and encouraging “quality” parenting, so that America will have “fewer children to be raised, more resources to devote per child, and higher-quality parenting all at the same time.”
She urges a “new norm” of “childbearing by design” that “chang[es] the default from having children to not having children.” The “default” mechanism is a tangible device — an IUD or implant — paid for by our taxes, courtesy of the Affordable Care Act. “Sex is safe” because sex and pregnancy have been “decoupled,” backed by the “99% success rate” of LARC (long-acting reversible contraceptives) methods like the IUD. Under Sawhill’s scheme, a would-be-parent doesn’t “opt out of pregnancy” because, under the new “default” scheme, she’s already “temporarily” sterilized — and probably has been for years. “An IUD implanted as soon as a woman becomes sexually active,” writes Sawhill, “would make her virtually infertile until such time as she explicitly chose to become a mother.” She’s all in favor of that.
Here’s the catch. Women can’t remove LARC methods by themselves. Having a child requires not only “a conscious choice,” but also an appointment with her doctor in order to get the IUD or implant out. Nor are they particularly safe for women. IUDs can migrate, perforating the uterine wall and sometimes the colon, resulting in sepsis and death. Implants and IUDs also increase the risk of ectopic pregnancy, the number one cause of maternal mortality in the first trimester of pregnancy.
The reality is that Sawhill and friends are not trying to discourage births among their elite peers. They’re bent on heading off births by the masses who don’t meet their standard of “readiness” to give “quality” parenting. Even though she insists that, “Nobody is talking about anything other than voluntary programs,” how much pressure does it take before a woman has lost her ability to decide for herself?
International research, for example, warns that doctors and medical practitioners sometimes fail to comply with patient requests for removal of LARC methods. They dismiss patient complaints about side effects, or insist that it’s “too early” to remove the contraceptive and that the women must persevere. For example, a 2013 study in the U.K. found that, ”The young women felt that their desire to have the implant removed at their request (when they had reached their own ‘tipping point’) often conflicted with practitioners’ advice that they should persevere with the implant for varying lengths of time.” Coercion is coercion, even when liberals think they really do know what’s best.
I’m not the only person raising these issues. Several researchers from within the reproductive rights community also have voicedconcern that aggressive LARC promotion fails to respect a woman’s “reproductive autonomy.” The current marriage crisis and increasing rates of unwed pregnancy have provided liberals with “cover” to go on the offensive against fertility and life.
As we work to rebuild a marriage culture — based on the foundations of life-giving love, personal commitment, and sexual restraint — we must be prepared to do battle as well. We must fight fiercely against the “benevolent solutions” that liberal policy-makers impose, particularly on low-income women of color, stripping them of their dignity and their freedom to have the children they desire.
In the end, however, I agree with Isabel Sawhill about this: She writes, “If marriage is to be revived, it will only be because civic and religious institutions are successful in encouraging more young people to marry before having children or because young people themselves see its value and act on these aspirations.”
And perhaps that’s our biggest task: to give witness to the truth about marriage and the joy of each new human life.
Mary Rice Hasson is a fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center.