As the co-authors of Red Families v. Blue Families, we often give talks about the recent rise in what’s called the “nonmarital birthrate,” or the idea that more than 40 percent of children are now born to women who aren’t married.
Sometimes at our talks someone will come up to us, confess his or her encounter with single parenthood, and say something like:
“When my daughter got pregnant and decided to keep the child, we were OK with that because we are Christians. When she decided not to marry the father, we were relieved because we knew he would be bad for her and the marriage would never work.”
They express these two beliefs—that they are Christian and thus uncomfortable with abortion and that they are relieved their daughter decided to raise the child alone—as if they are not connected.
But in fact this may be one of the stranger, more unexpected legacies of the pro-life movement that arose in the 40 years since Roe v. Wade: In conservative communities, the hardening of anti-abortion attitudes may have increased the acceptance of single-parent families. And by contrast, in less conservative communities, the willingness to accept abortion has helped create more stable families.
Researchers have considered many reasons for the rise in the nonmarital birthrate—the welfare state, the decline of morals, the increasing independence of women, even gay marriage. But one that people on neither the left nor the right talk about much is how it’s connected to abortion. The working class had long dealt with the inconvenient fact of an accidental pregnancy through the shotgun marriage. As blue-collar jobs paying a family wage have disappeared, however, so has early marriage. Women are then left with two choices:
They can delay childbearing (which might entail getting an abortion at some point) until the right man comes along or get more comfortable with the idea of becoming single mothers. College-educated elites have endorsed the first option, but everyone else is drifting toward the second.
In geographical regions and social classes where the stigma for having an abortion is high, the nonmarital birthrate is also high. Without really thinking about it or setting up any structures to support it, women in more conservative communities are raising children alone. This is a legacy the pro-life movement has not really grappled with.