This is the last in my series of columns on out of wedlock births. By now you know that 4 in 10 U.S. births are nonmarital; this rises to 7 in 10 for African-American Women, and 5 in 10 for Hispanic women, our fastest growing minority population. Women in their 20s and 30s account for the lion's share of the trend.1 Reactions to our predicament are suitably alarmist, but still terribly predictable. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy will push for both more abstinence, and higher rates of contraceptive usage among the unmarried. They will call for less complacency and more parental involvement.2 Planned Parenthood took the occasion to bash abstinence programs while abstinence programs linked the rise to the fact that 68% of public schools employ contraceptive instruction, which has a 4 to 1 funding advantage over abstinence in the United States.3
I have suggested that the now mounting collection of narrative testimony from unmarried mothers might shed some additional light on the problem. Any additional light ought to be welcomed if the interests of children, and the poor (who are disproportionately handicapped by long-parenting) are really taken to heart. This testimony exposes deep wells of gender mistrust and confusion between men and women. I have pointed out how, for example,4 the women employ virtually no "morals" language with respect to their willingness to be sexually intimate with single men; at the same time, they are unwilling to marry these men, even after their baby makes his or her appearance, on the grounds that the father is unworthy of them and the child. The young men and women involved do not think of each other in "parental" terms while their sexual relationship is ongoing. The man even has difficulty transitioning to "parent" after the baby is born. Women are both more likely to articulate a desire to have a baby, and more willing to reorganize their priorities, schedules and finances around the baby once he or she is born; consequently they evaluate the man's failure to do so, often referring to him harshly as "another baby" for the woman to mother.
One might observe here that the women have in a sense "found their way" - difficult as it is - in the midst of all this chaos; they are thinking maternally, even while they barely make ends meet. Men have not found a way. Often victims themselves of fatherless households and chaotic, incomplete education, with no prospects for a "living wage" in sight, the men are unable and unwilling to secure a wife. They rather drift into new sexual relationships and multipartnered parenting. Despite this seemingly endless pattern, particularly among the poor and minority communities in the United States, there persists the perception that the decision to continue to pursue sex without commitment is a "private" matter. Although after the child is born, some single mothers feel that society ought to reward them -- via generous social policies -- for their childrearing efforts.5
Most of the state and private programs responding to nonmarital births over the last 40 years have poured their energies into "taking the baby out" of the sexual encounter via birth control. Abstinence programs, which are less common, try to teach young people how to avoid nonmarital sexual involvement. "Big-picture" efforts have aimed to boost young people's educational and job attainments, in order to steer them toward a different future. While occasionally, policy experts have referenced the need to help young people think more healthfully about the meaning of their lives, including about the importance of their heterosexual relationships, no extensive efforts have ever been directed to addressing the intertwined issues I have surfaced above. For brevity's sake, I would say these issues might be identified as: the moral weight of heterosexual relations; the public nature of heterosexual relations; the intrinsically parental orientation of heterosexual relations, and the crisis of fatherhood.
Also for brevity's sake, as well as to get at the conceptual nub of my proposals, I would suggest that any response to these issues must "put the baby back into sex." By this I mean that men and women need to acknowledge the overwhelming importance of heterosexual relations' orientation to the procreation of children - helpless creatures who require decades of intensive labor, a lifetime of interaction, and who apparently come into the world with an inbuilt desire to remain connected to both their father and their mother. No matter the heights and depths of couples' romantic aspirations and experiences, these can never be divorced from the crucial reality that heterosexual relations are procreative. The law has always known this. Most churches did or still do. And now couples must acknowledge it too, with help from every possible governmental, religious and other social institution. Once the baby is re-introduced into couples' sexual consciousness, they can better understand that nonmarital sex has its own intrinsically public significance; the door is also opened for women and men to understand the "giftedness" of the other precisely in connection with procreation. They might further be open to the realization that men and women were literally "meant for each other," meant for "communion," and that what they can do together is more than the sum of its parts. This is a fundamental approach to helping men and women internalize a view of one another that is more respectful, more elevated, than what obtains today, especially among the most disadvantaged. Motherhood and fatherhood have not lost their fan base in these communities; were each sex to be helped to see the other, beginning in adolescence, as potential mothers and fathers, leaders of their children, of the next generation, and of their community, this might help to transcend current gender mistrustful stereotypes. Tantalizing indications of the possible beneficial effects upon young men and women of learning about their mutual procreative capabilities have come from "fertility awareness" programs like TeenStar.6
Who might act on the goal of "putting the baby back into sex"? And how might they proceed? The most likely actors are of course families themselves, churches and governments. (Needless to say, it would be terrific to have the assistance of the media, but this is too large a topic, and outside my expertise, to complete here. Suffice it to say for now that each of the named likely actors could interact with the media to disseminate its ideas further.) These remain the most likely actors even though we know parents are far less active in this arena than we would wish, some churches are the opposite of helpful (having embraced the myth of "equivalence" as between procreative and non-intrinsically procreative family units), and some of the government's tax, welfare and education policies bear more than a little responsibility for the mess we're in today. Right from the start, then, we might say that parents need a jolt - from their churches, from the state, and from any intermediary group taking up the cause of children's well being. They need to talk with the children about the crucial roles of marriage and parenting, not simply about "sex."
With respect to churches, some first need to undo the damage some have done by obfuscating the importance of procreation in male/female relationships, or even by their advocacy for equal recognition - both from church and state - of sexual unions which are procreative and those which are not (same sex unions) Members of churches promoting notions of equivalence between family forms cannot stop educating their leadership about the harm they are doing not only to members, but to society at large, particularly the poor and minority communities. A groundswell of social science research7 and religious activism, particularly among historically black churches, is highlighting this latter point. It needs to be brought home in every Church. As for those Churches who understand the inseparability of procreation from heterosexual relations - and the Catholic Church is surely one of these - they need to learn how to communicate this message with more clarity, more often, without fear of offending, and to those communities who need it most. They should take advantage of the powerful networks they have. Churches' views on moral issues concerning marriage and the family over time carry weight, or at the very least shine a light in dark times. Even the most eminent sociologists of the family still grant their weight.8
The task of undoing the damage done by the state -- which has quite arguably led public opinion about the "privacy" and "amorality" of sex via judicial sexual-privacy jurisprudence, same sex marriage laws, and the famous dicta in Lawrence v. Texas about the necessity of divorcing morality from lawmaking - ought to be begun by lawyers, legislators, judges and citizens. They need to demand, one bill and case and cause at a time, that the state perform an about-face on the relationship between sex, morality, procreation and the public good. Thereafter, the state needs to add the "procreative" dimension to its current efforts in connection with sex and marriage. Procreation as an essential aspect of sex needs to be included in any public sex education (versus the current message which is not unfairly summarized as: "unprotected sex is procreative and disease-producing"). Men's and women's parental destinies, capabilities and joint fate needs to be emphasized. I am very nearly suggesting, in other words, that the state undertake a "male/female relations" campaign with the same enthusiasm with which they have embraced a "race relations" movement.
Interestingly, neither the state nor the church nor families will likely encounter objections to the other's playing a role in this work. Each of the three is so overwhelmed by the size and trajectory of our nonmarital birth rates, that each is explicitly encouraging the other two to step up. Not surprisingly, their efforts might benefit from mutual cooperation. This is not to say, however, that there will not be strident opposition to the content of the efforts I have proposed. "Sexual privacy" ideologues - by their decades of silence - must see nonmarital births as part of the price to pay for the kind of sexual freedom they embrace. They may also be hostile to any message that elevates procreation to top billing in our nation's sex-talk, and demotes self-satisfaction. They might also claim that women will be re-oppressed when procreation is valorized.
Today, however, their usually potent objections might receive a less favorable response. After decades of legal-penalty-free sexual relationships outside of marriage, it is clear that these have not, overall, advantaged women or children. It is also clear to anyone with common sense that the most visible, long lasting and important consequences of uncommitted sexual partnerships do not include greater happiness and sexual fulfillment, or harmony between men and women. Divorce rates and "I'm-testing-you-cohabitations" are up, women's happiness measurements are down, and lone-(female) parenting is skyrocketing. Finally, the trick of waiving a red flag every time women and babies are mentioned in the same breath should cease. It must be admitted that women want and are sill choosing to have babies, even under the most difficult circumstances. They perform over 90% of the lone parenting, and move heaven and earth to reorganize their employment around children's needs.
Counterintuitive as it seems, then, a possible means of helping to curb our nonmarital pregnancy rates is to "put the baby back into sex." It is a means of helping men and women view each other as gifts - not instruments, not enemies, not subordinates - and a way of putting first things first - the well-being of children before our own selfish impulses.
1 Stephanie J. Ventura, Changing Patterns of Nonmarital Childbearing in the United States, (US Dept. of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics), NCHS Data Brief, No. 18, May 2009. [Back]
2 National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, The 5% solution: Reversing the Rise in the Teen Birth Rate" at http://www.thenationalcampaign.org/media/events/5percent_solution/Ten_Headlines.pdf. [Back]
3 Planned Parenthood of the Columbia/Williamette Inc., Planned Parenthood Calls for Comprehensive Sex Education on Eighth Annual National Day to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, May 8, 2009, at http://www.plannedparenthood.org/about-us/newsroom/local-press-releases/planned-parenthood-calls-comprehensive-sex-education-eighth-annual-national-day-prevent-teen-pr-26960.htm; National Abstinence Education Assn, Teen Pregnancy Rates Demand Honest Look, at http://www.abstinenceassociation.org/newsroom/032409_teen_pregnancy_rates_demand.html. [Back]
7 W. Bradford Wilcox, The Evolution of Divorce, 1 National Affairs (Fall 2009), at http://nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/the-evolution-of-divorce. [Back]