I'm Telling You For the Last Time

The first comment on my last post reads:

(It just tends to fall on inner-city children rather than upper-middle class twentysomething newlyweds.)

...which is entirely the fault of conservatives like yourself who work tirelessly to restrict sex ed, contraception and ban abortion, all of which exist to ameliorate the complications that come from sex. But of course, being a conservative means never having to be responsible for the actual real-world consequences of your opinions.

I've said this before, but one more time: There is very little evidence that sex ed programs have more than a minimal impact on teen and twentysomething sexual behavior. As with most trends, the effects of peer interactions, popular culture, socioeconomic background, parental values and a host of other variables swamp, and then some, what happens in public schools. (Which is why the war over sex ed, at least in public policy terms, is mainly sound and fury, signifying little.)

As for abortion, it's doubtless true that we could bring the out-of-wedlock birth rate down somewhat if we opened more abortion clinics in inner-city neighborhoods and dirt-poor rural counties, which is why to a certain extent the debate over the Sexual Revolution often does come down to what you think about the desirability of raising the abortion rate. However, there are 1.3 million (or so) abortions annually in the United States already, one of the highest rates in the Western world, and as of 2000-2001 some 57 percent of those abortions were obtained by women making less than 200 percent of the poverty line. So it's not clear that there are all that many "gains" to be made, in terms of reducing illegitimacy among the poor, by making abortion more readily available. Particularly since it isn't clear that most illegitimate births in the United States are "unwanted" births to begin with. The teen birth rate, a decent proxy for accidental pregnancy, has been falling for years, while the out-of-wedlock birth rate has rising steadily among women in normal childbearing years. Most of these births aren't to women who are too ignorant to use contraception and just keep pumping out children until they hit menopause; they're to women who want a normal family life, with, say, 2-3 kids, but who can't find any men to marry them, because the culture of marriage has collapsed around them. This is decidedly true in poor and working-class black America, and it's increasingly true in poor and working-class white America as well; in neither case is the overall birth rate particularly high, suggesting that making "every child a wanted child," as the old slogan goes, won't put much of a dent in the illegitimacy problem.

In other words, you either need to deny that rising out-of-wedlock birth rates are bad for society (which you can do, but not very persuasively), accept the social-conservative argument that the Sexual Revolution went too far in snapping the bond between sex, marriage, and childbearing, or find a way to make Americans cultivate the kind of self-control on display in, say, Sweden, a society that has largely dispensed with the institution of marriage but still manages to rear the vast majority of its children in two-parent homes. (Though of course some might say that Northern Europeans have a little too much self-control where childbearing is concerned ... ) The Americans-into-Swedes project is, so far as I can tell, the principle liberal response to the Sexual Revolution's negative externalities, and it's an intellectually respectable one, but I think there's enough data in by now to demonstrate that it'll take more than better sex ed and more abortion clinics to make it happen.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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