Blue States Better at 'Family Values'--Because of Abortion?

A new book upends some old notions

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Last week the Wire covered Jonathan Rauch's question after reading a new book by family law professors Naomi Cahn and June Carbone: "Do family values weaken families?" The question was inspired by research showing that traditional morality "fails to prevent premarital sex and early childbirth." Since then this debate has ballooned.

Conservatives Maggie Gallagher and Ross Douthat have also taken a look at the figures, and surface an intriguing theory: if you divide states and families up into "red" and "blue" categories based on values and lifestyles, as Cahn and Carbone do, it does look like "blue" families better exemplify family values, as they have fewer children out of wedlock and fewer divorces. But the reason for blue states' success may come down to their attitudes toward abortion.

There's a starting point for debate if there ever was one.

  • Two Conclusions  "Red states have more opposition to abortion politically (which makes them red), which would tend to result in more early childbearing, earlier ages at marriage and a more mixed record with regard to out-of-wedlock births," argues Maggie Gallagher. Another interesting thing to pick up from all these studies floating around is this:
People with graduate degrees may be more sexually liberal in theory, but end up surprisingly conservative in actual practice. They tend to discount the importance of public moral norms around sex and marriage because they see their families flourishing under postmodern conditions, and because they and their children have the most access to "private" social, human and moral capital.
  • Abortion Is Key  That actually runs counter to the liberal narrative, argues New York Times columnist Ross Douthat: "Liberals sometimes argue that their preferred approach to family life reduces the need for abortion. In reality, it may depend on abortion to succeed." Availability of abortion from a practical and moral standpoint is a big factor. But there's another takeaway here, too: all this means that while the "blue family" model isn't purely dependent on contraception, neither is the "red family" model just a result of "foolish devotion to abstinence education." It's also an attempt to take a stand:

Whether it's attainable for most Americans or not, the "blue family" model clearly works: it leads to marital success and material prosperity, and it's well suited to our mobile, globalized society. By comparison, the "red family" model can look dysfunctional--an uneasy mix of rigor and permissiveness, whose ideals don’t always match up with the facts of contemporary life. But it reflects something else as well: an attempt, however compromised, to navigate post-sexual revolution America without relying on abortion.

  • Well Yeah--That's the Whole Point  "[Douthat] has described a family values argument for abortion rights," points out Jack Balkin. Douthat doesn't deny this: "This data isn't a problem for many abortion supporters of the old school, who would argue that of course abortion is essential to post-sexual revolution family stability--and that’s why they're for it!"
  • Making Abortion About Societal Benefits Instead of Rights  Progressive blogger Matt Yglesias points out that this debate is "relevant for a whole host of murky middle positions." For example, recently the arguments for legal abortions have been "about rights rather than broader policy arguments about the widespread beneficial consequences of allowing women to make choices about the timing of when they raise kids."
  • What If Success of Blue Model Depends on Red Model?  "In evaluating the 'success' or 'adaptiveness' of the blue-state model we might," suggests National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru, "... want to see whether one model results in more children than the other. Is it possible that the blue states are depending on the red states' fecundity to fund their retirements?"
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.