Shotgun Marriage as Social Policy

Conservative columnist Ross Douthat created a firestorm on the left when he suggested in his Sunday New York Times column that one way to stabilize the declining American middle class was to promote marriage through some limitations on divorce and abortion.

Douthat cited a 1996 paper co-authored by current Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen which concluded that abortion and contraception had led to the demise of shotgun marriages by removing the imperative for men to marry women they got pregnant. “By making the birth of the child the physical choice of the mother, the sexual revolution has made marriage and child support a social choice of the father,” Yellen and George Akerlof wrote.

This might be fine for women who were able to assert a high degree of reproductive control through the use of abortion or contraception, but left those who couldn’t or wouldn’t pregnant and unable to compel the father to marry them. Hence limitations on abortion, reasons Douthat, may increase the rate at which such couples marry.

Jessica Grose provides a thorough point-by-point rebuttal of Douthat’s policy claims in Slate, while Michele Goldberg notes that all evidence suggests that limiting abortion is likely to undermine marriage. But the idea that advances in reproductive freedom have erroded the family is becoming so prevelant on the right that it’s important to look at the origins of this argument. Douthat is a self-described “right-leaning Catholic” and the Catholic hierarchy pretty much invented the theory that letting women decide when and if they have babies is the death knell of society.