The Long View: How Abortion Builds Better Families

By Jajhill - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

By Jajhill - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

I was going to say that John missed the big picture on replacing AFDC with TANF in the late 90s:

Chronic, mass illegitimacy is a product of the lifestyle of the population that has become dependent on AFDC. If the program is removed or modified, there might be a temporary uptick in abortions, but the culture of illegitimacy will be eliminated.

because it looks like the long term trend wasn't much affected in the CDC data. But perhaps that is too harsh. Pseudonymous blogger Spotted Toad looked at the data, and concluded that it was possible there was an effect of eliminating AFDC. That effect is much smaller than the underlying trend, but that doesn't mean it isn't real.

The second part of what John mentioned here, a fear that pushing women to get married using welfare policy would cause an increase in the abortion rate, didn't materialize either.

Overall, I think this essay from 1995 holds up pretty well 22 years later.

How Abortion Builds Better Families

The word "conservative" has several meanings in American politics. It can mean respect for social tradition and legal precedent, after the fashion of Edmund Burke. It can mean a devotion to free market economics, which is what "liberalism" meant in the 19th century and what it still means in much of Europe. It can mean near-anarchist libertarianism. It can even mean the desire to create a theocracy. Although these possible meanings often logically lead to incompatible public policy, most people who call themselves conservative incorporate some elements of all of these different kinds of "conservatism" into their beliefs. This rarely causes significant problems: since none of us is omniscient, cognitive dissonance is part of the human condition anyway. Still, every so often an issue comes along that threatens to unravel the baling-wire and chewing gum structure the passes for modern American conservatism.

Consider the movement to deny payments to single women receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) for children born while the women are on the program. This restriction is aimed at reducing the number of out-of-wedlock births, which might strike some people as a "conservative" issue if ever there was one, but the opposition to this policy is almost unique in uniting abortion rights advocates and pro-life advocates. The reason for this is the conventional belief that such a measure will increase the rate of abortion among women dependent on these funds. The pro-abortion people assert that restricting AFDC payments infringes on the "right to choose" by pressuring the women concerned to choose abortion. The pro-life people, while presumably opposed to illegitimacy, are more concerned about the possibility of a rise in the abortion rate.

In reality, of course, the premise of this opposition is probably wrong. Chronic, mass illegitimacy is a product of the lifestyle of the population that has become dependent on AFDC. If the program is removed or modified, there might be a temporary uptick in abortions, but the culture of illegitimacy will be eliminated. However, the belief that AFDC reform really does pose an abortion issue has provided an opening for that type of "conservatism" which consists of a mixture of free market economics and personal libertarianism. A particularly lucid expression of this type of argument is provided by the cover article in The New Republic of August 21 & 28, entitled "The Conservative Case for Abortion," written by Jerry Z. Muller. His thesis, in brief, is that bourgeois family values are incompatible with pro-life ideology. Unlike most pro-abortion arguments, which consist primarily of invocations of the fastfood slogan of "choice," this one rises to the level of refutable error.

Muller seeks to make his argument "balanced." He notes the eugenic value of abortion, including late term abortion, but then he also says "the right-to-life movement has done our society a service by insisting upon the humanity and moral worth of the unborn child." His real argument, however, is economic. (Since his most recent book is Adam Smith in His Time and Ours, this is understandable.) The right-to-life movement, he argues, "undermines [the] fundamentally conservative effort to strengthen purposeful families." Now the purposeful family is the middle class family, as defined in the light of Max Weber's "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism." Such a family is one which believes that "the bearing and rearing of children is not an inexorable fate but a voluntary vocation, and that, like any other vocation, it is to be pursued methodically using the most effective means available." In purposeful families, the number of children is kept small so that they can be carefully educated and thus given the best chance to succeed in life. Purposeful families allow for the accumulation of capital that need not be spent feeding the kids, and therefore purposeful families have more to invest, either in their own businesses or those of others. It is people like this who make advanced societies advanced. Purposeful families are jewels beyond price, which social policy should do everything possible to encourage.

Unfortunately, in recent decades the purposeful family has been under assault from individualism, hedonism, and the excessive emphasis on career advancement by both sexes. Among its enemies is the pro-life movement, whose values are essentially pre- capitalist. "Just as older patterns of economic traditionalism and fatalism persist within advanced industrial societies, fatalistic conceptions of family life remain as well..." It is therefore no surprise that among the most vigorous opponents of abortion are lower middle and working class Protestant Evangelicals, who "stress redemption through divine grace rather than through a lifetime of purposeful activity." Muller, noting the decline in abortion rates among young women in recent years, credits the right-to-life movement. The result of their efforts has been to increase the number of out-of-wedlock births, he says. He therefore castigates the right-to-life movement with inhibiting the inculcation of middle class family values among the poor, particularly with regard to their opposition to welfare reform measures that would stop subsidizing illegitimate births.

Some factual points in his argument might give one pause. For instance, it is news to me that Protestant Evangelicals, either in this country or Latin America, are not entrepreneurial. It is also not entirely true that declining fertility is a law of nature (or capitalism). Fertility rates rose throughout the West, starting the late 1930s, and in the U.S. did not go into conspicuous decline again for almost 30 years. There are economic explanations for this, but the reality is fundamentally mysterious. For that matter, one may question whether the post-babyboom small families have been particularly "purposeful." Certainly they have been more divorce-prone than their predecessors, and the children they have produced do not measure up particularly well in terms of scholastic performance or social adjustment. Quite aside from the question of whether Muller's theory of social demography actually holds water, however, is his misunderstanding of the essence of the traditional family.

The distinction he makes between the "fatalistic" traditional and the "purposeful" capitalist family is, of course, nonsense. People have planned their families from time immemorial, quite without the aid of modern pharmaceuticals. Demographic studies of Puritan New Englanders, for instance, show that they obviously spaced their children. They planned on large families, of course, because infant mortality was high and resources abundant. The secular trend toward declining fertility began in the middle 18th century, in Catholic France. The institution of the family in itself implies a fair amount of forethought, of care for the future. Certainly the traditional family is in no way related to the improvident reproductive habits of today's underclass.

The real question here is not the social habits of the underclass, but of what it has become fashionable to call the "Overclass." This designation represents the latest version of the never-ending story entitled, "Whatever Happened to the Kids of the 1960s?" In reality, of course, the Kids of the 1960s became today's adults, not so different from other generations of Americans. However, there has always been enough peculiar about them that the temptation to weave them into demographic theories of history is irresistible. Michael Lind, an editor of The New Republic, has made a name for himself by propounding the theory that these baby-boomer professionals are slowly turning the U.S. into Brazil with snow, as they increasingly refuse to use or fund public services and fence themselves off from the growing numbers of marginally poor workers. One the other hand, David Frum, a fellow of the economically conservative Manhattan Institute, says that the Overclass is actually the world's first "mass elite." He says that all of the shrinkage in the middle class over the last 20 years can be attributed, not to people falling down from it into the underclass, but rising above it into the Overclass.

In any event, the Overclass are the people Jerry Muller is really talking about when he posits a group of people for whom abortion is a natural element of personal economics. The problem for his argument is that the behavior of these people really does not support his hypothetical correlation between fertility rates and economic behavior. What is unusual about today's Overclass is its improvidence, at least as compared with the haute bourgeoisie of earlier generations. They save less than well-to-do people have any right to, to the lasting frustration of economists. In the small Overclass families of today, we are not seeing the victory of the lean, mean, Weberian nuclear family unit. If anything, the Overclass represents a victory of genteel bohemianism, of the spirit of the Woodstock Generation, but with money. The Overclass, like the "counter-culture" whose incarnation it is supposed to be, is self-absorbed, antinomian, and fundamentally intolerant. It is also dishonest in a peculiar way, preferring evasive euphemism to argument. What other group of people could insist with a straight face that "choice" is the real issue in abortion and euthanasia?

Muller's argument is really about the need for a eugenic contraceptive policy, one designed not to weed out bad genes, but bad culture. Abortion is regarded simply as another technique to that end. Overclass culture is capable of acknowledging that there may be some special ethical issues involved in the abortion question, but is quite without any mechanism for assessing the importance of one moral principle with respect to another. That its why it calls principles "values," like quantities that can be added up and averaged out. There is therefore nothing "bourgeois" about the Overclass, if by bourgeois you mean the culture of people like the well-to-do Victorians. The Victorians did believe in moral absolutes, as did the Calvinists and the Puritans and all those other penny-pinching Protestants whom Muller is so eager to invoke. This was the reason for their purposefulness. To work was to pray (as that proto-Calvinist, St. Benedict, once put it), and the virtues of thrift and honesty were important, not simply for their utility, but because they conformed to the will of God. To the Overclass, however, every virtue is a construct, subject to no scheme of value but their own will. This is true even of their own children. Muller even tells us that the "activist conception of family formation also suggests that artificial reproductive technology should be used to reverse infertility." Children as artifacts are less intimidating than children as people.

People who think like this are not "conservative," whether they are Overclass lawyers or illegal aliens. They do not and they will not create strong families, because they think that families are arbitrary constructs, defined according to personal convenience and disoluable at their own considered whim. Having rejected traditional moral norms, they have no history to conserve, and they will make nothing worth keeping.



This article originally appeared in the November 1995 issue of Culture Wars magazine. 

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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