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How Are Women Doing?

1.

Choice” has been an effective watchword for those who would allow women to decide whether to continue a pregnancy—especially since it implies that the alternative is forcing people to have children they do not want. In fact, many women who become pregnant have chosen to do so; they are happy they have become pregnant and hope a birth will result. Even so, those who feel this way are not typical, as one might think. A survey of pregnant women by the National Center for Health Statistics found that almost 40 percent were not elated about their condition, and most in this group did not want it to proceed.1 If these women are also to have a choice, abortion services must be widely available.

Between 1974 and 1997, the years for which we have figures, almost 35 million abortions were performed in the United States, or 390 for every 1,000 live births. If most “pro-life” proponents had their way, virtually every pregnant woman would be compelled to bear her child, with only an exemption if her own life might be at stake. They also think that if abortion were abolished, there would be less sex of the sort that now leads to clinic visits. On the other side, many “choice” advocates believe that women would want to have even more abortions, but have been thwarted by obstacles created by hostile states and localities. Some also feel the number would rise if counseling were offered to teenagers who haven’t pondered the consequences of early motherhood.

Abortions have recently been declining, from a height of 1.6 million in 1990 to just over 1.3 million in 1997, lowering the ratio to 342 for every 1,000 births. Even Planned Parenthood does not believe that clamoring pickets and restrictive regulations have had much to do with the drop. One reason is that contraceptive use is up, even if only modestly, encouraged by fears of AIDS and other venereal risks. Also, with an aging population, there are fewer teenagers and young women to have unwanted pregnancies; teenagers’ share of all abortions has dropped dramatically. But the chief cause has been an increasing choice by unmarried girls and women to complete their pregnancies and take the babies home, which has lifted nonmarital births to an all-time high. Among women who are now raising children on their own, fully 43.3 percent have never been married, by contrast with the 6.8 percent a generation ago. As for the fathers, fewer of them feel pressured or obliged, let alone inclined, to wed the women they made pregnant. (So today, brides with a baby on the way are less frequent.)

Rickie Solinger, in Beggars and Choosers, dismisses the whole idea of choice as “fairly ridiculous,” since not all women have a full range of reproductive options. Freedoms that in theory are available in fact have price tags attached. She cites the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal Medicaid funds from being used for abortions. The poor must join the rich in paying for the procedure themselves. As for women on a tight budget, one senator advised them to scrape up the cash by “sacrificing on some item or other for a month or two.”

Solinger doesn’t mention that states can pick up the tab, as nineteen do. Still, populous ones like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Texas are among those that don’t. She recalls how women considered improvident or unfit were once routinely sterilized, and goes on to show that the sentiment behind such steps hasn’t wholly disappeared. Thus some of the pressure for making single mothers take jobs is accompanied by a hope that they’ll come home too tired to make more babies. The “family values” credo according to which youngsters are served best by having a full-time mother is reserved for those who have found and kept a husband who can foot the bills. Through messages like these, Solinger writes, poor women are told they have a “reproductive duty to refrain from reproducing.” I don’t recall seeing the word “eugenics” in her book, but she essentially accuses many better-off Americans of seeking to halt what they see as promiscuous breeding at lower social levels. (A group in California offers payments for tubal ligations.)

The bottom line for Solinger is what she calls “reproductive autonomy,” which ensures “the right to decide whether and when to become a mother and the right to decide whether or not to raise one’s child.” Like “choice,” at first reading this also seems beyond challenge. After all, few Americans openly support giving some agency the power to decide who may create children. But the issue hardly ends there. In fact, much of the procreation we see occurring is fortuitous, if not capricious, on the part of people who have no moral business becoming parents.

To voice this concern is not to hold that all prospective parents must be declared fit before they can have a baby. Rather, this is one of those matters in which while many of us don’t favor official intervention, we still find ourselves wishing that certain kinds of behavior didn’t occur. Prominent in the news this year has been the case of a middle-class Texas couple who kept on having children despite the wife’s history of depression; then one afternoon, she drowned all five of them. They, like others who are neglected and abused, are the ones who pay for the freedom adults have to procreate.

Last summer, one man who came before Wisconsin’s supreme court was $25,000 behind in support for nine children he had fathered by four different women. A lower court judge had ruled that if he did any more procreating, it would be deemed a violation of parole and he would be sent to prison. The Wisconsin supreme court voted 4–3 to sustain that ruling, holding that the state had a legitimate interest in preventing him from siring more children, who were bound to become dependent on public funds. (In other states, judges have given men the option of having a vasectomy.) As it turned out, the majority consisted of the four men on the court, while the dissenters were its three women, who issued an impassioned response. “Men and women in America are free to have children, as many as they desire,” one wrote, and “they may do so without the means to support the children.” While parents may be penalized for failing to provide support, “the right to have a child has never been rationed on the basis of wealth.”2

For her part, Solinger doesn’t say whether she wants to safeguard the “reproductive rights” of fathers, even if they walk away from the young lives they have helped to create. In this tangled issue, feminist and right-to-life positions are not far apart. Feminists do not want men telling women how they may use their bodies, even if the women keep on having babies on almost an annual basis. Pro-life proponents must also support these births, since they indicate a rejection of the abortion option.

Natalie Hull and Peter Hoffer in their new book want to show how tenuous Roe v. Wade has become, especially since the US Supreme Court has allowed state legislatures to curb the availability of the procedure. One state rule requires two visits, separated by at least twenty-four hours, before an abortion can take place; this can deter women who must come long distances, in states with few abortion clinics. A new tactic is to require excessive renovations of clinics and equipment, ostensibly for the benefit of patients. Added to which, our current president needs only to name two Supreme Court justices to overturn Roe, a tacit pledge he made to his party.

But despite their sympathies, Hull and Hoffer feel compelled to criticize Roe. In their reading, it “badly mangles the complex multiplicity of real-life factors in abortion discussions.” In particular, Justice Harry Blackmun’s opinion in 1973 relied on a “paternalistic medically driven argument that doctors should be free of state interference in taking care of their pregnant patients.” In their view, it was almost as if gynecologists, mainly men at that time, were the plaintiffs in the case. The authors would have preferred a “new paradigm of women’s voice in the law,” affirming “women’s control of their reproductive lives”:

Women’s bodies belong to women, not men, not doctors, not pressure groups, not Congress, not lobbyists, and certainly not judges and justices in court.

Stating the principle in this way may not win the authors many converts. As Table A on page 64 shows, views on abortion range across a spectrum and reflect mixed feelings, with women’s opinions not much different from men’s. It’s not just pro-life zealots who are put off by the use of the term “fetus,” which considers its excision akin to removing a cyst.3 At issue, also, is the status of the patient. If there is sympathy for victims of rape, and often for terrified teenagers, it recedes if professional women are perceived as wishing to forestall a birth because it would be at a bad time for their careers. And there is even less support for those who have availed themselves of Roe more than once. Indeed, among patients in their thirties, almost half have had at least one previous procedure; and for one in four, it was their third. But this kind of counting may become moot. If RU-486 or morning-after pills are routinely taken, we won’t even know how many pregnancy terminations are taking place.

2.

One American child in three is now born to unmarried parents, whereas in 1960 the figure was one in twenty. For white births, the out-of-wedlock ratio is 22.1 percent, and each year it moves closer to the black rate, now 69.1 percent. This makes the black figure 3.1 times that for whites; the 1970 ratio was 6.6, or over twice as great. In 1970, also, half of all nonmarital births were to teenagers. By 1999, the most recent year for figures, they had declined to 29.3 percent of the total. So more of unwed births are to older women; over half of unwed mothers have had another pregnancy earlier, and for a quarter, it is at least their third.

In the early 1970s, half of premarital pregnancies led to marriage. By the 1990s, fewer than a quarter did. Before 1973, the year of Roe v. Wade, one fifth of “nonmarital” infants were adopted. Currently, only one in thirty is. In the 1950s, fully 82.8 percent of first children were conceived after marriage. By the 1990s, that proportion was down to 47.2 percent. Another reason why the nonmarital ratio is higher is that there are fewer births overall within marriage. Couples who used to have three children now stop at two, while others are having one or none.

Should these trends be a cause for concern? The US Congress certainly thinks so. In 1996, it created a competition among the states, offering annual rewards of up to $20 million for those showing the greatest reductions in their out-of-wedlock birth rates (with a proviso that they could not be attained by abortions). In 2000, Arizona was one of four winners, because its rate dropped by three tenths of a percentage point, from 38.5 percent to 38.2 percent. Measured in actual numbers, Michigan recorded 719 fewer nonmarital births, and by my calculations netted $27,816 for each non-born child.

  1. 1

    Fertility, Family Planning, and Women’s Health (National Center for Health Statistics, 1997), Table 16.

  2. 2

    Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, State v. Oakley (No. 99-3328-CR, July 10, 2001), p. 46.

  3. 3

    While Solinger and Hull and Hoffer provide lengthy lists of references, they neither quote nor cite Kristin Luker’s classic study, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood (University of California Press, 1984), which offers an evenhanded analysis of mainstream opponents of abortion.

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