Saturday, December 10, 2005


I had a run-in with some “childfree” folks, who taught me a new word:

noun UK SLANG -- a baby or young child:
- She's got a couple of sprogs now.
- Has she sprogged (= given birth) yet?

The CF Hardcore are either scary or hilarious . I prefer to think of them as hilarious. Their children will find this phase of their life amusing.

Friday, December 09, 2005

“95-10” is a Good Centrist Plan to Reduce Abortion

Abortion may appear to be one of those issues for which there is no middle position. It is about the most polarizing issue in political life today. On most polarized issues, when the activists on opposing sides get to know one another better and understand where the other side is coming from, the conflict between them is reduced. Not with abortion: as Kristin Luker has shown in Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood, when pro-life and pro-choice activists understand their opponents’ worldview, they find it even more terrible and incomprehensible.

At the same time, abortion is not going away. The public is about evenly divided on the abortion rules we have today. Most want some kind of choice on abortion, but not abortion on demand. And the sheer magnitude of abortion in America makes it both an important substantive problem, and an intractable one. There are about 1.2 million abortions per year in the United States. That is about 1/4 of the babies conceived each year. Since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, about 40 million Americans have been aborted – about 13% the size of our current population.

Which is why it is so important to articulate a centrist position on abortion. I believe a good way to put it is: keep abortion safe, legal, and abhorrent. Senator Clinton favors the milder formula of “safe, legal, and rare.” I can go with either one. The crucial point is that, like most Americans, I think abortion should be legal, at least when the fetus has no chance of living as a baby, or when the mother’s life is threatened. At the same time, I think we as a society should provide many incentives and safeguards to keep abortion from being just another form of birth control, as I believe it is in most of those million-plus cases each year.

In the past generation, abortion has become an issue that divides the two political parties. Elephants are supposed to have long memories, but most Republicans of my acquaintance forget that the GOP supported abortion after Roe, and many in the Barbara Bush wing still do. And many of my fellow donkeys are prone to kick any Democrat who goes against pro-choice orthodoxy. Democrats for Life of America is, of necessity, a centrist organization. They have come up with a comprehensive proposal to significantly reduce abortion, not through restrictive laws, but through better information, through stronger incentives, and, especially, through better support for babies and their parents.

The 95-10 proposal has the ambitious aim to reduce the number of abortions by 95% in ten years. The program starts with better education about pregnancy prevention, the pregnancy support that is already available, the extent of the national abortion rate, and counseling and daycare on campus, an issue I wrote about recently. The act would then make existing adoption tax credits permanent, ban jacking up insurance rates for the “pre-existing condition” of pregnancy (as if it were a disease), and increase funding against domestic violence, as murder is the leading cause of death for pregnant women. The 95-10 proposal does not end with the child’s birth, though; the act would fully fund the Women, Infants, and Children program, and require the successful State Child Health Insurance Programs to include pregnant women and their babies.

I think it unlikely that any program can reduce the abortion rate 95%, short of coercion so draconian that it would be un-American. Still, most people, when presented with the enormous size of the abortion rate in America, do favor reducing it. The combination of education and support that the 95-10 proposal offers could go some way – maybe halfway – to reducing the abortion rate. And that is a worthy centrist goal.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Marriage Development Accounts

Washington D.C. is one of the least married cities in America. Not coincidentally, it is also one of the poorest, especially if we look at poor children. This has led to an unusual alliance in Congress to create incentives for marriage and savings in the District of Columbia. Sen. Sam Brownback, a conservative Republican from Kansas, and Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a liberal Democrat from the District of Columbia, are working together to add Marriage Development Accounts to the D.C. appropriations bill. The MDAs would give poor married couples $3 for each $1 they put in a special savings account, up to a total of $12,000 per year.

D.C.’s low marriage rate has many causes, both material and cultural. Never an industrial city, the District has lost most of what little manufacturing base it had. It has a number of jobs at the top of the education scale, and some service jobs (serving the educated) at the bottom, but few family-supporting jobs for the low-skilled. D.C. is also one of the blackest cities in America, and African-Americans have low marriages rates apart from their jobs and incomes. As Rep. Norton said, "marriage is going out of style in whole sections of the black community."

Still, incentives do work for the middle of the population. You get more of what you pay more for. Couples, especially couples with children, who are planning to marry “someday” would be more likely to do so now if they could reap an additional $9,000 per year for doing so. And getting married would, for most such couples, strengthen their ties to one another. Marriage makes most people act married, in a way that cohabiting with a vague hope of marriage does not.

Investing in marriage is a governmental program most likely to pay for itself, and then some, both financially and in citizenship.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Supporting Student Moms on Campus

My college has very few mothers. Nearly all of our students are traditional-aged singles. There are only a handful of married students, and we will have maybe one or two parents in the regular student body at any given time. I do not encourage my students to marry while they are in college, and I certainly would not encourage them to have kids as undergraduates. And our students set that same standard for themselves. They graduate at high rates, and most marry and have kids after that, and in that order. College women in general have low pregnancy rates; Centre women are likely to have even lower pregnancy rates than their peers.

Still, sometimes Things Happen. I know of a few students who have gotten pregnant. Some have dropped out altogether, some have stopped out and come back later, and a few have transferred elsewhere. I don’t personally know of any student abortions, but I know there must be a couple or a few each year, according to estimates by our wellness center. In very rare cases the couple has married and both have continued on track to graduation. And in these cases, having a baby on campus has been good for the college. It happens so rarely here that our students can rally ‘round and be a great help to the young couple.

I mention all of this because of the “Elizabeth Cady Stanton Pregnant and Parenting Student Services Act of 2005.” This bill, sponsored by Elizabeth Dole in the Senate and Melissa Hart in the House, would provide $10 million for a pilot program to help college campuses be more supportive of pregnant students and student parents. Just what colleges and universities would do would with the money would vary all over the lot – which is the kind of experimentation that pilot programs are designed to encourage. Already, using volunteer labor and university funds, students at the University of Virginia created a baby-sitting service for other student parents, while Wellesley students had a rummage sale to benefit pregnant and parenting mothers in the student body.

This act is the main legislative project of Feminists for Life. They take a centrist position on one of the most contested and divisive issues in America. Feminists for Life argue that pregnant women, no matter how well or ill prepared they were to become pregnant, deserve better options than either abortion or going it alone. The organization provides support for women having kids, especially single young women. Feminists for Life have taken Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a founding mother of feminism, as their icon and patron, because she was a feminist mother who thought that abortion was a tool men used to control women. Feminists for Life came into the news when John Roberts was nominated for the Supreme Court, as his wife, Jane, was a board member and supportive lawyer. Indeed, that is why I looked them up, and how I know about this bill.

The Stanton Act seems to me a good centrist approach to what is often a tragic choice for young women. College women do have low pregnancy rates, but they also have high abortion rates. They tend to see babies and education as a zero-sum choice. Indeed, I think the pro-choice lobby commonly says that very thing. And truly, succeeding in college while caring for children is a huge challenge, which I would not recommend as a plan. Still, when unplanned babies begin, it does not mean the end of the mother’s – or the father’s -- education, much less their lives. I have seen examples of couples who have risen to the challenge, even at a young age and at a hard school.

I have no idea if the Stanton Act has a real chance of passage in Congress, but I support it as legislation and strongly support the attitude behind it.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Family Sociology: A Centrist Approach

I teach a popular Introduction to Family Life course which I enjoy tremendously. Of all the subjects I teach – indeed, of all of the subjects that anyone teaches in the college – this is one of a handful that is most interesting to students. Almost all of my students expect to marry and expect to have children, though they have not given much thought to the details of parenthood (especially the men).

Finding the right books to use in that class is a constant struggle. The struggle has two parts. The happy part is that a number of excellent books about family life are published every year, and the difficulty comes in choosing among this embarrassment of riches. The less happy part is that many of the books on family life produced by my fellow sociologists are so unbalanced in their criticism of marriage and parenthood that they are unhelpful. As for family sociology textbooks, I find them simply unusable.

Family textbooks suffer from a pervasive bias that can only be described as anti-marriage and oblivious to children. Norval Glenn, in his excellent study of the leading family sociology textbooks, “Closed Hearts, Closed Minds: The Textbook Story of Marriage,” concluded that:

Overall, most of these textbooks remain rather dogmatically dedicated to the proposition that intact marriages are not especially important for raising children. The great majority of Americans who persist in thinking otherwise are, as these authors frequently suggest, merely ignorant. … These textbooks are characteristically uninterested in the effects of family change on children.

So what do I use?

Family sociologists, as a rule, are devoted to the idea that all family forms are socially constructed – and should be reconstructed to increase individual choice and eliminate all gender differences. My thinking about family life went through a complete revolution some years ago, when I became convinced that the sociobiological foundations of mate selection are true. Sociobiology, or evolutionary psychology, argues that there are deep differences in the way men and women as a group approach mate selection and childrearing. Marriage is cultural construction, but it was constructed in almost every culture because it is the most effective compromise between these deep sexual differences and is the best institution raise kids in.

The foundation for my family life course, then, is a sociobiological study of how sexual differences affect family life. I use David Buss’ The Evolution of Desire, which includes his own cross-cultural study of mate selection. This leads naturally to Deborah Tannen’s work on gender differences in communication, which is hugely popular with students. Indeed, every time the class discusses these gender differences in ways of talking, whether the speakers believe Tannen or not, they tend to demonstrate her points.

For marriage I think one could not do better right now than Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher’s The Case for Marriage. This book often has a strong effect on how students think about marriage, especially about cohabitation before or instead of marriage. Discussion of marriage naturally leads to a consideration of divorce. For the past several years I have used The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, by Judith Wallerstein and her colleagues. This year I am going to use Elizabeth Marquardt’s Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce, though I still strongly commend Wallerstein’s project and will teach it in lectures. This is an example of the embarrassment of riches in this field.

The central discussion of the course is about how families function. Here I have found the work of Robert Beavers in categorizing how family systems function (or dysfunction) to be the most helpful. Beavers’ own books are aimed more at clinicians and graduate students. Maggie Scarf’s Intimate Worlds applies the Beavers scale to a number of representative real families in an engaging way. The crying need of the discipline, I think, is a national-level study of the distribution of functional and dysfunctional family systems.

A book that has a strong effect on my students, especially the women, is Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children. Hewlett details how women at the highest levels of professional achievement often end up with no children, or fewer children than they wanted, not from choice, but from the “creeping non-choice” of waiting too long to get started. For the ambitious, professionally oriented women I teach, this is sobering.

There are many other excellent works that are good for a centrist approach to family sociology. My whole syllabus can be found at There are a number of conservative and centrist family sociologists who are disaffected with the generally leftist thrust of the field. I believe, though, that this group of sociologists, as well as the larger world of scholarship, will continue to produce excellent material for teaching centrist family sociology.

And the bottom line is this: most students will marry and will have children, and are eager to learn from a pro-marriage and child-oriented family course. For those willing to buck the conventions of the discipline, the market belongs to us.

Monday, December 05, 2005

No Day But Today vs. Posterity Lost

“Rent” follows the lives of doomed but romantic artists in the bohemian quarter of New York in the 1990s, just as “La Boheme” followed the lives of doomed but romantic artists in the bohemian quarter of Paris in the 1890s, all of which leads back to the originals of these stories, Henri Murger’s Scenes de la Vie de Boheme, about doomed artists in the bohemian quarter of Paris in the 1840s. The Parisian bohemian quarter was not peopled by actual Bohemians, any more than the New York version was or is. Rather, the French artists who left bourgeois homes in the provinces to lead a rootless life in the metropolis saw themselves as being like gypsies. They imagined gypsies as romantic artists traveling through the world; they also imagined that gypsies came from Bohemia, the present-day Czech Republic.

It is perhaps not surprising that rootless young artists have only a hazy grasp of the intensely practical and familial Roma (gypsy) people, any more than it would be surprising that young artists would have a hazy grasp of geography. That is water over the dam now. “Bohemian” now means artists of all kinds who defy convention.

What strikes me most about all of these artistic bohos, though, is how strongly anti-family they are. Rodolpho and Mimi, dying of consumption, have no parents, no marriage, no children. They live only for art and for love – temporarily. Roger and Mimi, dying of AIDS, reject their parents, have contempt for marriage, and have no hope of children. Their only hope of a posterity is their Art. The first Mimi embroidered flowers. The second Mimi’s art is more ephemeral still, consisting of lewd songs and pole dances at a strip club.

Lest the anti-family message of “Rent” be missed, Mark Cohen, (the counterpart of Marcelo), explains the whole point of la vie boheme in a song of that name, which the ensemble sings in order to outrage the bourgeoisie:

To loving tension, no pension
To more than one dimension,
To starving for attention,
Hating convention, hating pretension
Not to mention of course,
Hating dear old mom and dad.

There it is: bohemians reject the Fifth Commandment, “of course.” Though the story turns on the love of a set of couples, I don’t believe children are even spoken of once.

Richard Gill, in Posterity Lost: Progress, Ideology, and the Decline of the American Family, argues that the main cause of family decline in the past generation or so is that we have lost the idea that we act not solely for ourselves today, but for our posterity. People who imagine that they are working, building, and saving for their children and their grandchildren are less concerned with living for themselves and living for now.

And what do bohemians live for? The most memorable song from “Rent” says it all: “No Day But Today.”

Sunday, December 04, 2005

The “Protestant Deformation” Undermines Families

Swarthmore political scientist James Kurth has a powerful article in the current American Interest, “The Protestant Deformation.” In it he argues that the foreign policy of the Bush Administration imposes on the world an extremely secularized version of Protestantism. Kurth’s article is an update of a 1998 article of the same name, in which he argued that the Clinton administration was then doing the same thing. The Protestant Deformation is deep in American culture, especially our political cultural. Kurth charts the gradual decline of the core values espoused by our political leaders through seven stages, from a full-throated Reformation Protestantism down to today’s individualism. Of the last, he writes

Individualism – with its contempt for all hierarchies, communities, traditions, and customs – represents the logical conclusion and the ultimate extreme of the secularization of the Protestant religion. The Holy Trinity of original Protestantism, the Supreme Being of unitarianism, even the American nation of the American Creed have all been dethroned and replaced by the imperial self.

In foreign policy the imperial self leads to our promoting the idea of universal human rights, which developed organically out of Protestantism, as if that idea fit as neatly into all cultures and civilizations.

In domestic policy, the imperial self leads of our promoting the idea of individual choice and individual fulfillment. This idea also grew organically out of Protestantism. However, Protestantism supports marriage. The biblical standard is that in marriage two become one flesh. Husband and wife are no longer individuals in the same way they were. Protestantism supports families as an organic social whole. Whatever one thinks of biblical ideas of male headship (about which I have written before), the Bible clearly understands that parents are responsible for children, and children are to honor their parents, in a relation unlike that of any mere individuals.

Kurth thinks the final, individualist, stage in the Protestant Deformation was not reached until the 1970s. In foreign policy, this led to universal human rights. This idea has something to recommend it, but it also contributes to the breakup of traditional cultures around the world, which has led to much resentment of U.S. cultural imperialism. In domestic policy, individualism led to no-fault divorce and on-demand abortion. These ideas have a little something to recommend them, but they have also contributed to a marked breakup of traditional families, which has led to a culture war in politics.

The Protestant Deformation takes the Protestant Reformation to its logical extreme. But along the way it lost much of the spiritual substance that restrained unbridled individualism and the imperial self, the faith that kept individualism from going too far.