Promoting Marriage as an Anti-Abortion Policy
In the months following the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, both sides in the abortion debate have proposed a number of policies at the state and federal level. While the pro-life side has welcomed state anti-abortion trigger laws that were passed in advance of the ruling, legal challenges to many of them have resulted in “business as usual” in the abortion industry in many states; meanwhile the pro-choice side continues to lobby for federal laws to protect a woman’s right to choose abortion. And although there has been support from both sides for policies like the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which provides workplace protections and support for pregnant women who choose life, these types of programs have historically had little effect on reducing abortion rates. 1 Worse, pro-choice politicians have also promoted the draconian Women’s Health Protection Act, which promises to invalidate all state laws protecting unborn children.2
An increasing number of prolifers believe it may be time for a different strategy now that the ability to shape abortion policy has returned to the states. But so far, the policies that have been proposed have been lacking in their potential to make a large difference in the numbers of those choosing to abort their children. Protecting pregnant women in the workplace is important, but it will not roll back the culture of death we have created in this country. And even if pro-life politicians mobilized to defeat the Women’s Health Protection Act, this would still not be enough to change the pro-abortion ethos that has become so entrenched in our culture.
This pro-choice culture continues to be maintained through effective messaging from the abortion industry—led by Planned Parenthood and its media enablers—that convinces too many women of their need for unfettered access to abortion in order to live full and productive lives. However, the prolife community has long known that those most likely to choose abortion are unmarried women who are already struggling to live full lives. These abortion seekers are significantly less likely to have a spouse who will support them throughout their pregnancy, as all of the surveys demonstrate that married women in the United States are highly unlikely to choose to terminate the lives of their unborn children.
In fact, the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and the Guttmacher Institute (the research arm of Planned Parenthood) suggest that marriage is most likely the best way to prevent abortion. In 2019, unmarried women accounted for 86 percent of all abortions. 3 Married women make up only 14 percent of those choosing to abort their children. Among married women only four percent of 2019 pregnancies ended in abortion; among unmarried women 28 percent ended in abortion (CDC).
The data on marriage and abortion are inconvenient for the pro-choice side, which has enlisted the media to keep this truth to themselves. A recent report on global abortion rates issued by the World Health Organization and the Guttmacher Institute was spun by some media outlets to mean that it is “primarily married women who are choosing abortion,” claiming that “most abortions, 41 million a year in 2014, were obtained by married women.” 4 One website erroneously announced that “Study Finds that Married Women Have More Abortions than Anyone Else.”5 And although the WHO/Guttmacher report included a qualifier that “in North America, the majority of abortions are obtained by unmarried women,” the “revelation” that most abortions were procured by married women was retained in the New York Times report.6
Another way the media has attempted to conceal the significance of marriage in preventing abortion is to include “cohabiting couples” in the same category as “married” couples, together constituting all of those not “single.” In a report on the World Health Organization data, the New York Times dishonestly stated that “nearly half of all women who seek abortion are single,” but in order to arrive at this figure, the reporters excluded from the “single category” those women who were “previously married,” as well as those who are part of a “cohabiting couple,” writing that: “Nearly half of those who have abortions are single, a third are living with a partner, nine percent have been previously married and 14 percent are married.”
To their credit, though, at the end of the article, the Times acknowledges that “Cohabiting but unmarried people are overrepresented in abortion numbers, while married people are underrepresented, based on their share of the population.” The data cannot be denied, even though the media has tried to hide it: Women in cohabiting relationships are as likely as single women to seek abortion to end their pregnancies. Marriage is key.
If we are serious about creating a culture of life, we will finally begin to get serious about supporting family formation through incentivizing marriage and family formation. We know that marriage has been declining for several decades. The most recent data indicate that marriage rates are the lowest since national record-keeping began in 1900. According to the national Center for Health Statistics, marriage rates hit an all-time low in 2018, when the national marriage rate fell from 6.9 to 6.5 marriages per 1,000 people from 2017 to 2018. As recently as 2001, the national rate was 8.2 marriages per 1,000 people.7 Nearly every state has seen huge declines in marriage rates. And abortion flourishes in a society that has so devalued marriage.
Cohabitation is not the answer to reducing the rate of abortion. Women living with a partner to whom they are not married account for 25 percent of abortions. Among White women, 10 percent of 2019 pregnancies ended in abortion. Among Black women, 28 percent ended in abortion. Black women were more than 3.6 times more likely to have an abortion in 2019 than white women. Among the states that reported race by ethnicity data for 2019, nonHispanic White women and non-Hispanic Black women accounted for the largest percentages of all abortions (33.4 percent and 38.4 percent respectively) and Hispanic women and non-Hispanic women in the “other” race category accounted for smaller percentages of abortion (21 percent and 7.2 percent respectively). Non-Hispanic White women had the lowest abortion rate (6.6 abortions per 1,000 women) and ratio (117 abortions per 1,000 live births),8 while non-Hispanic Black women had the highest abortion rate (23.8 abortions per 1,000 women) and ratio (386 abortions per 1,000 live births). It is not surprising, then, that Black women are significantly less likely to be married to the father of their children. And the abortion rate of women with Medicaid coverage is three times as high as that of other women.9
The data on marriage and abortion are startling, and the Dobbs decision provides an opportunity for us to begin to pay attention to them. Any policy that encourages family formation and flourishing is a policy that can create a culture of life—a culture that rejects abortion. In some demographic groups, including college students, this should be relatively easy to do, because today’s college students still want to be married. In fact, the most recent national data collected from 137,456 full-time first-year students at 184 United States colleges and universities indicated that “being married” and “raising a family” is an essential life goal for more than 72 percent of them.
The Higher Education Research Institute Study (HERI) revealed that Gen Z college students are pretty traditional in their desire to get married and have children, and much more so than the immediately preceding generations. In fact, only 56 percent of the 1975 respondents to the survey believed that “raising a family” was a “very important” or “essential” life goal. The importance of family is much clearer for the current cohort: 72 percent of Gen Z claim in 2019 that “raising a family” is a “very important” or “essential” life goal. More than any previous generation studied in The Freshman Survey, members of Gen Z value family life and want to replicate that with their own families in the future.10
Although “political polarization on campuses is the most extreme it has been in the study’s 51-year history,” this newer cohort is pretty traditional in a lot of ways. Just as the Boomers were shaped by the Vietnam War and the sexual revolution, this new generation was shaped by the aftermath of 9/11 and political polarization. Today’s college students seem to want a shelter from that. As far back as 1977, in his book Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged, sociologist Christopher Lasch reminded us that the family had been losing its importance over the 20th century. Parental authority had declined as the state, the schools, and the “helping professions” took over many of the family’s functions. Lasch believed that what emerged from the loss of importance of the family was The Culture of Narcissism—a kind of normlessness or anomie—a profound loneliness, a loss of confidence in the future, and a belief that things may not get better so we better make the best of the present.11
A far more pragmatic generation, only 47 percent of the current cohort viewed “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” as “very important” or “essential” in 2016. This compares with 68 percent of the 1975 cohort of respondents who believed that it was “very important” or “essential” to “develop a meaningful philosophy of life.” Still, 75 percent of the current cohort rates “helping others who are in difficulty” as “very important” or “essential,” compared with only 68 percent of respondents in 1975 and only 63 percent of Gen X respondents in 1995.
The Problem of Marriage: The Lack of Marriageable Men
Only about half of all Americans are now married, down from more than 72 percent in the 1960s—and the decline continues.12 The share of Americans who have never married has been rising steadily in recent decades, as more adults are living with a series of partners instead of marrying. Not surprisingly, the birthrates are at an all-time low.
In an attempt to understand why, most social scientists have blamed the changing norms surrounding marriage and motherhood. As more women began earning college degrees, entering the workforce, and delaying motherhood, marriage became less necessary for their economic survival. Others have blamed a deteriorating job market due to global competition, cheap labor, and de-unionization. Still others claim that the escalating college loan debt has resulted in the failure to form families.
But the motivations may be more Darwinian than any of these. A recent study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family reveals that, viewed more closely, the declines in marriage rates indicate “large deficits in the supply of potential male spouses.” Using demographic data on recent marriages from the 2008 to 2012 and 2013 to 2017 files of the American Community
Survey, researchers employed data imputation methods to look closely at the sociodemographic characteristics of “successful” men—those who found a woman to marry them—and then compared these characteristics with the actual distribution of unmarried men at the national, state, and local area levels to identify marriage market imbalances.13
Findings reveal that men who found women to marry them have an average income about 58 percent higher than the unmarried men who are currently available to unmarried women. The researchers conclude that the decline in marriage is due to the “putative shortage of economically attractive partners for unmarried women to marry.”14
In other words, women are “choosy maters”—something that evolutionary psychologists have been telling us for decades. Because women invest greatly in the reproduction of offspring, they have developed traits to look for in a mate that help improve the chances of their offspring’s survival. Women seek mates with the resources to support their efforts to give birth and nurture a child. They are strongly motivated to ensure that their children will have the physical and psychological traits necessary to survive and to continue the line. As a result, women—even high-status women with their own incomes—prefer intelligent men with resources to support their offspring.
The most fundamental principle of evolutionary psychology is that women are much more selective than men in their mate choice. Making the wrong choice carries a far greater reproductive cost for women, so evolutionary psychologists suggest that women have been “designed by evolution” to be more cautious and choosier than men in mate selection.
In contrast, men are much less choosy about potential mates’ socioeconomic status and more concerned about physical attractiveness as an indicator of a woman’s ability to procreate. Some will attempt to impregnate as many women as possible in order to ensure the continuation of their genetic line. Therefore, men seek young women who are physically fit and attractive, because these are indicators that they will be more likely to successfully give birth to a healthy child. While women focus on the financial resources of a potential mate, men have historically been much less concerned about the social status of their chosen mate—and much more concerned about her physical attractiveness.
In sociology, this is called the “mating gradient,” which means that when men increase in status, they widen their pool of eligible women; but when women increase in status, their pool of eligibles becomes narrower, leading to an exacerbation of the female marriage squeeze. According to the most recent Pew Research data, among adults who have never been married but say they are open to marrying in the future, about 6 in 10 (59 percent) say a major reason they are not married is that they haven’t found the right person.15
University of Texas Psychology Professor David M. Buss, author of The Evolution of Desire, writes that even professionally and economically successful women value resources in men. In his “newlywed” study, he identified women who were financially successful, measured by their salary and income of more than $100,000, and contrasted their preferences in a mate with those of women with lower salaries and incomes. The study showed that successful women place an even greater value than less successful women on mates who have professional degrees, high social status, and greater intelligence, as well as desiring mates who are independent and self-confident.16
Women are very fussy about whom they select. Most of the men they look at do not measure up. But as women delay marriage to finish graduate school or attain higher positions in their careers, their pool of eligible men shrinks. Young women—even highly educated, career-oriented women—will still find high-status partners because they can trade their youth and physical attractiveness for a high-status husband. But a well-educated woman who is getting older is going to have a very hard time finding a mate in a very small pool of eligible men unless she is willing to dig very deep into that pool. Evolutionary psychology would predict that most of these high-status women would not be willing to reproduce with these low-status men—and we are seeing just that in the dramatic increases in the permanently single.
It would seem that a job that pays well enough to support a family would be the minimum requirement to “make a man marriageable.” But in today’s economy, that is much more difficult than ever to achieve. For more than a century, Catholic social teaching has advocated for not just a minimum wage but “a living wage” for workers. According to Pope Leo XIII in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, a living wage is defined as enough to provide for a family’s basic living expenses, including food, housing, and other necessities. Thirty years after Rerum Novarum was released, the U.S. bishops proposed a universal living wage (which they defined as a wage that would keep a family out of poverty) in their 1919 Program for Reconstruction. 17 This was nearly two decades before a minimum wage became part of the Roosevelt administration’s release of the New Deal.
Many states have raised their minimum wage. But many libertarians and free market conservatives have blocked this goal because they believe the market—and not the government—should set wages. Still, a federal standard would be helpful so that those regions that try to help workers are not penalized for being just. Forcing someone to work at poverty wages is a form of slavery. Women will not be attracted to a man who is living in poverty—a woman doesn’t need help being poor—and a man without a well-paying job is not a good prospect to be the father of her children.
Learning from Hungary
Hungary is one country that has emerged from the demographic death spiral we are experiencing here and throughout most of Europe. In an important paper published last year in The Public Discourse, University of Dallas Political Science Professor Gladden Pappin pointed out that when Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party came to power in 2010, Hungary’s birth rate had fallen every year since the mid-1970s, and the country was losing overall population. Fidesz proceeded to increase family expenditure each year, and Hungary now boasts an annual national outlay of five percent of GDP on families.18 To encourage marriage and family formation, Hungary provides generous cash incentives of $30,000 for married couples who have more than two children, income tax exemptions for married women who have three children or more, generous home mortgage loans that do not have to be repaid if the couple stays married and has a minimum of three children, and even loan subsidies to purchase minivans to accommodate growing families.
This change in priorities in Hungary has paid off. Since 2010, when the Orban government began its family policy, the total fertility rate in Hungary has increased by 28 percent. Abortion has declined thirty-five percent, from around forty-five abortions per hundred live births to fewer than 30 per hundred live births. Marriage rates have increased by a staggering 88 percent, while divorces have fallen 25 percent. Pappin points out that Hungary stands out against the trend of its neighbors: Between 2010 and 2017, marriage rates in the European Union remained static at around 4.4 per 1,000 per year. Yet in Hungary they rose from 3.6 to 5.2, an enormous rise of 45 percent. Hungary’s closest regional post-communist neighbors did not share in Hungary’s success, because they did not share the same family policies. Romania, Croatia, Serbia, Slovakia, and Slovenia all saw average increases in the marriage rates between 2010 and 2017 of only 11.5 percent versus 45 percent in Hungary. As Pappin writes, “Hungary is an extreme outlier when it comes to increasing marriage rates.”19
Pappin believes—as do many marriage and family scholars—that key elements of the Hungarian program could be implemented here. In an article published in Compact Magazine last spring, Pappin argued that the end of Roe offers the Republican Party a “golden opportunity” to articulate an agenda that will be genuinely supportive of families and family formation. Pappin pointed to the success that Hungary has experienced in promoting marriage and home ownership. Between 2012 and 2019, Hungary introduced for married parents subsidies for building homes, a home-purchase cash subsidy, and a subsidized home purchase loan. Between 2010 and 2020, births to married parents increased nearly 20 percent, standing today at 70 percent of all births. Between 2010 and 2020, the annual number of marriages also increased by a staggering 87 percent. The policy encouraging home ownership worked to encourage marriage. And we already know that marriage is key to avoiding abortion. Pappin suggests that a Republican administration could create a National Family Investment Bank to offer interest-free loans to qualified married couples to purchase homes.20
Home ownership is important for young couples wanting to expand their families. Christopher Lasch predicted more than 50 years ago that a culture that values life cannot emerge in the culture of narcissism we are currently experiencing. Rather, what emerges is a consumer culture that views each of us—including the unborn child—as one more commodity to accept or discard as easily as other commodities like cars, shoes, or clothing. Pappin points out that Hungary’s success demonstrates that a home is something more than just another commodity. Home really is where the heart is. Home has an emotional dimension. It is a place where children are welcomed and celebrated. It is a place where roots can grow. For Pappin—and for an increasing number of pro-family activists—the best pro-life policy we can possibly create in these post-Roe days is one in which couples are not just encouraged to marry, but are supported in their often-challenging early years of marriage and childbearing.
1. H. R. 1065. Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. 2021-2022. https://www.congress.gov/bill/117thcongress/house-bill/1065
2. H. R. 8296. Women’s Health Protection Act. 2022. https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/ house-bill/8296
3. Margot Sanger-Katz, Claire Cain Miller, and Quoctrung Bui. “Who Gets Abortions?” New York Times. December 14, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/12/14/upshot/who-getsabortions-in-america.html
4. Wendy Stokes. “Study Finds Married Women Have More Abortions than Anyone Else.” The Frisky. September 14, 2018. https://thefrisky.com/study-finds-married-women-have-more-abortionsthan-anyone-else/
5. Wendy Stokes. “Study Finds Married Women Have More Abortions than Anyone Else.” The Frisky. September 14, 2018. https://thefrisky.com/study-finds-married-women-have-more-abortionsthan-anyone-else/
6. Pam Bellek. “Abortion Rates in Developed Countries Have Fallen Since 1990.” New York Times. May 11, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/12/health/abortion-rates-in-developed-countrieshave-fallen-since-1990.html?smid=tw-share
7. Sally Curtin and Paul Sutton. “Marriage Rates in the United States.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. April 29, 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hestat/marriage_rate_2018/marriage_ rate_2018.htm
8. Katherine Kortsmit et al. “Abortion Surveillance: United States, 2019. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention November 26, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/70/ss/ss7009a1. htm#T3_down
9. “Medicaid Coverage for Abortion.” Guttmacher Institute. February 12, 2021. https://www. guttmacher.org/evidence-you-can-use/medicaid-coverage-abortion
10. Ellen Bara Stolzenberg et al. “The American Freshman: National Norms.” Higher Education Research Institute. Fall, 2019. https://www.heri.ucla.edu/monographs/TheAmericanFreshman2019.pdf
11. Christopher Lasch. Haven in a Heartless World. (New York: Norton), 1995.
12. Pew Research. “As U.S. marriage rate hovers at 50%, education gap in marital status widens.” September 14, 2017. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/09/14/as-u-s-marriage-ratehovers-at-50-education-gap-in-marital-status-widens/
13. Daniel T. Lichter, Joseph P. Price, Jeffrey M. Swiggert. “Mismatches in the Marriage Marketplace.” Journal of Marriage and the Family. September 4, 2019. https://onlinelibrary.wiley. com/doi/abs/10.1111/jomf.12603
14. Daniel T. Lichter, Joseph P. Price, Jeffrey M. Swiggert. “Mismatches in the Marriage Marketplace.” Journal of Marriage and the Family. September 4, 2019. https://onlinelibrary.wiley. com/doi/abs/10.1111/jomf.12603
15. Pew Research. “As U.S. marriage rate hovers at 50%, education gap in marital status widens.” September 14, 2017. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/09/14/as-u-s-marriage-ratehovers-at-50-education-gap-in-marital-status-widens/
16. David M. Buss. The Evolution of Desire. (New York: Basic Books 4th edition). 2016.
17. Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on Capital and Labor. Rerum Novarum, May 15, 1891. https://www. vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_15051891_rerum-novarum.html
18. Gladden Pappin. “The Family Policy Imperative” The Public Discourse. April 17, 2021. https:// www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2021/04/75329/
19. Gladden Pappin. “The Family Policy Imperative” The Public Discourse. April 17, 2021. https:// www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2021/04/75329/
20. Gladden Pappin. “Family Policy After Roe.” Compact. May 19, 2022. https://compactmag.com/ article/family-policy-after-roe
Anne Hendershott is professor of sociology and director of the Veritas Center at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.