Does Pro-life Now Mean Pro-libertinism?

By Selwyn Duke

At, journalist David Frum has a piece in which he discusses what he perceives to be the transformation of the pro-life movement. His thesis is that the widespread acceptance of unwed motherhood – including by pro-lifers – has eliminated the stigma attached to the state, thereby causing a quarter-century decrease in the abortion rate.

Frum starts out talking about how the applause for Sarah Palin’s pregnant, 17-year-old daughter at the Republican Convention reflects this sea-change. Then, contrasting today’s sexual mores and abortion rate with those of 27 years ago, he writes:

. . . the pro-life movement has come to terms with the sexual revolution. So long as unwed parenthood is considered disgraceful, many unwed mothers will choose abortion to escape disgrace. And so, step by step, the pro-life movement has evolved to an accepting — even welcoming — attitude toward pregnancy outside marriage . . . .

. . . this approach seems to have worked. As the stigma attached to unwed motherhood has diminished, the United States has seen both a huge increase in the proportion of babies born out of wedlock – now reaching almost 37% – and a striking decline in the incidence of abortions . . . .

. . . In 1981, 29.3 abortions were carried out for every 1,000 women of childbearing age in the United States. By 2005, that rate had tumbled to 19.1 per 1,000 women.

It is certainly true that the stigma once attached to unwed motherhood has gone the way of the dodo. As an example, Halle Berry joined other libertine entertainers in having planned unwed pregnancies. Then, with life imitating artists, we heard about the 17 girls who allegedly made a “pregnancy pact” at Gloucester High School. And although such planning still isn’t the norm, I think most of us know an unmarried female who is or has been “in the family way.”

I take issue with Frum, however. His choice of data is tendentious, and I don’t like the implication that the degrading of sexual mores is an acceptable – or even effective over the long term – remedy to the abortion problem. Most significantly, I don’t accept the premise that we have only two choices: The de-stigmatization of promiscuity or a high abortion rate (in fact, the former ensures the latter). There is a third option.

To many, Frum’s argument may seem compelling. Women had fewer out-of-wedlock babies and a higher rate of abortion in 1981, a time when the stigma against having such children was greater. Today, however, without said stigma, we have a higher unwed birthrate and lower abortion rate than in those more judgmental times. Open and shut case, right?

The problem is that Frum is not studying history and building a theory based on it; rather, he is cherry-picking a historical period that just so happens to support his theory. As it happens, he must do this because a more conscientious examination of the past would reveal his theory as nonsense.

We might wonder why Frum would go back 27 years for his starting point. It’s a rather odd number, after all; why not a round one such as 20, 30 or 50? Well, not surprisingly, 1981 just so happens to be the year with the highest abortion rate in American history. During earlier times, however, the rate was even lower than now. In 1972, for instance, the rate was 14 per 1000 women, significantly lower than today. But how could this be? How could the rate have been so much lower during a time when the stigma against unwed motherhood was far greater? Clearly, there are other factors at work.

It’s important, however, to be intellectually honest and acknowledge where Frum is right. He expresses an obvious truth of human nature when saying that if you remove the stigma from a behavior, it becomes more common. Yet also obvious is that the stigma in question didn’t originate by viewing out-of-wedlock pregnancy as being divorced from the activity that causes it. Were this the case, believing Christians would have to hold the Virgin Mary in very low regard. No, the stigma’s true target is fornication, and this is the problem: The solution Frum speaks of so cavalierly is nothing more than the mitigation of one flaw with another.

Many would label this the embrace of the lesser of two evils, and as a pro-lifer I agree. Yet this still leaves us with one evil left, and if some would say it’s an acceptable concession to the age, I profoundly disagree. It is a point of view that fails to recognize the gravity of the problem of widespread unwed motherhood.

When pondering this, we could dwell on just the obvious. It’s now well-established that children of single parents have higher rates of criminality, drug use and alcoholism; suffer academically; and, generally, exhibit a wide range of social ills to a far greater degree than those from intact homes. Yet, did you ever ponder what such a thing portends for the growth of government and loss of freedom?

The reality is that Bristol Palin doesn’t fit the profile of the average single mother, in that she won’t have to forge on singly. She is soon to be married, and, also important, she has two relatively young parents of means who are ready, willing and able to provide aid and support. The average pregnant single mother, however, is much more likely to be left almost twisting in the wind… alone, with child. Individually, this is often tragic, but collectively, when the number of single mothers becomes great enough, it is always so – for a civilization.

The obvious problem for a single parent is that you cannot work to put bread on the table and care for children simultaneously; thus, someone else must perform the role you cannot. Of course, aside from the Bristol Palins of the world, there are rare cases such as mothers who are financially independent and can stay at home or those who earn enough to pay for day care, but, again, what of the rest? The answer is that, sooner or later, the government will step into the breach; it will institute social programs and fulfill the traditional father role by providing money or the traditional mother role and provide day care. And the less the individuals fulfill their roles – in other words, the greater the number of single mothers laboring singly – the greater the government’s role will become.

Moreover, when there is a large population of dysfunctional youths in society, there will be impetus for a trove of other programs as well. You can start with pre-kindergarten, after-school, nutritional, youth-intervention, drug and anti-violence programs, but the sky is the limit. Virtually anything a good family would do, Hillary’s village will do.

This is where my libertarian friends will disagree, saying that adherence to the Constitution and proper principles of governance could forestall such statism.

This is where I say, you dream.

Correct principles are great, and we should all try to live by them. But no principle, no matter how valid, trumps the principles of human nature. And one of the latter was expressed well by Edmund Burke when he said:

“It is written in the eternal constitution that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”

Like it or not, there is a direct relationship between the morality of a people and the liberty they enjoy. Thus, as people become more collectively irresponsible, there will be a drumbeat to have the government take responsibility for them – and authority from them. This is especially true during the interim period between healthy republic and dictatorship.

To understand this, realize that the same thing causing children from broken homes to exhibit a greater degree of social ills – their relative lack of virtue – also has other consequences. One of them is that they are also more likely to have a feeling of entitlement and expect largesse from the government, and, therefore, support statist candidates. This is just common sense, but if you’re still not convinced, consider this research reported at the liberal web site The Democratic Strategist:

. . . young people growing up in ‘non-traditional homes’ are more likely to support Democratic candidates – 67 percent of young people growing up in homes with divorced, separated or unmarried parents voted for John Kerry in 2004, compared to only 49 percent of young people in homes with married parents. Young people growing up with divorced, separated or unmarried parents also have more progressive attitudes on social issues, such as gay marriage: 66 percent of young adults who grow up in non-traditional homes support gay marriage, compared to only 53 percent who grow up in traditional homes [perhaps leftists have more incentive to destroy the family than you thought].

So how do we minimize both abortion and single motherhood? There is no easy answer. But there is an answer: A thorough return to traditional morality. Of course, its critics may take a page out of Frum’s article and say it doesn’t work, as they claim that a stigma will lead to abortion. Or they may say that preaching abstinence is fruitless because kids will “have sex anyway.” And, in a way, they may be right within the context of today’s culture. And that is the point.

G.K. Chesterton once said, “The problem nowadays is that we have Christian values floating around detached from one another…” A wise traditionalist understands there must be a healthy “ecosystem of values,” which exists in a state of equilibrium because it contains values that balance each other out. Remove a value, and, just as when a species is eliminated from a balanced food chain, the system may break down.

For instance, when the abortion rate was far lower two generations ago, we had a strong stigma attached to unwed pregnancy, but it was balanced by the widely accepted values stating that abortion is murder and human life is sacred. Thus, this stigma should exist, but it should be attended by an even greater stigma attached to abortion. And when it isn’t accompanied by those complementary elements, it’s silly to complain that traditional morality “doesn’t work.” It’s like having a match and oxygen but no wood and claiming that fire doesn’t provide light. It cannot work because, without certain integral constituent elements, “it” doesn’t exist.

As for preaching the value of chastity before marriage, there is the problem of inconsistency of message. If a parent teaching rightly is contradicted by his spouse and extended family, we’re not surprised when the children don’t learn the lesson. Yet we don’t apply this knowledge to our national family. At one time chastity was encouraged not just by some churches and organizations, but by the whole culture. Today, though, preaching such virtue gets you labeled a fringe prude, making you a voice in the wilderness of lust. Are we to expect the whispers of an abstinence message rarely heard to inspire chastity in youth whose hearts and minds and souls are continually bombarded with sexual messages from popular culture? This is a bit like dousing a conscientious fire-starter’s wood with water most of the day and then saying his fire doesn’t provide light.

In all fairness to David Frum, he may understand this. His argument might simply be that we must deal with the world as it is, “come to terms” with the sexual revolution, as it were. But a poison pill doesn’t cease to be a poison pill because it becomes a passion, and an answer doesn’t cease to be an answer because it’s viewed as an anachronism. Sometimes, when the question is one of putting the toothpaste back in the tube, the only real answer is to put the toothpaste back in the tube. It may not be easy, no, but the first step is to recognize the ideal, not obscure it.

This is the third option. It’s also a third rail of modern social commentary because, well, it just might spoil our fun. Of course, different groups reckon fun differently. So it’s just a question of what we want to be. Are we to be civilized people whose fun is spoiled by barbarism, or barbarians whose fun is spoiled by civilization?
Selwyn Dukeis a writer, columnist and public speaker whose work has been published widely online and in print, on both the local and national levels. He has been featured on the Rush Limbaugh Show and has been a regular guest on the award-winning Michael Savage Show. His work has appeared in Pat Buchanan’s magazine The American Conservative and he writes regularly for The New American and Christian Music Perspective. He can be contacted at

Copyright Publius Forum 2001