Birth Control, Abortion and the Rise of Single Motherhood

Typically, the conservative perspective on the rise of single motherhood and the breakdown of the traditional family unit places the blame on the shoulders of the liberal welfare state.

This theory is usually attributed to Charles Murray's work, Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950–1980.  The thrust of the theory is that the liberal welfare state incentivized single motherhood through welfare payments.  The State acts as an ersatz father figure, relieving men of their traditional duties toward fatherhood and fidelity.

Unfortunately for us conservatives, the liberal welfare state theory does not hold up to scrutiny. As Akerlof, Yellen, and Katz observed:    

AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) could not have played a major role in the rise of out-of-wedlock births because AFDC rose a great deal in the 1960s and fell in the 1970s (when eligibility requirements also became more stringent), while out-of-wedlock births rose continually. ... [T]he effects of welfare benefits estimated with cross-section and panel data are too small to account for more than a very small fraction of the rise in the out-of-wedlock birth ratio. (1)

Instead of the liberal welfare state, they attribute the rise in single-motherhood to the technology shock of birth control and, to a less extent, abortion.

The technology shock of birth control and abortion upended the biological premise that the traditional family unit is based on.  This premise is that a man has an unlimited supply of sperm and, biologically speaking, can never truly know if he is the father of a child.  The child may bear a strong resemblance to the man perceived to be the father, but for all he knows, it could be someone else's.  Therefore, men look to reproduce widely.  From a biological perspective, sex will lead to pregnancy, which is highly costly in general.  Women bear the cost of pregnancy more than men, so sex is costlier for women.  This high cost means that women must be selective as to whom they reproduce with, so women look to reproduce wisely.

Men are buyers in the mating market, and women sellers; men are in supply, and women in demand.  As the demand for sex emanates largely on the male side, women have the leverage when it comes to negotiating the exchange between the sexes and have traditionally served as gatekeepers.  Due to the high cost of sex to women, women have traditionally sold sex to men at the cost of marriage.

And then everything changed.  In 1960, an oral contraceptive known as "the pill" hit the market, and by 1972, the Supreme Court extended access to the pill to unmarried women via Eisenstadt v. Baird.  In 1973, Roe v. Wade fully legalized abortion (2).  Now the high cost of sex associated with the risk of pregnancy suddenly disappeared should a woman chose to use birth control or get an abortion.

One of the most intriguing unintended consequences to the pill is that it lowered the cost of sex to women.  Pregnancy made sex extremely costly for women, so traditionally, they would sell sex to men only at the high cost of marriage.  Now, without the risk of pregnancy to those willing to use the pill or get an abortion, sex was suddenly cheap.

In Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy, Mark Regnerus defines cheap sex as "characterized by personal ease of sexual access and social perceptions of the same.  Sex is cheap if women expect little in return for it and men do not have to supply much time, attention, resources, recognition, or fidelity in order to experience it" (4).

A woman who takes the pill, or is willing to get an abortion, or both, has little to no cost to sex and can therefore sell it to men cheaply.  A woman who refrains from using contraception can sell sex only at a much higher cost.  Which type of women will men prefer?  The obvious answer is the woman selling cheap sex.  The expression "no one's gonna want to buy the cow if you're giving the milk away for free" comes to mind.  Women on the pill are practically giving the milk away for free.  How do women selling the cow at full price compete?  They can't.

Akerlof, et al. identified this economic condition as follows: "a cost saving innovation almost invariably penalizes producers who, for whatever reason, fail to adopt it" (5).  Akerlof and his colleagues elaborated on the economic conundrum now facing women:

Before technology shock, abstinence would be the norm for all women.  After the technology shock those women who would use contraception or would be willing to obtain an abortion in the event of pregnancy or both engage in premarital sexual activity. However, those women who are not willing to obtain an abortion will also engage in sexual activity, since they correctly fear that if they abstain their partners would seek satisfaction elsewhere. (6)

The women who would otherwise refrain from premarital sex were priced out of the market by competitors offering the product much cheaper.  Not only that, but now these women were strongly incentivized to participate in premarital sex because they knew if they abstained, men would look for and find sex elsewhere cheaper.

Now premarital sex is the norm in relationships.  As it always has, sex leads to pregnancies, and without the high cost of marriage accompanying it, an increase of out-of-wedlock births followed.  This new standard increased the rate of single motherhood, which then decreased the stigma of single motherhood.

Birth control and abortion also made the entire process a choice.  The availability of birth control and abortion made the choice on the mother's end axiomatic, but the optional nature of the bargain for exchange impacted male choice in a less obvious way: "The sexual revolution, by making the birth of the child the physical choice of the mother, makes marriage and child support a social choice of the father" (8).  The availability of female choice has also given men a choice to participate in parenthood.  Should men choose to opt out, women are be stuck as single mothers.

Birth control, and to a lesser extent, abortion, upended to the biological model the traditional family unit is predicated on.  The pill was heralded as a miracle because it would emancipate women from the traditional fetters of fertility and family.  Women would now be able to delay family, obtain advanced degrees, and enter the workforce in ways they never could before.  Birth control has also been highly problematic. It's caused the rise in single motherhood and encouraged the breakdown of families.  This is why birth control is known as the "paradox of the pill."

Birth control is not going away, so we must accept our situation using the wisdom of Thomas Sowell: we must accept that in the real world, there are no solutions.  There are only options with trade-offs (9).  There will be no solution in dealing with this issue; all we can do is find the best possible option with the least costly trade-offs.

1.  Akerlof, G., Yellen, J. & Katz, M. (1996). An analysis of out-of-wedlock childbearing in the United States. The Quarterly Journal of Economics.

2.  May, E. (2010). America + the pill. New York, NY: Basic Books.

3.  Ibid.

4.  Regnerus, M. (2017). Cheap sex: the transformation of men, marriage, and monogamy. New York, NY: Oxford University.

5.  Akerlof, G., Yellen, J. & Katz, M. (1996). An analysis of out-of-wedlock childbearing in the United States. The Quarterly Journal of Economics.

6.  Ibid.

7.  Ibid.

8.  Ibid.

9.  Sowell, T. (1987). A Conflict of visions: ideological origins of political struggles. New York, NY: Basic Books.