Shotguns Without Weddings
A New York Times plan for encouraging illegitimate births.
If a man makes a woman pregnant, even if they’re not married, he should be made to pay. So argues Shari Motro, a law professor at Virginia’s University of Richmond, in an op-ed that appeared over the weekend in the New York Times. Motro proposes the establishment of something called “preglimony,” which amounts to a legal obligation to support a woman financially as soon as it can be established via DNA test that the unborn child is his:
They might be asked to chip in for medical bills, birthing classes and maternity clothes, to help to cover the loss of income that often comes with pregnancy, or to contribute to the cost of an abortion.
Motro is vague about the details–in particular, the question of how a DNA sample would be extracted from an unwilling man. It does seem clear, however, that she means “asked” as a euphemism for “forced,” as when President Obama “asks” the “rich” to “contribute” by paying higher taxes.
Motro’s proposal is best understood as an attempt to remedy the breakdown of the “shotgun wedding,” the social contract that governed premarital sex before the sexual revolution. A 1996 economic study, summarized in a Brookings Institution paper, explains:
Before 1970, the stigma of unwed motherhood was so great that few women were willing to bear children outside of marriage. The only circumstance that would cause women to engage in sexual activity was a promise of marriage in the event of pregnancy. Men were willing to make (and keep) that promise for they knew that in leaving one woman they would be unlikely to find another who would not make the same demand. Even women who would be willing to bear children out-of-wedlock could demand a promise of marriage in the event of pregnancy.
The increased availability of contraception and abortion made shotgun weddings a thing of the past. Women who were willing to get an abortion or who reliably used contraception no longer found it necessary to condition sexual relations on a promise of marriage in the event of pregnancy. But women who wanted children, who did not want an abortion for moral or religious reasons, or who were unreliable in their use of contraception found themselves pressured to participate in premarital sexual relations without being able to exact a promise of marriage in case of pregnancy. These women feared, correctly, that if they refused sexual relations, they would risk losing their partners. Sexual activity without commitment was increasingly expected in premarital relationships.
Advances in reproductive technology eroded the custom of shotgun marriage in another way. Before the sexual revolution, women had less freedom, but men were expected to assume responsibility for their welfare. Today women are more free to choose, but men have afforded themselves the comparable option. “If she is not willing to have an abortion or use contraception,” the man can reason, “why should I sacrifice myself to get married?” By making the birth of the child the physical choice of the mother, the sexual revolution has made marriage and child support a social choice of the father.
Motro’s proposal would bring back the shotgun, but without the wedding. To some extent it would merely extend existing practice, in which courts sometimes order fathers to pay child support even when they have never been married to the mothers. But it differs in that it would make the father responsible for the mother’s welfare, not just the child’s.
“The most frequent objection I hear to this idea is that it will give men a say over abortion,” Motro writes. She means not that the man in such a circumstance would have any legal right to “a say,” but that he might pressure the woman into aborting. That situation already is far from unheard of.
We’d like to raise two other objections. First, the proposal is inequitable. Second, it would have perverse incentives. Most notably, it would encourage the already skyrocketing illegitimacy ratio to rise even higher.
To understand why the shotgun nonmarriage is inequitable, consider the moral logic that led to the breakdown of shotgun marriage. Before the pill and abortion, unwanted pregnancy was a foreseeable risk of sexual intercourse, one that was equally beyond the control of both partners. Afterward, the matter was entirely under the control of the woman. It was, and is, a woman’s choice whether to use the pill and, if pregnancy results anyway, whether to have an abortion.
The flip side of choice is responsibility. As both a legal and practical matter, woman have “reproductive rights” and men do not. It was reasonable for men to conclude that women’s gain in control implied a reciprocal lifting of men’s responsibility. The sexual revolution has liberated both sexes, but in different ways and, as the Brookings paper notes, with tragic results. In contrast with the shotgun marriage, a reciprocal commitment by both the man and the woman, Motro proposes to place new burdens on men without requiring women to give up anything in return.
Some social conservatives, sharing with feminists a disdain for sexually irresponsible men, may be attracted by the punitive aspect of Motro’s proposal. “Deadbeat dads” are always an easy scapegoat for left and right alike.
But it takes two to tango. In punishing a man for impregnating a woman, the shotgun nonmarriage would reward the woman. To put this in terms of incentives, men would be encouraged to avoid impregnating women, while women would be encouraged to get pregnant. There are several reasons to think the result would be more out-of-wedlock pregnancies and births, with all the unhappy consequences that would entail for children and society at large.
Because women have control over the reproductive process via the pill and abortion, the effect of the incentive on their behavior is greater than the effect of the countervailing incentive on men’s behavior. Any given sexual act between two unmarried partners would be more, not less, likely to result in pregnancy and childbirth.
Short of surgical sterilization, the only way single men could be assured of avoiding shotgun nonmarriage would be to abstain from sex. As we noted in April, there is evidence that teen boys are doing just that. But while male teen abstinence may be desirable, only female abstinence can prevent out-of-wedlock births. A relatively small number of men can impregnate a much larger number of women.
If substantial numbers of single men drop out of the sexual marketplace, the effect is to reduce the sex ratio (the proportion of men to women). As Marcia Guttentag and Paul Secord argue in “Too Many Women? The Sex Ratio Question” (1983), low sex ratios put women at a disadvantage, making them more dependent and less powerful in their relationships with men. Low-sex-ratio societies are typified by libertine sexual mores and high levels of illegitimacy.
But at least under Motro’s plan, men who choose to be sexually profligate would bear the responsibility, right? Don’t count on it. When an economically marginal man fathers children by multiple women, good luck to get him to cough up for child support and pregnancy expenses.