[Helen Alvaré is a Professor of Law at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School. She publishes on matters concerning marriage, parenting, non-marital households, and the First Amendment religion clauses. Prior to joining the faculty of Scalia Law, Alvaré taught at the Columbus School of Law at the Catholic University of America; represented the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops before legislative bodies, academic audiences and the media. Here new book is Putting Children’s Interests First in US Family Law and Policy: With Power Comes Responsibility. She spoke about the book with Charles Camosy.]
Camosy: How would you summarize the basic thesis of your book?
Alvaré: I claim and show that all three branches of the federal government have valorized adults’ sexual expression with at least reckless indifference to the welfare of children. This is important considering that children’s family structure is usually formed at the moment of their conception, and that family structure bears importantly upon children’s long-run well-being.
State efforts to remedy the situation — via massive contraception programs to prevent children’s birth, or social welfare programs hoping to compensate for family structure losses — have not been effective.
In the case of contraceptive programs, which are largely geared to the poor, we have today in fact the highest rates of nonmarital births, unintended pregnancy and abortions among this very population intended to be helped. These programs have also created a new environment harmful to the stability of male/female relations, which redounds to the instability of children.
In other words, you don’t get stable partnerships or parenting by telling the sexually active adults: Don’t give a thought to children, family, future or even love between the two of you.
Neither the valorization of adult sexual expression, nor the states’ responses meet the minimal moral obligations of the state to prioritize the needs of the vulnerable, encourage adult responsibility to those they have made, or help to close the unconscionable gap between the wealthy and the poor—a very large part of which is associated with family structure losses.
You include some sobering and perhaps surprising statistics about outcomes for children after non-martial birth. With the caveat that they don’t apply to each and every person born in this situation, can you highlight some of trends your research found?
I relied for that subject upon empirically sophisticated experts in economics, sociology, psychology and other fields. Everyone from former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen to sociologists from Princeton [Sara McLanahan] and University of Virginia [W. Bradford Wilcox] and others.
Of course, with the caveat that these findings are “on average,” and not with respect to each child born nonmaritally, research shows that these children are at far greater risk of unstable family settings, i.e. more transitions in the households/partnerships to which they are exposed. And it is the current thinking that this instability is perhaps one of the strongest predictors of their troubles. Children not only suffer economically with the loss of a second stable income, but also suffer the loss of a second parent’s time, help, and social and familial network.
They lose the benefits of two parents’ mutual support of one another too, with all that that predicts for less stress and more equanimity in a household. They tend therefore to experience diminished emotional, economic and relational outcomes, with family structure deficits tending to be repeated in subsequent generations. Several distressing newer findings include: first, the combination of “assortative mating” among privileged Americans—i.e. they marry one another–and the loss of stably-earning, marriageable men in less-privileged communities, is fueling a growing gap between the rich and the poor in America. Without improvements in family structure, in other words, other economic or educational policy solutions just won’t close the gap.
Happily, the right and the left are beginning to come to grips with all sides of this problem and the necessary solutions and are showing some inclination to work together on this, as illustrated by this wonderful report issued together by the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution. Second, a growing number of economists are reporting that the decline in male employment, higher-education and wages, may relate to males’ greater suffering than females when both are reared in single-parent homes.
Studies of brother-sister pairs in such homes show that, despite identical family and health contexts, the boys fall behind early and do not catch up. Because over 85 percent of single-parent homes are female-headed, theories range from mothers’ ability to role-model success to their daughters, or mothers’ possibly different interactions with boys, to boys’ need for their fathers/role-models for themselves.
Some may think of you as “on the right” because of your extensive work with and for the pro-life movement, but is it fair to say that much of what you argue for in the book–for lack of a better way of saying it – comes from “the left”?
Yes, although I think my points should and would find sympathy and intellectual acceptance by “the right” as well. But considering the arguments and terminology regularly used today by the left—equality, diversity, freedom, happiness, obligations to the vulnerable and to the future—it is fair to say that many would perceive my leading ethical critiques as “sounding left.”
Most people on the left see contraception as a very important part of the solution to the kinds of problems you raise in this book. You don’t. Can you say more about this?
Ah, the third rail, contraception. Let me preface my answer with the remarks that it is not my place to judge any person, and that I understand fully why people have as hard a time as they do grasping the position of any contraception critic.
I myself found the Catholic Church’s rejection of contraception, annoying and anti-woman for quite a while before I experienced how well suited it was to promoting both the acceptance of women’s true preferences, and love for children. But let me also say that I do expect people to see past ideological “priors” on the matter of contraception to face the results of this social and legal “experiment” 60 years on.
Judged by its own, self-adopted goals, the movement for contraception as a solution to children’s welfare and to women’s sexual and social freedom, has failed. We have eight times more nonmarital births today than right before federal and state governments began pouring money into contraception programs mostly for the poor. And rates of nonmarital births – as well as unintended pregnancies and abortions — are highest among the very people given the most contraception.
Serious questions about contraception’s effects upon women’s health are raised weekly it seems, in the pages of the New York Times, Vanity Fair and elsewhere. And then there are its effects upon the sex, marriage and dating markets. First-rate economists, sociologists and even philosophers – chronicled in my book – have described the inevitability that sex would become separated from marriage, from thoughts of the future, and even from love itself, when it was separated from children.
In my view, these academics present a fuller picture of the situation—and one which is decidedly feminist and pro-poor-than Humanae Vitae could manage in 1968 when the consequences were not as obvious as they are today.
Knowing how long academic projects take to materialize, I also know there is no way you could have known that we’d be in the middle of the #MeToo cultural moment as your book came out. Does any of your research speak to this aspect of contemporary wrestling with how our culture understands sex and moral responsibility?
Oh my gosh, yes! Using especially the works of Eva Illouz, an Israeli sociologist, American philosopher Cynthia Willett, British sociologist Anthony Giddens, Polish philosopher Zygmunt Baumann, American sociologist Mark Regnerus, American environmentalist philosopher Hans Jonas, and Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor.
This diversity of sources and backgrounds shows how—once one leaves the “hothouses” of Catholic and U.S. infighting over contraception, sexual expression and sexual responsibility generally—there really is a great deal of high level intellectual and common-sense understanding, that sex is very fraught with consequences. That to make it “unbearably light” — to forget its creating all of society, and family relations – fails especially women and children, but also men, who also thrive when they are in stable relationships which take advantage of their gifts and their need to give them.
The book tries very, very hard – yes I am a “try hard” as my kids say – to appeal beyond politics and labels to get people to look at the results of our national experiment with putting adults’ sexual expression at the “front door” and kids’ wellbeing at the “back door.” It is more than closely related to this current “#MeToo” moment.