Two Cheers for Rick Santorum

by Michael J. New

Former U.S. Senator and likely 2012 presidential candidate Rick Santorum has been receiving lots of criticism in the liberal blogosphere during the past couple days. While on a radio show in New Hampshire, Rick Santorum blamed Social Security’s financing problems on high abortion rates. Specifically, he argues that the high incidence of abortion has resulted in fewer workers to support current retirees.

A number of pro-life activists have been making this argument for years. However, this is among the first times a Republican elected official has made this case. Unfortunately, the argument is not entirely correct. The legalization of abortion has had some fairly complicated demographic effects. While it certainly increased the incidence of abortion, it also accelerated a burgeoning culture of sexual permissiveness.  As such, after abortion was legalized there were more conceptions and more abortions and the birthrate remained fairly stable.

Still, Santorum is certainly correct that contraception is partly responsible for Social Security’s financing woes. During the 20th century, people gradually moved away from farms and into cities and suburbs. Many people desired a smaller family and the advent of the birth-control pill in the early 1960s certainly made smaller families more feasible. However, the birth-control pill has had a number of unintended effects. It disrupted the financing mechanism for Social Security and resulted in a far more promiscuous culture that afflicts us to this day.

Much of the ongoing debate over Social Security reform has focused around the fact the people are living longer; the declining fertility rate in the United States has received far less attention from both policy analysts and the mainstream media. Increasing the fertility rate will doubtless be a difficult task. Public policy is certainly a clumsy tool for influencing people’s reproductive choices. That having been said, Senator Santorum deserves credit for raising the salience of this important issue.

Michael New is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama and a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute.

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