Planned Parenthood vs. the Susan G. Komen Foundation. The HHS mandate vs. the Constitution. Rush Limbaugh vs. President Obama (and just about everybody else). From the point of view of what might be called the “voices of reason” coalition — that loose band of right-thinking, laissez-faire-minded souls who set the tone for polite society — all the contretemps of early 2012 seemed ridiculous, not to mention unwanted. Nothing arouses distaste in reasonable people quite as efficiently as “social issues.” They’re the political equivalent of that out-of-control twelve-year-old whom nobody wants to invite to the family reunion. Can’t he just go away? the grownups ask. He’s a problem child. He’s ruining it for everyone.
After all, the voices of reason say, we’ve got to keep our eyes on the big picture here. Look at the American economy, still motoring on over the cliff. Look at the European markets, driven repeatedly to the brink by default fears. Look at the war in Afghanistan, and look at what’s happening over in Iran/Syria/Israel. Look at the prices of gasoline, groceries, college education. And if you really want to worry, say the Republican subset of the voices of reason, look at all the political ammunition that a leftist president hell-bent on economic redistribution has handed his opponents, and how they nonetheless can’t seem to train their bullets on anyone except one another. Don’t we have enough problems right now? the frustrated voices of reason demand to know. Why on earth are we stooping to national arguments over birth control?
It’s a great question. In part, the answers have already been given by any number of first responders to the wreck created by the HHS mandate. We’re talking about birth control, as some have explained, because HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius’s insistence on the mandate is indeed an unprecedented anti-church executive-branch ukase. We’re talking about birth control, as the Catholic bishops, among others, have clarified, because forcing Americans to do things that their religion tells them not to do produces a collision with the First Amendment that anyone should have been able to see coming.
And we’re talking about birth control — as somebody ought to have said, somewhere — because the cool condescension with which secularists regard traditionalist religious folk means that public blunders by the former are practically foreordained. Since progressives can’t really take religion seriously, they’re always caught off guard when someone else does.
Just ask President Obama — especially President Obama. His scorn for religious traditionalists has not come this far out of the closet since his exquisitely revelatory “clinging to guns or religion” remark of 2008. That same scorn undergirds his administration’s steely insistence on staring down the Catholic Church and its allies over the mandate. Obama must be thanking whomever he chooses to thank that America’s top right-wing radio host inadvertently bailed him out.
But the deeper answer to the question “Why birth control?” remains to be given — because the deeper cause of the social-issue controversies, both present and future, has yet to sink in on the resistant modern mind.
The fights over HHS and abortion and the rest of the political problem children are more than just unwanted sideshows in an election year. They are emblematic skirmishes in a much wider political and intellectual and social conflict — one that reaches far beyond Washington, D.C., to the rest of the West, from the terraces of Malibu and the boardrooms of Zurich to the trailer parks and subsidized housing of the dependent and poor.
It is the conflict over who will decide the final legacy of the sexual revolution: the people who think it has been a benign force in the world, or the people who think otherwise. The ultimate conclusion — however it is reached, over however many decades or even centuries — will have momentous implications: for politics, for the economy, for the private sphere. And the intellectual struggle over all these imponderables has only just begun.
Oh, come on, say the voices of reason. This is settled social doctrine. No one seriously proposes a second look at the sexual revolution.
About that much they’re right. No one is proposing a return to the days before Griswold v. Connecticut — let alone a future world in which Georgetown law students hoard condoms against sexual famine, or awaken in horror to find their birth-control pills being pried by Catholic priests from their cold, desperate hands. But that doesn’t mean the world created by the sexual revolution is off-limits to observation. In fact, in the widespread insistence these past few weeks that the consequences of the sexual revolution are “settled,” one detects just a little too much protest — and beneath it, the fluttering fear that maybe the godawful thing isn’t settled at all.
It isn’t. With every passing year, evidence piles up that the sexual revolution has imposed costs that practically no one foresaw when the party got started — and not just on individuals, but on whole societies. A half century–plus of contraception’s momentous encounter with human nature has done its work.
This is a matter not of theology, but of secular social science.
What widespread use of the pill and similar technologies has wrought is, on one level, simple: It has made it easier to treat other people as transient partners rather than partners for life, in the process making it harder to form families and homes. Both of these consequences have now spread through every advanced society in the world, as well as plenty of not-so-advanced ones, in ways that are empirically measurable — and with every passing year, they are better documented.
Let’s start with the statistical outcomes for children in fatherless homes. Over a hundred years ago, British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli distinguished between the “two nations” in his country — the rich and the poor, “between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.” A century later, his insight would become the foundation of a brilliant argument by the late, great social scientist James Q. Wilson that America is now two cultures as well — but these two are not separated by money.
It’s the family divide, Wilson argued in his book Two Nations (1998), that has become the best indicator for all kinds of problematic behaviors: dropping out of school, going to jail, delinquency, emotional problems, out-of-wedlock births, early sexual activity, and unemployment, to name just some. “These differences,” noted Wilson as he analyzed the piles of numbers, “are not explained by income. Children in one-parent families are much worse off than those in two-parent families even when both families have the same earnings.”
It is an idea so potent that it still has the power to shock, even 14 years after its first appearance: Family structure has replaced poverty as the best predictor of youth problems.
From time to time, progressives still reply with “Correlation doesn’t prove causation.” But no one really believes them. In fact, it is almost touching, in a quixotic way, how inventive their hunt for other culprits has become. Is it vaccines that explain the rise in emotional and behavioral problems? Are allergies the reason this child is so angry? Do environmental toxins cause anxiety? Who knows? Maybe we should ask the Easter Bunny.
As Charles Murray puts the point in his important new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960–2010, “I know of no other set of important findings that are as broadly accepted by social scientists who follow the technical literature, liberal as well as conservative, and yet are so resolutely ignored by network news programs, editorial writers for the major newspapers, and politicians of both major political parties.”
No one enjoys criticizing single mothers, who have enough on their plate already — or any other individuals. (Contrary to what progressives insinuated during the HHS disputes, this is not a finger-pointing game.) So how about another example of the sexual revolution’s fallout: the massive and ongoing and no-end-in-sight economic/demographic/political crisis in Western Europe?
The picture-postcard Continent, judging from the news, hosts some pretty unsettling scenes these days — among them, protests and street mayhem from Madrid to London to Athens and back. In Spain, unemployment is said to top 25 percent. Across most of Europe, people fear — correctly, from all that we can see — that their children’s lives will be harder than their own. Stories about youthful anomie and apprehension over the future are everywhere. The welfare state is crashing and burning.
The biggest reason it is crashing and burning is that its architects did not foresee that the pill would do something previously not thought possible: It would make lots and lots and lots of people decide never to have children at all. In a way that is not yet well understood, but someday will be, this multifaceted crisis in Europe is at bottom a family crisis spanning all of Western culture — one brought on by the sexual revolution and the consequent decline of the family.
And that brings us to what’s really so frustrating about the voices-of-reason coalition and its dismissal of social issues: The very bête noire of many such voices — the voracious, ever-expanding, ever-more-expensive state — is itself a direct consequence of the family crisis besetting the Western world. Heather Mac Donald has lately connected the dots well: “Whether the topic is government-provided health care for the poor, taxpayer-funded housing for homeless families, federal Section 8 rental vouchers, more early-childhood-intervention programs, or greater redistribution of income from the rich to the poor, the frequent flyers in all these programs are single mothers.”
But again, why limit the argument to single mothers? Plenty of other people of the West, both high and low, are also on the government take, needing this or that agency to do what their dysfunctional families no longer can. Why do we now have levels of government subsidy for day care, after-care, nursing homes, transportation services, and any number of other institutions that did not exist a hundred years ago? Because they are all necessary — albeit typically inefficient and enormously expensive — substitutes for services that used to be performed by families.
Think of all the institutions created to replace the family. What is the dawn-to-dusk school day, and the concomitant attempt to abolish summer vacation, if not a necessity mothered by the empty home? What is the très chic anti-bullying movement, if not an elaborate, improvised response to the need to do something that capable fathers, especially, used to do — i.e., stick up for their kids? As scholars such as Charles Murray and a slew of Public Interest magazine authors have argued for many years, family breakdown has been driven in part by statism. State subsidies in conjunction with the pill, and both those things in conjunction with across-the-board increasing social tolerance, have made it easier than ever to leave home. But the inverse of this dictum has perhaps been less clearly understood: Statism has also been driven by family breakdown — and the search continues for substitute mothers, substitute fathers, and substitutes for all the others who once took care of their own.
The voices of reason ought to bear that in mind the next time they look down their collective nose at that problem child, the “social issues.” For here’s the radical fact. You could sterilize, contracept, and otherwise neuter every fertile woman in the Western world who wanted it. You could lock up the pope, arrest all the bishops, and raze Vatican City to the ground. You could do all that and more, and a civilizational reckoning over the sexual revolution would still be inevitable. That is what we are talking about when we talk about birth control — and given the way things are going, we’ll keep talking about it for a long, long time.
–Mary Eberstadt is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, the consulting editor of Policy Review, and the author, most recently, of Adam and Eve after the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution, newly released by Ignatius Press.