In 1996, Yellen and her husband, George Akerlof, joined their fellow economist Michael Katz in a paper titled “An Analysis of Out-of-Wedlock Childbearing in the United States.” They were attempting to explain what seemed like a riddle: In a world where strategies to control births had improved significantly, with contraception available and abortion legal, why were so many more women having children outside of marriage?
Raising kids alone is difficult, and single parenthood imposes substantial economic burdens, so you would think that in giving women more choice in when they carry a pregnancy to term, more women would choose to do so with the child’s father wedded and present. Instead, the opposite was happening, with post-1960s, post-Roe America seeing an unprecedented rise in the share of children born outside of wedlock — a rise that continued for more than a decade after 1996, before finally leveling off around 40 percent of all births, compared with 5 percent in 1960 and about 10 percent in 1970.
Part of the explanation that the paper proposed was that there had been a fundamental change in the reciprocal obligations of men and women. A system in which sex could be separated from fertility decisively, with abortion a guaranteed backstop for anyone who wanted it, made it much harder for women who wanted commitment and children to make long-term demands of the men who wanted to have sex with them . As Yellen and Akerlof wrote, in a Brookings policy brief adapted from the original paper, the old “shotgun marriage” scenario, where society expected men to “promise marriage in the event of a pregnancy,” dependent on a sense of inherent obligation. But if any unintended pregnancy could be ended by the free choice of the woman, then the male could reasonably deny the existence of any definite obligation on his part.
“By making the birth of the child the physical choice of the mother,” Akerlof and Yellen concluded, “the sexual revolution has made marriage and child support a social choice of the father.” This shift, they suggested, could not be undone; any social conservatism appears in their analysis as a probably futile effort to “Turn the technological clock backwards.” But the new female freedom came at a cost to women who wanted fidelity and children and didn’t want to have abortions; for them, the post-sexual revolution world was less supportive, its norms now reset to work against expectations of monogamy, commitment and support.
Men could lose out in this new culture as well. Just as the woman wants commitment sees her position weakened when abortion is a normal and expected alternative, so does the man who wants involvement, obligation, an expectation he can rise to meet — and who is told instead, in every case where the woman’s choice is for abortion, to simply forget any paternal pang or instinct, to detach entirely from the life he cocreated. The man confronted by what in a different culture would be the most important obligation of his life is told in ours that it’s at most an economic burden, a matter of child-support payments — and if he’s lucky and she chooses to get an abortion, it won’t be even that.
Extend this imaginative analysis still further, and you can see that the right to abortion creates not just new social incentives that disfavor commitment and paternal obligation but also a kind of moral and spiritual alienation between the sexes. The most transformative thing that men and women do together becomes instead a ground of separation. The man’s right to avoid marital obligation separates the pregnant woman from either him, her unborn child or both. The woman’s right to end the pregnancy separates the man who doesn’t want to see it ended from what would otherwise be the most important relationship imaginable. And downstream from this alienation lies the culture we experience today, in which not just marriage rates but also relationships and sex itself are in decline, in which people have fewer children overall and fewer than they say they want, and also have more of them outside of wedlock than in the past.
All of this carries a set of socioeconomic costs to set against the benefits invoked by the Yellen of 2022. Yes, individual by individual, women who obtain abortion in a pro-choice society can improve their own financial picture or educational prospects; so can the man who avoids paternal obligations through the woman’s right to choose. But male and female choices overall, the cultural matrix that determines their prospects for stable relationships, romantic happiness and a productive adulthood, may still be shaped for the worse by a society that defaults so often to abortion.