Disintegration of Sexual and Marital Morality Is Having a Detrimental Impact on Society

Lynn Wardle
By Lynn Wardle | October 1, 2015 | 12:12 PM EDT

Traditional American family (AP Photo)

Is the disintegration of sexual and marital morality (chastity before marriage and fidelity within marriage) having a detrimental impact upon our society?  Sadly, there is substantial evidence that the deterioration of the moral order of society causes much harm to many persons in our society, especially to vulnerable individuals such as children, youth, the aged, and other vulnerable persons.  And that harm is both caused by and a cause of the decline in the status and social prestige of marriage.

For example, since about 1970 and the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade requiring all states to permit abortion on-demand until the unborn child is deemed “viable” (about 20-24 weeks gestation), the number, rate and ratio of children born out of wedlock to unmarried women  has skyrocketed.  The CDC now reports that, as of 2013, more than forty percent (40.6%) of all births in the United States were to unmarried women.

Also, the CDC indicates that between 2009 and 2013, both the total number of births and the general fertility rate declined by one percent – the latter “reaching another record low for the United States.”

Of similar grave concern are statistics regarding who gets abortions in the USA.

• Eighteen percent of U.S. women obtaining abortions are teenagers; those aged 15–17 obtain 6% of all abortions, teens aged 18–19 obtain 11%, and teens younger than age 15 obtain 0.4%.

• Women in their 20s account for more than half of all abortions; women aged 20–24 obtain 33% of all abortions, and women aged 25–29 obtain 24%.

• Non-Hispanic white women account for 36% of abortions, non-Hispanic black women for 30%, Hispanic women for 25% and women of other races for 9%.

• Thirty-seven percent of women obtaining abortions identify as Protestant and 28% as Catholic.

• Women who have never married and are not cohabiting account for 45% of all abortions.

About three-out-of-ten American women will have had an abortion by age 45.

Overall, the rate of sexual activity, pregnancy and abortion outside of marriage in America are at historic high levels.  Abortion and contraception are (mis-)used to facilitate this historic high level of non-marital sexuality.

The situation has not changed substantially in the two decades since Janet Yellen and George Akerlof wrote in a 1996 Policy Brief for the Brookings Institute entitled An Analysis of Out-Of-Wedlock Births in the United States, that since 1970 “there have been huge increases in the number of single-parent families headed by unmarried mothers. The usual economic explanations welfare benefits and the declining availability of good jobs explain only a small fraction of the change.”

Akerlof and Yellen offered a different explanation for the rise in non-marital child-bearing: 

“We have found that this rather sudden increase in the availability of both abortion and contraception … is deeply implicated in the increase in out-of-wedlock births. Although many observers expected liberalized abortion and contraception to lead to fewer out-of-wedlock births, in fact the opposite happened … .”

Akerlof and Yellen linked permissive access to contraception and abortion to the increase in non-marital child-bearing because of the loss of the expectation of (and what they described as historically an implied promise of) marriage should non-marital sex result in pregnancy. 

“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.”

Is American society helpless to remedy this serious deterioration of the moral order of society?  In terms of the ability to conceive of possible solutions and of potential remedies, certainly, our society is not powerless.  The intelligence, imagination and determination that fostered the economic, social, and political development of the thirteen break-away colonies of 1776 into the unquestioned leading global power of 2015 remains vibrant in American society today. 

Likewise, the United States is not disadvantaged in terms of resources to implement such corrective measures to stop the ongoing moral dissolution.  Rather, America is blessed with tremendous assets which could be devoted to remedying the situation.

The challenging dilemma of revitalizing the moral order concerns the collective will to revive a pro-marriage culture in our society.  We have slipped so easily into the current condition of social acceptance of pre-marital and other non-marital sex that it seems puritanical and prudish to even talk about wishing to revive a culture of marriage-before-sex and of sex-within-marriage. 

Today, we live in both the best of times and the worst of times for families, marriage, and for society in general.  The well-being of the institution of marriage (as historically understood: dual-gender, gender-integrating, marriage) seems to be pivotal for the morality and well-being of any society, and especially for the well-being of the children and vulnerable adults in that society.  As Baroness Ruth Deech of the House of Lords in the United Kingdom declared: “It is marriage that makes all the difference.”

Core, common principles of morality qua morality, including sexual morality, justify a variety of legal restrictions upon behaviors that endanger vulnerable individuals in society (especially children, youth and susceptible adults).  Among the dangerous behaviors that historically and properly have been and still should be restricted by law are irresponsible and dangerous sexual behaviors, including the sexual exploitation of unmarried persons yearning so desperately for at least the illusion of a meaningful intimate relationship that they stoop to non-marital sexuality. 

But the law cannot get ahead of the social order on such issues of human sexual intimacy.  The law can carefully encourage and uphold ideals of marriage-first-before-sexual-activity.  But those laws will be of little influence if social values are not supportive of those legal values. 

Persons who were or are being raised by married parents are more likely to support those social and legal standards of marital morality than are other persons.  So, in a circuitous way, the solution to the deterioration of marital sexual morality turns in large part upon increasing support for and practice of a culture of marriage and marital morality in society.

Lynn D. Wardle is the Bruce C. Hafen Professor of Law at Brigham Young University.  He is author or editor of numerous books and law review articles mostly about family, biomedical ethics and conflict of laws policy issues. His publications present only his personal (not institutional) views.

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