Sunday, June 28, 2009

Thinking about Out-of-Wedlock Pregnancy

Depending on where you stand on the political spectrum, Governor Palin’s announcement that her daughter Bristol is pregnant was either an unavoidable necessity (because it was far better that it be acknowledged in advance by the candidate than discovered later on by the press) or else an unexpected opportunity to present the candidate as a real American mother dealing in her personal life with precisely the kind of issues real American parents across the political and socio-economic spectrum deal with every day. About the questions of why she made the announcement when she did and in the way she did, I have no specific opinion. But I do have an opinion about the way Americans have come to think about the whole concept of out-of-wedlock pregnancy and that is what I’d like to share with you today.

Once, it wasn’t much of an issue. In 1940, for example, 3.8% of the children born in the United States were born to unmarried mothers. (Even that number sounds high to me, but it comes directly from a fascinating paper called “Nonmarital Childbearing in the United States, 1940-1990” published by the Center For Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and available for your inspection at We’ve come a long way since then, however. By 2005, a full 37% of the babies born in our country were born out of wedlock. (The statistics vary dramatically from region to region, or even from county to county within the same state, however. From 2003-2005, for example, 20.6% of the births in Nassau County were to unwed mothers. In Queens County, the percentage was almost twice that: 40.4%. In the Bronx, the mothers of a full 65.7% of the almost 67,000 babies born in those three years were unmarried.) Nor is this an American phenomenon per se. More than half the babies born in Iceland in 2007 were born out of wedlock, as were more than half the babies born in the U.K. In that same year, more than 38% of the mothers of babies born in Austria were similarly unmarried. (If only first births are considered, however, the number soars up over 50%.) On the international scene too, however, the numbers vary dramatically from country to country. In 2006, only 18.3% of the babies born in Italy had unmarried mothers. In Switzerland, the percentage in 2005 was even smaller at 13%. In Japan, amazingly, it was only 1% of the babies born whose mothers were unwed. In Israel, 5.7% of the women who gave birth in 2006 were single.

On home turf, most Americans seem to associate this phenomenon with an ever-rising number of teenagers getting pregnant. But that is apparently untrue—and that detail is what I find the most intriguing of all. The pregnancy rate among American teenage girls has actually been dropping steadily over the last thirty years: from 61.7% in 1972 to just 41.9% in 2006. Instead, the dramatic rise in out–of-wedlock births appears to be related not to teenage pregnancies, or not solely to such pregnancies, but to a historically unprecedented willingness of women intentionally to have children without being married. And, indeed, the statistics seem not to be fueled by teenagers at all, but by women in their 20s. Some, obviously, chose to become pregnant. Others, equally obviously, must not have. Some women, unrepresented in the statistics cited above, choose to terminate their pregnancies. And some who are unhappy to be pregnant choose not to terminate precisely because they are morally opposed to abortion. Some are living with their babies’ fathers, of course. And some, obviously, are not. Everybody’s story is going to be different, but what seems to be undeniable is that, in the end, the dramatic rise in out-of-wedlock pregnancy is a reflection of how we as a society have come to think about marriage: once a path in life so desirable as to make it almost unthinkable that anyone would consciously (let alone willingly) choose its alternative, marriage has now become only one option among several for a large segment of Americans.

I do not believe this constitutes a great step forward for secular society. Nor do I think it is something we in the Jewish community should accept as reasonable for our own people.

I haven’t been able to find reliable statistics about how this has all been playing out within the Jewish world outside of Israel. But I do know how traditional it has become for Jewish communities in the diaspora to follow trends set by the general population, then to accept the results of doing so as normal and reasonable. In some ways, this is merely a way of adapting to the environment, of accepting the fact that we are fully engaged citizens of the countries in which we live. But there are other ways in which we betray our own heritage by simply “going along” with trends that are inimical to our faith and to our own moral standards.

At the core of Jewish life is the Jewish family. And the Jewish family, at least in its ideal (not only idealized) state, has at its core the concept of marriage. For as many generations as anyone could possibly count, the notion that all who can marry should marry was as axiomatic a thought as any ever was. Obviously, there are people unsuited to marriage, just as there always have been. Such people, equally obviously, do no one a favor by insisting on marrying anyway, nor, I think, should they be pressured into feeling otherwise. And I also believe it is a healthy phenomenon that the question of gay people who can and do live in monogamous unions analogous to heterosexual marriages has come forcefully to the fore and forced public discussion of an issue that in the past was mostly either denied to exist entirely or else simply ignored. But none of this affects my basic assumption that, for all who can, marriage is the ideal framework for building strong, committed, reliable Jewish families that in turn support the community maximally and contribute meaningfully to the robust continuity of Jewish life. I say that not merely because it is one of the mitzvot of our Torah to marry, but because of what I know of family life from having grown up in a home in which my parents modeled happy married life for me, and having raised children in a home in which Joan and I have tried our best to model happy married life for our children. In the end, marriage is what works, both in terms of the health and the welfare of our Jewish community, and we would be doing ourselves a true disservice to abandon our traditional feelings about its ultimate worth.

That there are countries in the world in which a majority of children are going to grow up in homes in which marriage will not be modeled at all does not encourage me much about the future of society in those places. For those children, we can only hope for the best. But for our own children we have to do more than merely agreeing to hope that things work out. We need to say clearly and without reservation even to our youngest children that we hope that they marry, that we expect them to marry, that our greatest hope is to be present when they stand under the chuppah to wed. I personally express that wish clearly to every single child who celebrates his or her bar- or bat-mitzvah at Shelter Rock. There was a time when it would have sounded like an ordinary thing to say, like the most mundane of blessings. Western society appears clearly to have moved on from there! But we ourselves have to stand this as in so many other matters of the heart and the soul. To say this in an e-letter to the community, after all, is relatively easy. To say it out loud in the bimah to other people’s children is also not that hard. But for each of us to say it clearly and unequivocally to our children and grandchildren is far more of a challenge. Perhaps some of you think that the hope that our children marry goes so much without saying that it’s hardly worth the trouble of expressing it out loud at all, let alone forcefully. Judging from what I read of the world out there, that latter attitude simply does not reflect how things are out there in the world beyond our gates. The question we must deal with, then, is not whether marriage is or isn’t indispensable to societal living at its finest, but how we can work together as a community to communicate that message to our children. (September 12, 2008)

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