ATLANTA -- The latest news on marriage confirms what we already knew: With 51 percent of women living without husbands, the traditional family no longer dominates our culture. Whether you believe that represents triumph or tragedy hardly matters. The transformation is unlikely to reverse itself.
"Once upon a time ... women married ... for economic support, to cement family alliances, to have children, to counter loneliness, to be like all the other women. Once upon a time, women wore the title 'wife' like a badge of honor. ... Today, the word 'wife' does not convey the same unambiguous message," writes Marilyn Yalom, author of A History of the Wife.
Ozzie and Harriet have been replaced by Desperate Housewives, and we ought to update our politics to reflect our modern reality. There's no better place to start than with the politics of contraception, because children are among those adversely affected by the erosion of traditional family life.
No amount of finger-pointing or sermonizing will bring back the days when women were expected to wait until marriage to become sexually active - or to proceed directly to the altar if they became pregnant before marriage. The efforts of ultraconservatives to ban abortion and preach abstinence have only made matters worse by increasing the likelihood that women will get pregnant unintentionally. Those women often resort to abortion.
That's why the time is right for Congress to pass a bill sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada as a Democratic majority attempts to push policies with broad centrist appeal. Mr. Reid's proposal, the Prevention First Act, would broaden access to contraceptives and sex education. Among other things, it would force more health insurance companies to pay for contraceptives; insist that sex education programs in public schools be based on science, not political or religious dogma; and require pharmacists, despite their religious objections, to fill prescriptions for birth control.
The bill drives right to the broad political center, because an overwhelming majority of Americans support the use of contraceptives. According to a Harris poll last year, 81 percent of Americans also believe that providing contraception would help prevent abortions.
About half of all pregnancies in the United States are unintended, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which researches family planning issues. About 42 percent of unintended pregnancies end in abortion, the institute says, estimating that one-third of American women - many married, most already mothers - will have had an abortion by age 45.
By contrast, many Western nations have much lower rates of abortion because they actively support family planning and birth control.
"The U.S. abortion rate remains among the highest of all industrialized nations - more than twice as high, for example, as the Netherlands," Guttmacher researcher Cynthia Dailard wrote two years ago. "There, unlike here, government and social institutions support comprehensive sex education and health care services aimed at helping people, including young people, avoid unintended pregnancy and disease; contraceptive use is widely encouraged, and contraceptives are easily available."
Curbing abortion would be just one important benefit of better family planning. Another result would be fewer neglected and undereducated children born to mothers too poor, immature or overwhelmed to prepare them to succeed. If we cut down the number of unintended pregnancies, we will surely see fewer poorly reared children.
As for the institution of marriage, there are many reasons for its decline. As Ms. Yalom notes: "In the past, most marriages were affairs of the pocketbook rather than affairs of the heart. ... From biblical days to the 1950s, it was a husband's duty to provide for his wife. She, in turn, was expected to provide sex, children and housekeeping. It was a quid pro quo that was not just tacitly understood ... but written into religious and civil law."
These days, many Americans, men and women, have rejected that centuries-old arrangement. Our politics need to catch up to our times.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is email@example.com.