When thousands of pro-life activists gather on the Mall Monday to protest Roe v. Wade, few in Congress or the media will connect the dots linking the Supreme Court's invention of a constitutional right to abortion 38 years ago to the economic crisis a generation later. The new GOP-controlled House of Representatives will certainly salute the marchers and may even call for reversing the 1973 overreach. Yet even as Republicans focus on scaling back spending and a debt limit that has nearly doubled in six years, few seem to understand that the Court deserves greater blame than big spenders for bringing the United States to a financial breaking point.
As former Jack Kemp aide John D. Mueller quantifies in his groundbreaking new book, Redeeming Economics, the Court's construction of an unrestricted right to abortion muffled American economic performance by profoundly disrupting marriage and fertility patterns.
Mueller likens the effects of Roe on baby boomers to the impact of World War II on their parents, only in reverse. Unlike the war, whose aftermath produced a boom in family life and child-packed neighborhoods --creating, per French writer R. L. Bruckberger, a "humane economy" that made America the envy of the West -- Roe ushered in a marriage and baby bust that has sucked the life-blood out of the economy.
Census data show that the legalization of elective abortion was followed by immediate and sharp decreases in fertility rates. The Total Fertility Rate (TFR) sank to a historic low of 1.74 children per woman in 1976 and has since struggled to reach replacement levels (the 2009 TFR is 2.01).
Given that birth rates were already in decline and that the Court had recently dictated that states could no longer limit contraceptive sales to married couples, 1973 was the worst of times for the justices to license abortion-on-demand nationwide.
Mueller estimates that the new abortion regime further reduced fertility "by an average of 0.6 to 0.7 children per couple" -- and that the corresponding three-decade reduction in U.S. population is "entirely" responsible for the liabilities of the Social Security system. If the TFR returned to what to the late-1960s level of 2.7 children, these deficits "would be easily surmounted," he contends.
Yet the impact of Roe transcends fertility; it also gutted America's exceptional marriage culture, which Adam Smith noted was vital to our economic prospects. As George Akerlof and Janet Yellen of the Brookings Institution quantified 15 years ago, the 1973 decision eroded the widely accepted custom whereby young men married young women they impregnated.
In the 1960s, for example, 60 percent of unmarried pregnant women gained a husband before giving birth. But by sanctioning a new "choice" for an unmarried pregnant woman, the Court also gave the unmarried father the choice to "op out" of the previously unavoidable consequences of his actions: marriage and child support. By the 1990s, only 23 percent of unmarried women who found themselves with child tied the knot before giving birth.
According to Mueller, these new "freedoms" translated into the aborting of 24 to 30 percent of baby boomers' children and a 35 percent decline between 1968 and 1976 of the "net" marriage rate, which has also yet to recover to its late-1960s level.
Indeed, the nation has experienced no net increase, since the 1970s, in the type of household demonstrated to be the engine of enduring economic growth - married parents with dependent children.
Clearly, a woman's "right to choose" is not economically neutral. Unless we find a way to undo Roe and thereby restore our marriage culture and fertility rates, any congressional road map to shore up the economy will prove -- to coin a phrase -- fruitless.
Robert W. Patterson is editor of The Family in America: A Journal of Public Policy, www.familyinamerica.org.