Chicago Sun-Times, December 24, 2006

Family planning Is family values: Sexual liberation gave us better dads and stronger families

By Cristina Page

Listen to the apocalyptic rhetoric of the religious right, and you'll find an important theme: The introduction of contraception, which permits people to have sex for fun, is bound up with all of society's ills, from the imagined breakdown of the family to an undocumented surge in crimes against children. It's a cornerstone of right-wing thinking. And, no doubt, it's also the reason that not one pro-life group in the U.S. supports the use of contraception even though it's the only proven way to prevent abortion.

Sadly, most Americans seem afflicted by some strain of this prejudice. If they credit the pro-choice, birth control movement for anything, it's for the dubious honor of protecting vice. Planned Parenthood has never been tagged as a pro-family values group. A greater oversight has never been made.

The religious right is right in this: Birth control is the source of seismic change. Family planning has led to a transformation of our society so rapid we've only recently had the occasion to take stock.

FEWER CHEATING SPOUSES

For example, the past century has actually witnessed a steep decline in extramarital affairs as a result, it would seem, of the very changes that drive the pro-lifers wild: The trying-out of marriage partners in combination with greater candor about sexual desires within marriage. Studies conducted in 1948 and 1953 found that 26 percent of women and a whopping 50 percent of men had an extramarital sexual experience. But today, in our sex- and sin-saturated culture, the number of married people who have had an extramarital affair has plummeted to 6 percent of women and 10 percent of men, according to (conservative) Ben Wattenberg in his book The First Measured Century.

Preaching about faithfulness didn't lead to this family value upgrade. Rather, the uptick in fidelity today is the result of a society that accepts our sexual urges as natural and couples that can look within marriage for fulfillment of desires once branded indecent.

WOMEN HAVE CAREERS, EDUCATION

Another truth is that when the birth control revolution got under way, women waited to marry and start a family. In 1970, the average age of a new mother was 21 years old. By 2000, the average age was 28. Harvard researchers recently reported that legalization of contraception is directly linked to the spike in the number of women becoming more highly educated and entering the "career" professions. In 1970, 5 percent of all lawyers and judges were women; today there are six times that. In 1970, one in 10 physicians was female, today it's one in three. Similar patterns are true for women architects, dentists, veterinarians, economists and women in most of the engineering fields.

Few women today would trade places with the typical 1950s woman and mother, the one fervently idealized by so-called "pro-family" groups. In the 1950s, women didn't approach parity with men and their housework time was constant. This was the era in which birth rates soared and doubled the time devoted to child care. And with women assigned to endless tasks of the home, men shouldered the full responsibility of supporting the family economically. One dire consequence was that one in four Americans in the mid-1950s lived in poverty.

Not surprisingly, researchers in the '50s found that less than one in three married couples reported being happy or very happy with their relationship. Compare that to today, when 61 percent of married Americans report themselves to be "very happy" in their marriage. Part of the sour spouse problem of the '50s was that many couples didn't really want to be married. Often, they were trapped into marriage by unintended pregnancy. With no sex-ed, no birth control, no legal abortion teen birth rates soared, reaching highs that have not been equaled since: there were twice as many teen mothers in the '50s as today.

Postponing or planning marriage and children have allowed women to get a foothold in the work force, and this has led to important benefits. They have made their families wealthier. Today, the rate of poverty is half what it was in the 1950s. In fact, now if a husband is the sole breadwinner the family is four times more likely to be poor. Dual income homes earn nearly two-thirds more than that of families in which the husband alone works. Consequently, the percentage of children living in poverty has decreased 50 percent since 1959.

TODAY'S TRUE FAMILY MAN

Today, more husbands count on their wives to bring home a significant share of the family wealth; nearly one in four women now earn more than their husbands. With this, men have options to leave a negative work environment, change careers, take more career risks and be more involved, indeed better, fathers than ever before. You'd never know this if you listened to the so-called pro-family groups set on convincing us that the way we live now is tearing our country apart. Because of the pro-choice movement's efforts, we now have a true Family Man.

Men have as much at stake as women (if not more) with the religious right's intensifying attacks against family planning. A University of Michigan study found that children's time with their fathers increased significantly only in families in which the mother worked outside the home. Fathers today spend much more time with their children than '50s fathers -- a difference of more than one hour each day. And most, by the way, are aware of this difference. Eighty-four percent report that they spend more time with their kids and get more joy out of fatherhood than their fathers did..

So much joy that the vast majority of men, 72 percent, say they would sacrifice pay and job opportunities for more time with their families. Dads today are even more affectionate with their children: 60 percent hug their school-aged kids every day and 79 percent of fathers tell their children they love them several times a week.

"Children whose fathers are involved with them show better education achievement, fewer problems in school, and they're better off socially," says James Levine, who heads the Fatherhood Project.

So much for the breakup of the family caused by sexual liberation and pro-choice, pro-birth control movement. Just the opposite is true. The family is more financially secure, and more enjoyed than ever before. And what better family value is there than valuing the family?

Cristina Page is author of How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America: Freedom, Politics and the War on Sex and spokesperson for Birth Control Watch.

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