David Mills: Letter from America: July 1997

A FEW YEARS AGO, the then vice-president Dan Quayle criticized a popular television show, “Murphy Brown,” for glorifying single-motherhood. He was attacked by all the usual suspects, for whom the marriage covenant was only a contract or “life-style option” to be avoided or broken when needed. Single-motherhood was an inevitable cost of sexual freedom (legal abortion was another) and therefore not to be criticized.

But he was right About a year later, the usually liberal The Atlantic Monthly ran a cover story by a scholar named Barbara Dafoe Whitehead provocatively titled “Dan Quayle Was Right.” In it she argued that divorce was very bad for children.

She listed a frightening array of statistics to prove her point. A survey by the National Center for Health Statistics had found “that children in single-parent families are two to three times as likely as children in two-parent families to have emotional and behavior problems. They are also more likely [she should have written “much more likely”] to drop out of high school, to get pregnant as teenagers, to abuse drugs, and to be in trouble with the law. Compared with children from intact families, children from disrupted families are at a much higher risk for physical and sexual abuse.” Usually from their mother’s live-in boyfriends or their stepfathers, I should add.

Whitehead noted that because divorce was so easily attained and socially approved, fewer than half of the children growing up today would spend their whole lives with both their parents. Most would spend some years in “disrupted families,” almost always with their mothers and usually with little or no contact with their fathers (a horrifying number of men drop their children entirely, especially when they remarry). She showed that living in a disrupted family is usually very, very bad for children.

Even when their mothers married again, “because stepfamilies are more likely to break up than intact (by which I mean two-biological-parent) families, an increasing number of children will experience family breakup two or even three times during childhood.” Family disruption is thus “best understood not as a single event but as a string of disruptive events: separation, divorce, life in a single-parent family, life with a parent and live-in lover, the remarriage of one or both parents, life in one step-parent family combined with visits to another stepparent family; the breakup of one or both step-parent families.”

The rest of the article was a thorough and devastating assault on the ideas by which adults of the last thirty years sought to justify their self-indulgence in “finding themselves” through divorce, by claiming that it was actually good for their children. As one typical divorce manual claimed, “The parents who take care of themselves will be best able to take care of their children.” This, Whitehead showed, is just not true.

Your children’s happiness may require you to be less happy, which is a Christian teaching, but not a message such a self-indulgent culture as middle-class America wants to hear.

The pro-life response This bears directly on the work of the pro-life movement, in that a more comprehensive approach to sexuality is needed to save babies’ lives and perhaps the souls of their parents.

Much of that movement in this country long ago realized that we have to care for the mother as much as protect the child. NOEL (the National Organization of Episcopalians for Life) has decided further that we also have to care for the moral environment, social support, and spiritual formation of Christians, so that they will be less tempted to the behaviors that lead to abortion, and better able to resist the temptation to abort the baby as the easiest solution to the problem. (I am on NOEL’s board, by the way.)

Single people excluded from much of suburban parish life — especially those parishes in which family programs are stressed because they bring in new members — are often tempted to sexual relationships and thus to abort the children conceived. Because marriages are performed so casually in many parishes, with the most informal and (let me be honest) incompetent preparation, many of those marriages break up, which sometimes leads to the mothers getting abortions and often leads to the children, who are much more likely to be sexually active, getting pregnant and aborting their children.

Realizing this, last year NOEL’s board approved a new statement of goals. It defined the ministry as “a fellowship of Anglican Christians who bear witness within our church and culture to the sanctity of all human life and the sacredness of the family. We believe that human life is a gift of a gracious and good God, a gift to be cherished, supported, and defended from the moment of conception to the time of natural death. We affirm also God’s unique plan for the family as the place ordained of Him for the creation and nurture of human life.

“We are,” it continued, “eager to join with all people of like concern to stand without compromise for the sanctity of human life and the sacredness of the family. We are committed to develop and support ministries that preserve, build and redeem lives and families. We are committed to work to effect church and community policies that affirm these biblical values.”

To do this, NOEL is developing “ministry modules” to help priests and parishes minister well (Americans like words like “modules,” I’m afraid, I suppose because they sound scientific). They include practical instructions in the ministry, sample programs, selected readings, and recommendations of other resources. The first one helps parishes develop extensive programs to help couples prepare for marriage, including thinking through such questions as how they treat money and what problems this may cause and the training of older married couples who will help them through the first year.

NOEL is not reducing its opposition to abortion, or to the Episcopal Church’s effective support for it. The Church’s official position, passed at the General Convention three years ago, says that abortion is a bad thing but that the government should do nothing to limit it, and the Presiding Bishop has used this to excuse his public opposition to any restriction on partial birth abortions.

This is a choice for evil, for the unjustified and unnecessary death of innocent people. What we are trying to do is not only to oppose it, but to find the roots of the decision to abort a child in the bad but understandable choices well-meaning people make, and begin the healing there.

(“Dan Quayle Was Right” appeared in the March 1993 issue of ‘The Atlantic’. For those with internet access, it may be found at “http://www.theatlantic.com/election/connection/family/danquayl.htm”. This site includes links to chapters from her new book ‘The Divorce Culture’, which I do not think has been published in England. NOEL’s e-mail address is “NOELife@aol.com”. Its website address is “http.//www./episcopalian.org/NOEL”.)

David Mills is the editor of The Evangelical Catholic, the journal of the Episcopal Sunod of America.