The backdrop to this week's 40th anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion is a national abortion rate that has been on a steady decline for more than a decade.
The most recent figures available through the Centers for Disease Control show a dramatic 5 percent decline between 2008 and '09 alone.
But while the experts debate the reasons for this drop, their list constitutes a narrow range roughly between an increased use in contraceptives and the legalization of the morning-after pill. The rough economic climate has been cited as a catalyst for women to use more contraceptives, as they no longer feel financially secure enough to risk having a child.
Missing from that list, of course, is an increase in marriage, a greater commitment to the sanctity of life or a return to the value of chastity.
In fact, the nation's marriage rate, as was widely reported last year, has dropped to a record low. Only 51 percent of adults 18 or older are married, according to statistics reported by the Pew Research Center. That compares with 72 percent in 1960. A poll in 2010 found almost 40 percent believed marriage was becoming obsolete.
It would be hard to lay all of this at the feet of one Supreme Court decision. The court in 1973 was reacting to a current hot debate and an already shifting moral landscape.
Still, Roe v. Wade granted official sanction to something with huge moral ramifications. It took one side in the abortion debate and gave it virtually a complete victory without the tempering benefits of a democratic process. And the court built upon an earlier decision that had discovered a right to privacy by reading between the lines of the Constitution.
The results of this have been endless protests, sprinkled with occasional violence, and a growing cynicism among some about judicial activism, while the other side has trumpeted the notion of personal rights over any claims of the unborn, to an extent that would disconnect reproductive behavior from consequences.
Meanwhile, the issue of abortion itself hasn't budged from its divisive perch in the political landscape. A new poll by NBC and the Wall Street Journal shows a majority of Americans believe abortion ought to be legal, but it is clear that the way the question is asked has a lot to do with results on this issue. The Pew Research Center recently published a poll showing more women than men believe abortion is morally wrong, and a recent Gallup poll found more women to be "pro life" than "pro choice."
What is clear is that abortion rights are complicated and nuanced, and that the court's decision 40 years ago interfered with a democratic process that had begun to tackle those complications. The rhetoric, meanwhile, has been anything but nuanced.
But the ruling itself neither explains nor excuses the breakdown in marriage and family that has characterized the last four decades. As people engage in reproductive behavior independent of the marriage commitment, the framework in which children are given the best advantages for life becomes devalued. Plenty of research exists to show the long-term results of this, leading to reduced academic performance and increases in violence and promiscuity among the children raised without two married parents.
We expect Roe v. Wade will remain a source of protest and struggle for a long time to come. We hope the abortion rate continues to drop. But the nation can't afford to ignore the larger issues concerning reproduction and commitment, which have become so devalued over the decades.