Cahn addresses the complication of familial class and classification
by Leslie Cowan
In the beginning of her March 23 lecture, titled “Family Classes,” Naomi Cahn admitted that the title is an intentional double entendre, suggesting both the classification of families under different labels and the social and economic classes that result from financial status and ideological beliefs.
Cahn, the John Theodore Fey Research Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School, received her J.D. from Columbia and her B.A. from Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. She spoke at the Levin College of Law as the speaker for the third annual Weyrauch lecture, a lecture dedicated to the memory of the late Walter Weyrauch, a Levin College of Law professor and legal scholar.
The first topic that Cahn discussed is the way that class controls general thought about conception and family planning, coloring the “entire range of issues from contraception to abortion.”
“Here, not only is class central, but also sex is,” Cahn told her audience. She pointed to both research and popular news reports, such as a recent front-page New York Post story about the rise in teen birthrates in the United States for the second consecutive year. One of the individuals profiled was Yasmin Hererra, a nineteen-year-old pregnant with her second child. Hererra became pregnant while she had a prescription for a birth control patch, but lacked the financial resources to have her prescription filled.
Quoting from an observation that Weyrauch wrote of, Cahn said, “the American lower classes and large parts of the middle class have no voices or no options, and the upper class is unconcerned.”
One of the books that Cahn is currently working on publishing is Red Families, Blue Families, along with co-author June Carbone. Cahn shared what she has defined as “two different sets of family values that are at the core of culture wars today,” dubbing them “red” and “blue” values, which correspond to popular notions of colors and their associations with political parties and ideologies – red for predominantly republican states and blue for predominantly democratic states.
“What we call ‘blue values’ have created new legal and practical pathways to middle class status. Women and men postpone their readiness for family life until their careers are complete and their primary lives are established,” Cahn explained, noting that the biggest difference between red families and blue families is the age of the parents at the time of forming a family. For blue families, Cahn said that “fertility control is critical and abstinence is unrealistic because of the long gap between puberty and marriage.”
Therefore, contraception is permitted and even compelled, and abortion, while used only seldom, is an option.
The remaining families – red families – represent two groups of families left out of the blue family category. One group is left out by choice of ideology, and the other group is left out of because of low income.
As a result, Cahn said that ideological “red families” continue to affirm more traditional understandings of a family that celebrate the unity of sex, marriage, and procreation. This places greater emphasis on abstinence. Divorce and single parenthood are deemed “moral failings.” Interestingly, as Cahn noted, in states where red families dominate, teen births are the highest in the country, leading to calls for the creation of a legal system that celebrates and enforces traditional “red family” ideology and bans comprehensive sex education. One such example is adopting abstinence-only education in schools and teaching against the recognition of alternative families.
The other group of red families are those left out of blue families because of low income, such as Yasmin Hererra of the New York Post story.
“Access to contraception has historically been a class issue,” Cahn explained. She asserted that the “rates of unplanned pregnancies, abortion, and unplanned births” are lower for higher-income groups who have greater financial resources and more options as a result. Adding to the problem is Medicaid’s spotty coverage for contraception. Cahn declared that this is not a new problem.
With a diverse range of interests and values at stake, Cahn stressed the importance of great care and precise language in the wording of any laws or policies written to apply to reproductive rights and defining what it means to be a family. Quoting again from Walter Weyrauch, Cahn likened the words of lawyers to the words of witch doctors.
“You have to be very precise with what you say, lest you make the wrong incantation and have the spell go awry; the words must be spoken perfectly, or else the spell will fail.”