Cahn addresses the complication of familial class and classification

Published: March 30th, 2009

Category: News

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.

Cahn also cited a correlation between use of contraception and education, saying that those with less than a high school education are less likely to use contraception.

Abortion, a notorious “toxic issue in the culture wars” has also “always been a class issue,” she said. Because of the increased rate of unplanned pregnancies, poor women are more likely to get an abortion than wealthier women are, but Cahn countered a recent New York Times claim that abortion was safe, legal, and inexpensive and therefore nothing to be worried about. She cited letters of protest submitted to the Times that an abortion at 10 weeks gestation costs $523 on average.

“To call this inexpensive, in this economy, is ludicrous,” Cahn railed.

Poorer families are also disadvantaged when trying to conceive.

“Infertility services are expensive and segregation continues in terms of who receives fertility services,” Cahn explained. Medicaid also does not provide coverage for fertility prescriptions.

With the self-perpetuating cycle of little access to contraception, lower levels of education, and limited healthcare, the rates of unplanned pregnancies for lower socioeconomic classes are on the rise and availability of treatment for infertility is nearly non-existent.

“Are we stuck forever?” Cahn asked her audience, before posing three steps that will lead “the way forward” in terms of establishing a pattern for policymakers to follow.

First, comprehensive sex education, including education about birth control in addition to or in lieu of abstinence education is key. Second, Cahn proposes providing comprehensive access to contraception, so that those currently limited by financial constraints will have access to better family planning. Her third suggestion is to increase adolescent access to contraception and education to empower them to protect themselves and to make educated choices.

Solving the problem of sex education and limited contraceptive access for some economic classes, however, does not help to broaden the categorical classifications of families allowed to benefit from the rule of law. Cahn identified one of the most controversial families with no legal recognition—those that include a homosexual relationship—as lacking “a whole set of rights that are attached to the class of the family that you are able to enter into,” especially involving inheritance, medical decisions, and social recognition.

A classification that also has yet to be clearly defined is donor-conceived families. In preparing to write her book Test Tube Families, Cahn spent years researching the complicated network of social and biological relationships that form when children are conceived using donated gametes or embryos. She also discussed whether or not children conceived using donor eggs or sperm should have a legal right to knowing who their biological parents are, even though their legal parents have been established.

Citing a law in the United Kingdom which grants individuals the legal right to know who their biological parents are once they reach the age of eighteen, Cahn acknowledged that while this may aid some who desperately want to know their biological roots, it also may discourage many from donating gametes for fear of legal obligations that may arise.

Many donors may also shun the thought of forced membership into a “family.” Laws must be written that take parental autonomy, a child’s best interests, and the meaning of “family” into account, Cahn said. She added that “I’m not sure about recognizing familial rights in this context, but we should at least keep track” of which donor gametes are responsible for the conception of which children, especially to prevent “accidental incest.” She also cited a voluntary online registry, The Donor Sibling Registry, which has helped connect at least 6,000 half siblings with each other and their donors since 2000, as a step in the right direction.

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.”