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Morality & Motherhood

Ethics--not economics--is taking center stage in the debate on single parenthood. Now researchers are adding to the fray with some startling findings.

August 21, 1996|MELISSA HEALY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ST. PAUL, MINN. — In the nation's increasingly heated discussion of values, is there a difference between Alice McKinney and Ra-Shonda Anderson?

Eighty miles of rolling farmland separate 40-year-old McKinney, a medical illustrator in Rochester, Minn., from Anderson, a 17-year-old high schooler in a working-class neighborhood of East St. Paul. McKinney has a secure white-collar career. Anderson just lost her part-time job. McKinney is white. Anderson is black.

But the two women, in most ways worlds apart, share a private decision: Each is unmarried, and each has decided to have a baby.

As unwed motherhood has become a more scrutinized part of the nation's family portrait, Americans have seemed willing to draw a distinction between women like McKinney and Anderson--a distinction based as much on economic, social and practical considerations as on bedrock morality. But today, a resurgent values debate has begun to cast equal doubt on both women's child-bearing decisions--a reflection, some say, of a broader sense of disquiet over the nation's moral health.

There is little evidence that Americans are returning to the days when unmarried pregnant women fled their communities in shame. But winds of change appear to be blowing, and from more than one direction.

Within the social science community, an increasingly vocal group of researchers argue that the problems associated with single parenthood tend to hold true at all levels of the socioeconomic ladder, even if they are more pronounced along the bottom rungs. They cite studies that have found significant differences--statistically, at least--between children raised in fatherless homes and those raised with both parents present.

Developmental psychologists have begun to plumb the depths of a father's importance in a child's emotional growth. Many have concluded that single motherhood--a phenomenon that through divorce, choice and widowhood affects almost half of all kids at some point in their childhood--is bad for society and, on balance, bad for the children touched by it.

"The daughter of the black teenage mother in the inner city and the [child] of Murphy Brown are almost identical," declares David Blankenhorn, author of "Fatherless America" (Basic Books, 1995) and director of the Institute of American Values in New York. "What unites them is more important than the things that separate them."

Within the public policy arena, growing numbers of politicians--President Clinton among them--are asserting that having babies out of wedlock is fundamentally wrong, no matter what the mother's circumstances.

"I don't think anyone in public life today ought to condone children born out of wedlock," Donna Shalala, Clinton's secretary of Health and Human Services, told a congressional committee, "even if the family is financially able."

Such pronouncements create real pain for women like McKinney and Anderson, both of whom have given the matter serious thought and have decided that having a child is the right choice. Both acknowledge that single parenthood poses bigger challenges than traditional mom-and-dad arrangements. Both agree that to some extent they are defying the odds, at least as calculated by sociologists. Both concede that what is right for them as individuals may not represent the best choice when spread across all of society.

"I'm not promoting that everyone should do this," McKinney says.

To Love and Be Loved

For both McKinney and Anderson, a baby would satisfy much the same urge: To be the whole world to a child. To love and be loved without condition. To see one's own biological inheritance grow and gain independence.

But they have taken very different routes to their decision.

For McKinney, the tick-tick-tick of her biological clock has set off a deafening alarm. After years of graduate school, travel and a single life on the go, she has settled into the kind of stability she thinks is right for bringing up a child.

A husband--and a father for her child--would be nice, she says. But neither is in the picture, nor even on the horizon. And neither, she has concluded, is indispensable.

McKinney exudes a sense of down-to-earth solidity. But inside this diffident woman, who sings with her church choir, is an individualist who quietly but firmly demands her rights in this society.

McKinney has pored over catalogs that list the physical characteristics and recreational interests of anonymous sperm donors. She has picked one who has roughly the same physical characteristics as she does--increasing, she hopes, the likelihood that the resulting child would look like her. The rest is a matter of biology.

Anderson, a shy teenager who has struggled through high school, has all the time in the world to have a child. But she sees little reason to wait.

Last year, Anderson got pregnant at 16. She wanted to have the baby. But her parents argued she was too young and Anderson, thinking about "all the things I had to do," decided to have an abortion.

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