Decision Trees

I have been reluctant to debate Ross Douthat on his favorite question because I really think Sarah Palin’s family has been the subject of way too much discussion. But there is a real question lurking in the bushes here, and I wanted to air it.

Here’s the decision tree for a nice girl who finds herself in trouble:

Douthat and Weisberg seem to agree that option #3 – single motherhood – is a Bad Choice. And we know they disagree – on a variety of grounds – on how bad option #1 – abortion – is, with Weisberg no doubt feeling it’s not something anyone would want to go through, but often enough the best of bad options, and Douthat clearly feeling it’s profoundly evil in all circumstances.

But what about the choice between option #2 – adoption – and option #4 – teenage marriage?

If the statistics are accurate, a teenage marriage is much more likely to end in divorce than a marriage entered into at a more mature age. A young couple might “make a go of it” but they are off to a very inauspicious start.

So: what’s better for the child? To be put up for adoption or raised by a young couple relatively likely to be emotionally unprepared for parenthood and relatively likely to divorce? And what’s better for the mother? And does it matter what’s better for the mother?

Obviously, there’s no one answer to that question – the situation will vary with circumstances. And, unfortunately, the circumstances that make for a likely better outcome for a young family are also the circumstances that likely make for a more successful adoption. Either way, though, there are real risks and real likelihood of pain. I hate personalizing this, but as an adoptive parent and the son of parents who divorced when I was still a young child, I have some small personal insight into both sides of this one.

One thing we can say, though: putting the baby up for adoption is declining a burden, and raising the child is taking it up. That’s a choice with real consequences. The emotional ones may be hard to measure. The material ones, though, are pretty clear, at least in aggregate.

Now, I was having a conversation with the mother of one of my son’s playmates the other day, a woman who, with her husband, had once lived in Alaska. When she lived there, she was recently married but as yet had no children. The Alaskans she met were almost universally flabbergasted that she, a bride in her early twenties, still had no children. Strangers assumed there must be something medically wrong. Teen pregnancy struck her as extremely common – some of the girls married and some didn’t, but a whole lot of them were getting knocked up.

There’s something frankly appealing about a world like that, a world that is just flat-out baby-friendly, and doesn’t sweat the complications. It bespeaks an abundance, both material and spiritual. But whether or not that world is real in Alaska, it’s not that way down in the lower forty-eight. Down here, we are too familiar with scarcity.

There is a tension in the socially conservative worldview on these matters. On the one hand, it’s a worldview that embraces a bourgeois view of life – gratification-deferring, risk-averse, future-oriented, status-conscious. It preaches work, thrift, continence, fidelity. But that bourgeois view exists in tension with a Christian view that embraces life as such, and taking up one’s cross, and isn’t all that concerned about where one gets to or how long the journey is so long as one is walking with the Lord.