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Putting Children’s Interest First In American Family Law

Helen Alvare, a family law professor at George Mason University’s Scalia Law School, discusses her new book, Putting Children’s Interests First in American Family Law: With Power Comes Responsibility.

Helen Alvare discusses children interests in family law

Family Policy Matters
Transcript: Putting Children’s Interest First In American Family Law

Thanks for joining us this week forFamily Policy Matters. We all recognize the responsibility that adults, the government, and society at large have when it comes to safeguarding our children. Today’s guest argues that as a matter of public policy, America has really abdicated much of that responsibility; but she also offers a path forward.

We are joined today by Helen Alvare, a family law professor at George Mason University’s Scalia Law School. For over three decades, Professor Alvare has practiced, taught and written in both scholarly and secular venues about family and constitutional law, religion, and the welfare of women and children.

Today, Professor Alvare and I will be discussing several of the topics covered in her new book, Putting Children’s Interests First in American Family Law: With Power Comes Responsibility.

Helen Alvare, welcome to Family Policy Matters. It’s great to have you on the show.

HELEN ALVARE: Thank you so much for having me.

JOHN RUSTIN: Professor Alvare, you spend a good bit of time discussing non-marital or out-of-wedlock birth in your book. Why should society and government care so much about non-marital births, especially since they seem to be becoming much more commonplace in American culture today?

HELEN ALVARE: The first reason is the effect on children. It’s not just money, though money is a part of it. It’s the disconnect usually, or very reduced connection with a second parent. It’s the fact that everything from cognitive to emotional to educational outcomes for kids is affected. This is not in great contest, the right and the left and the literature on both sides tends to agree with it. And then two other reasons are you know women are raising 86 percent of the children who are being raised, in single parent households. And they are struggling, it’s a gigantic correlation of poverty among women.The men are missing out on fatherhood and the total family relationship. And, we’re also seeing that family structure, especially non-marital parenthood, is one of the very largest factors associated with the growing gaps in American society between the rich and the poor, between races. And also, there’s new literature about women and men; thatboys who disproportionately grow up without their dads are falling behind their sisters pretty early, not catching up. And this might be closely related to the fact that girls are graduating college at rates now much higher than boys.

JOHN RUSTIN: It seems too that’s kind of getting things backwards in some degrees, that we’re putting the interest and welfare of adults above the welfare of children. What other areas of our culture, and even our laws, do you find really prioritized the interest of adults over the welfare of children?

HELEN ALVARE: You know you could range really widely on this, couldn’t you? Outside of my field, there’s an awful lot of people writing about whether or not we’re caring about our children with our environmental policies, or our fiscal policies, our budgetary policies, our educational policies. There [are] a lot of people complaining that we’re thinking about ourselves in our short-term and our adult individual interests. In the family arena, what the law has done—and the book goes through this in some detail, really from talking about adult’s fundamental interest and sexual expression without kids. We talk about that the law of constitutionalizing contraception for single folks—it’s not that I want it illegal, I’m just saying that the cases stated that this was some gigantic outsize adult interest in sex without kids. Then you get to abortion and now it’s sex without kids, but it’s vis-à-vis ending their lives. Now, you’ve got Lawrence vs. Texas in 2003 where same-sex sex is now made a federal constitutional right. And then finally, you’ve got the same-sex marriage opinion in 2015, Obergefell, where the Supreme Court says: Listen, states cannot prioritize procreation, or couples who may procreate, on the grounds that it would be nice to link children with their parents and parents with their children, and they should know and love one another. You’re forbidden from saying that that’s a particular state value. Instead, any two people who want to have sex and go through a commitment ceremony, that’s what we value. And that’s basically how they define marriage. So if that’s really the case, the kids are utterly stripped out of marriage as the state definition, and adult sexual expression is so waxed eloquent about in these cases. Then what you’re saying is, you don’t really care how children’s family structure begins. It’s whether the adults are married, they’re not married, whether they conceive artificially, etc. We don’t really care. It’s what the adults want in terms of expressing themselves and realizing their personal identity. And of course, the outcome of that ends up being for children whose family structure that begun at conception are really at the backdoor of the law. And we try and make it up to them but the programs aren’t really doing that, in fact, they’re not doing that.

JOHN RUSTIN: So what do you see as some of the ways that we can help to restore and strengthen the acknowledgement of our culture toward the importance of children being raised by their biological parents, if at all possible, and creating a legal environment that supports that most ideal family structure?

HELEN ALVARE: The first thing is we have to stop being afraid of people who say: Oh my gosh, the Dan Quayles are back in our midst, talking about the Murphy Brown program and you know family values, and Dan Quayle and everyone who might agree with them, just hate women and stigmatize single parenthood and want those children to be punished. All of those are wrong and we have to get over it at this point because then we let our own fears really triumph over what children need. The good news is today, both the right and the left agree that the place that is really best for children, the most responsible place, is inside a marriage. There’s a famous report now out, it’s at Brookings, which is a Left institution, and American Enterprise Institute, which is a Right institution. Together, [they] issued a report that’s cited in my book on opportunity, responsibility, etc. and agree that we have got to be speaking absolutely clearly about responsibility for children, thinking about where they’re conceived, and marriage would be best. But frankly even before that, my first recommendation is that the government—I put it—”stop stupid” and tell the truth. Under the Obama Administration in particular, […] they were partnering with Planned Parenthood and a group called Power to Decide, which used to be the national campaign for teens and unplanned pregnancy, which basically says: Listen, if you’re not a teenager, just have sex; Use contraception if you don’t want kids; If you do want kids and you’re single, don’t worry about other people’s opinion; You don’t have to do anything except what makes you happy and pays the bill. This is literally linked on federal websites, and states are still using the materials in many cases. So, we have to stop that kind of stupid advice, which is explicitly “adults first,” and “we don’t care about children.” And it’s in the name of, “If we close our eyes, we won’t see what’s happening to the kids,” “If we speak up about it, we’re afraid to be accused of hating women or kids in single-parent families.” No, we want to be compassionate. We want to be truthful at the same time. It can be done, but we haven’t been doing it for a while. It means things like sex ed turns into marriage and relationship education. It means we speak the truth. It means, when the government is forking out billions of dollars for contraception, it basically issues a warning with it that says: Hey, when you unlink the idea of sex, even the idea of children, marriage, extended family, kin, love, etc., children are going to suffer. And by the way, women are going to suffer a lot too. And so are men, because we actually prefer commitment with our childbearing and our love.

JOHN RUSTIN: In your book, you spend a lot of time discussing men, women, relationships, contraception, and babies. But you also call attention to the topics of the economy and employment. Talk about that a little bit if you would: the role that the economy and employment play in this big picture.

HELEN ALVARE: I reference those for two reasons: One, because factually it’s true that, unless people believe they have an opportunity for a job—and in particular, women want to marry men who are stably employed, or have that possibility. People can say that’s sexist or that’s old fashioned, you can call it what ever you like but if you want to solve the problem you have to realize that that’s just a fact. And men themselves feel that they are ready for marriage, or more qualified for it, if they have the opportunity to be stably employed. So, we have to assist more men to get and keep employment. Which means I make recommendations about—from better scholars on this than myself, but I record them— about better education leading to better employment. I reference those also because I want people on both the Left and the Right to understand that I do not see this issue through a partisan lens. I am not a political person. I am a person about ideas. I’m a person about how do you shape the law for the common good, particularly for the vulnerable, and that means particularly for children and the poor in the United States. And so, I wanted to signal and also to give some information about how the Left and the Right have to come together to work on this, and we have to overcome partisanship in the name of doing something good for, basically, our future, which is everybody, which is kids.

JOHN RUSTIN: So with that in mind, what role do you believe the government can play and should play in encouraging marriage and married parenting?

HELEN ALVARE: Stop encouraging non-marital sex on your websites and with the groups you partner with, and giving money to like, Planned Parenthood, the Power to Decide, etc. Start linking everything you talk about on sexual activity to marriage, children’s family structure. This means government sex ed programs should be relationship and marriage programs. They have to speak absolutely exclusively about the good of children being born into a married family structure; they have to do that explicitly. And I make a couple of other recommendations in the book, but these are some of the leading ones.

JOHN RUSTIN: As we close our conversation, I know that many of our listeners are very interested in what we’ve been discussing today and may be wondering: What role can I play? We’ve talked about government and these bigger picture perspectives, but as individuals who want to see prosperous families and want to see the role of parenting enhanced, and also really are very concerned and committed to the welfare of our children, what role can we as individuals play in this? And what do you think are the most important things that we can do in our daily lives to help foster this kind of environment?

HELEN ALVARE: One thing we know is that people who grow up with parents who are mutually committed to one another and to a faith—this isn’t for everybody—but for people who are and can, a strong and mutual and family-centered and family-saturated environment where you practice religion together does a lot for a family. Religion, where people have actual faith, any religion actual faith, then their understanding of the human person, frankly, increases. Faith gives light. It’s not a series of lines from scripture or teachings that are there, just these arbitrary rules. It’s about who the human person is and how they’re free in relationship to God. So, a family of faith is definitely an advantage on this. Additionally, churches should speak frankly about this—frankly and informatively. And here, I’m going to make a shameless—but not so shameless because it is not about money, it’s about good—my website on this: It is largely women of faith who come together and say, “I’d like to be able to talk about this in a way that my children will understand, my sisters, my students, my fellow members of a congregation or a parish.” And Women Speak for Themselves basically gives you fact sheets, a daily Facebook update all about the sex dating and marriage marketplace, created by a combination of culture and law today. Where basically, sex is cheap, women are pressured into it, it’s the price of dating or a relationship, and it’s not helping us. It’s a modern, informed, intelligent way of addressing this. And we have multitudes of materials on the topics themselves and then on how to communicate them effectively.

JOHN RUSTIN: Well let me repeat that website for our listeners, again: And Professor Alvare’s new book is, Putting Children’s Interests First in American Family Law: With Power Comes Responsibility?

And with that, Professor Helen Alvare, I want to thank you so much for joining us on Family Policy Matters, and for your excellent research and your commitment to teaching future generations about the importance of the issues that we’ve been discussing today.

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