Like “The Interrupters,” No Wedding No Womb Might Save Lives. Is That Good Enough?

Like “The Interrupters,” No Wedding No Womb Might Save Lives. Is That Good Enough?

By Mikhail Lyubansky

We human beings love to choose up sides, all the more so if the choices happen to be of the “either or” variety. Dichotomous choices not only help us make sense of our reality and decide how to interact with it, but are the source of seemingly every heated debate in seemingly every demographic group: Yankees or Red Sox? Pro-choice or pro-life? Democrat or Republican? The No Wedding, No Womb (NWNW) movement is no different in this respect.  Those who support it are demanding to know: Are you with us or against us?

Well, I’m neither — and not because I haven’t given it some serious contemplation. I’m neither because I don’t see single-parenting as inherently bad or double-teaming as inherently good.  I’m not taking sides because if I were to rank-order our society’s problems, out-of-wedlock births would be considerably behind poverty, unequal access to education, racial bias in our criminal justice system (and the skyrocketing incarceration rates, more generally), climate change, and probably a half dozen others. And also, this isn’t a sports contest: It’s possible to occupy a more nuanced position than merely “pro” or “con”.

In case anyone’s wondering, I’m married. I have two kids. I grew up in a two-parent family.  I liked that my parents were married. I like being married myself. And if my kids ever ask for my opinion on marriage, I’m quite sure that I’ll put in a good word.  And why not? Data show that marriage is positively associated with any number of important outcomes, not least of all life satisfaction and happiness, and while this used to be only true for men, for several decades now it has been equally true for women.  Factor in the documented gains in socioeconomic status (stronger for women) and health outcomes (stronger for men), and it’s a no-brainer: Marriage rocks!  Oh…and also: It’s good for the kids.

That last point is what the NWNW movement is ostensibly about: The children.

For all the talk about out of wedlock births, marriage is not the only option supported by NWNW, a position that Karazin makes explicitly clear in this part of the NWNW FAQ.

In my opinion, marriage is the ideal. It is our opinion that it is the ideal situation for raising children. Statistically children thrive in two-parent homes versus single-parent homes.  We understand that not everyone will agree with this point of view, but this is what we advocate.  However, it is of the utmost importance that it is understood that in no way are we advocating marriage as the panacea for social ills with the black community.  If marriage is out of the question, NWNW parents are “wedded” to their commitment to their children, providing daily emotional and physical nurturing.

In another portion of the same document, she writes, “NWNW calls for both MEN and WOMEN to put the needs of children first, and advocates that couples abstain from having children until they are emotionally, physically and financially able to care for them.”

Well, there it is: When you put it like that, how can anyone with a soul not be for NWNW?  After all, how could anyone not be in favor of anything that is in the best interest of a child?

But what does it mean to put the needs of children first?  What does it mean to be emotionally, physically, and financially able to care for children?

More importantly, who gets to decide?

I need to take a detour here.  As anyone following this movement well knows, No Wedding No Womb is a Black movement.  To be sure, it has non-black allies and supporters, but in Karazin’s own words in the FAQ, it is “a primary call directed to the black community to take action against the rampant births of children who are born without physical, financial and emotional protection.” (emphasis mine).

This is hardly a coincidence.  Karazin cites the 72% out-of-wedlock birth rate in the Black community as a serious concern and urges Black men in particular to take an active role “in the parenting of their children, or more importantly be cognizant of the fact that their role of fathers is paramount to the success of their children and in turn, the black community.”  This is vital, Karazin explains, because not having a father around is associated with all sorts of bad outcomes.  As proof, Karazin cites David Popenoe, who, in “Life Without Father” (written in 1996), cited research showing that

60 percent of America’s rapists came from fatherless homes

72 percent of adolescent murderers grew up without a father

70 percent of long-term prison inmates are fatherless.

I could point out that all three of these groups are quite small relative to the overall population.  That is, when we talk about 72% of adolescent murderers, we are talking about 72% of a very small number. Put a different way, the vast majority of kids who grow up in fatherless homes are productive, law-abiding members of society.  I could point out, as well, that given the findings from adoption studies (see for example, the well-known Stockholm adoption study by Cloninger, Bohman, and Sigvardson and the Cadoret at al 1995 study), it is likely that a very high percentage of these fathers were actually themselves incarcerated at some point in their life.  That is, one could just as easily blame these undesirable outcomes on poor genetics as on poor environment (i.e., absent fathers).  Indeed, it is almost certain that both genes and environmental factors are implicated (as usual, the dichotomous choice is a false one).  This is not to suggest that the youth in these three groups were doomed from the start. They weren’t. Unique environment can and does make a difference. The point is that it is unlikely that these particular youths would have benefited from having dad at home.

All that said, I have no doubt that a father’s presence can make a significant positive difference, and I’d hate to say anything that might discourage fathers from being more involved in their children’s lives. I’m all for such involvement.  Apart from the intuitive notion that two people must be better than one, there are, in fact, empirical studies showing that youth in two-parent homes do better in a variety of ways (e.g., less substance use, higher academic achievement) than those raised by a single parent.

But let’s get back to marriage for a moment.  After all, this is the ideal that proponents of NWNW promote, and it is this idea that makes me uncomfortable, particularly in the context of a Black movement.  Among the less-well known blemishes of our nation’s history is the widespread public support for the eugenics movement in the beginning of the 20th century, which advocated a higher birth rate for white, middle-class “fit” women, while promoting lower birth rates among poor women, especially poor immigrants and women of color. While the eugenics movement lost popularity after WWII, attempts to limit the reproductive choices of women of color persisted for decades, culminating in a third of Puerto Rican women of child-bearing age being sterilized in 1968 and about 25% of Indian women living on reservations in the 1970s (see Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction and the Meaning of Liberty, 1997).

In this historical context, a movement that targets Black women’s reproductive choices gives me pause.  It helps, of course, that Karazin is Black and that the movement has significant support among other Black women.  Yet, even so, there’s still a lingering sense of paternalism about a movement in which some (often more educated) women (and some men) tell other (usually less educated) women how to live their lives, as though women who have children out of wedlock did so because they were not smart enough to figure out that it wasn’t a good idea, as though being told (by the media) that it isn’t a good idea is now going to persuade them to change their ways.

My own whiteness is not irrelevant here.  I try to approach my writing and activism as an ally, which is to say that I try to take my cue from the group that I want to support. In this particular case, as is usually the case for any heterogeneous group, the Black community is not of a single mind. When the NWNW movement first emerged, I saw Black women I respect take strong pro and anti-NWNW positions. For a long time, I chose to stay out of their way, but I kept getting consistent nudges from Black folks I have relationships with to take a stand — that standing on the sideline was not an option because it felt voyeuristic to them to take a position and defend it with passion while someone else was just observing and standing apart. That resonated with me. After hearing that, I chose to join the discussion, and having joined, I don’t want my voice to be silenced on account of it not being Black enough.  I have, I think, something to contribute.  At the same time, it’s important to me that the voices of those who are directly impacted have center stage.  I can’t ensure such a thing, but I can state my preference.

My main concern, which I wrote about Back in October, 2010, isn’t that NWNW won’t work, but that it will work just enough for more money to be spent and an entire PR campaign to be developed for the purpose of persuading Black women to not have children out of marriage. I’m concerned because I’d really much rather that all the energy that went into creating and publicizing the NWNW movement be spent on promoting system change.  Here’s what I wrote in 2010:

Real solutions — the ones that make a substantial and lasting impact– must address systems change, not individual change. First we have to identify systemic (rather than intrapersonal) causes of racial inequity. Then we have to figure out how to change the relevant system so that it promotes rather than detracts from racial equity. People will change to accommodate a different social system. If you change the system, individual change will follow. Take, for example, the education system, which is also yielding significant racial inequity.  We could tell Black kids to study harder (and it wouldn’t be bad advice), but that wouldn’t really solve the problem because the property-tax based system is racially biased at the core (Black neighborhoods generally have fewer wealth, which translates to a lower tax-base and, therefore, less money for the schools).  Rather than trying to inspire Black families to work harder, we could devote our resources to reforming the education system so that it is not funded by property tax.  This is systems change. The civil rights movement was a big systems change. It opened up career and lifestyle opportunities that did not exist.  We need another one.

My point is that Civil Rights movement focused on systems change, not on helping black folks make the best of Jim Crow. State-supported segregation is gone but many systems, including the education system, continue to be racially biased.  There’s nothing about the value of education that black youth haven’t heard 100 times.  They just don’t trust the education system to deliver on its promise. And their distrust is not irrational, because the odds are stacked against them.  Sure, some are making it.  Some always have.  W.E.B. Dubois made it in the late 1800s. Frederick Douglass made it before him. There are always exceptions. And we always love them. They allow those who are exceptional to celebrate their own success, in part by seeing themselves as superior to those who weren’t able to get as far.  And for the power brokers, the exceptions are incontrovertible proof that the system is not biased, that anyone can succeed, that there is no reason to change anything.

But there IS a reason to change the system, and we need to work to make it happen, because the history of social change is that it doesn’t happen by itself.  And for all its good intentions, No Wedding No Womb not only doesn’t aim at systems change; it [possibly] distracts from it.

A year later, I have the same concerns.  I’m not the only one.  Take, for example, The Future of Children, a collaboration of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and the Brookings Institution, whose mission is “to translate the best social science research about children and youth into information that is useful to policymakers, practitioners, grant-makers, advocates, the media, and students of public policy.”  In 2010, The Future of Children issued a 200+ page report titled Fragile Families that directly addressed the issue of non-marital childbearing.

Unlike the NWNW movement which, as far as I can tell, attributes the high Black out-of-wedlock rates to something within Black culture, the Fragile Families report explicitly concludes that “racial and ethnic differences in family structure reflect class differences in family structure and the differing distribution of racial and ethnic groups across classes.” (pg 124).  Moreover, the report concludes that

Although policies to promote marriage among racial and ethnic groups are important in that most young U.S. men and women continue to regard marriage as an important goal, marriage promotion cannot be the only goal of effective family policy. Indeed, policy should stress tolerance—and support—for all types of family forms, particularly in the interest of child well-being, rather than attempting to turn back the clock. Greater acceptance of and attention to the needs of diverse family structures will also be another step toward racial and ethnic equality. (pg 128)

This paragraph, more than any other I’ve read, captures my ambivalence toward NWNW. I like its focus on children and admire Karazin and her supporters for the energy they’re putting into improving children’s lives.  I think the movement can make an impact. I hope it makes a big one.  I hope it doesn’t further marginalize and stigmatized the very group it is seeking to help.

At the end of the day, NWNW reminds me of The Interrupters, the incredible men and women who “interrupt” urban violence by showing up and then talking, cajoling, and sometimes threatening those on the verge of killing in an attempt to get them to not kill.  They save lives, these Interrupters, and, in a very real way, there is no greater feat than that.  But will those neighborhoods be any safer as a result of their efforts?  Will there be less violence to interrupt tomorrow because of the work that they’re doing today?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, and I don’t know the answers in regard to NWNW either. And so I remain ambivalent – both hoping that it will make some children’s lives better and concerned that by doing so, the systemic inequities will go unchallenged and unchanged.  In the best possible world, NWNW, like the Interrupters, will improve lives now, while others continue to work toward structural change.  There is no reason why this can’t happen.  After all, dichotomies choices are rarely really “either or”.


About the author:

Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a member of the teaching faculty in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches Psychology of Race and Ethnicity and Theories of Psychotherapy. His research and writing interests include racial/ethnic group relations and restorative justice. He is a regular contributor to anthologies on popular culture, including Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and House MD, published by BenBella and recently co-authored a book on the Russian-Jewish diaspora: Building a diaspora: Russian Jews in Israel, Germany, and the United States.

In addition to his PT blog Between the Lines, he is a managing editor at  All material on this site published under his byline remains the property of Mikhail Lyubansky, copyright 2009, 2010. Permission is granted to repost and distribute, with proper attribution.

Born in Kiev, Mikhail immigrated with his family to the United States as a child in 1977.

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