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Abortion, Contraception, and Non-Marital Births: Re-Interpreting the Akerlof-Yellen-Katz Model of Pre-Marital Sex and Shotgun Marriage


In a well-known paper, Akerlof, Yellen, and Katz proposed a counter-intuitive explanation for the rise of non-marital births in the United States that emphasized how birth control and abortion weakened the responsibility of men to their unmarried partner’s pregnancy. The paper is regularly cited by social conservatives to support measures to restrict sex education and access to contraception and abortion. I argue that this use of the paper’s findings stems from specific modeling assumptions about “types” of women. I present a reformulation of the model using more reasonable “types” that generates precisely the same results, but with radically different policy implications.

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  1. 1.

    A Google search for references to “Akerlof, Yellen, and Katz non-marital” yields 19,200 results (search conducted September 17, 2014).

  2. 2.

    In the two decades preceding publication, the non-marital birth ratio had risen from about 10 percent to nearly one-third. The ratio continued to rise through the 1990s and early 2000s at a slower rate. Since 2008 the rate has stabilized at about 40 percent. A substantial portion of non-marital births now are to cohabiting couples.

  3. 3.

    Technically, this describes a Nash equilibrium.

  4. 4.

    The data come from 1980 and 1995 supplements to the CPS. The proportion of such first births to women age 15–29 varied somewhat by race. From 1930 through 1964, the proportions ranged from 56 to 67 percent for white women, compared with 30–40 percent for black women [Bachu 1999].

  5. 5.

    These are 1-year failure rates. Aisch and Marsh [2014] present failure rates through 10 years. Even with ideal use, the 5-year failure rate for the diaphragm is 27 percent. Five-year failure rates in actual use are 63 percent for condoms, 47 percent for the diaphragm, and 28 percent for the pill.


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Correspondence to Saul D Hoffman.

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Hoffman, S. Abortion, Contraception, and Non-Marital Births: Re-Interpreting the Akerlof-Yellen-Katz Model of Pre-Marital Sex and Shotgun Marriage. Eastern Econ J 43, 352–361 (2017).

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  • non-marital birth
  • contraception
  • abortion


  • J12
  • J13
  • J16