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Social Impact | January 24, 2013

Dear Abby dished dangerous advice

Social Impact

Analysis of Dear Abby columns finds constant message of moral relativity.

Dear Abby advice columnist Pauline Friedman Phillips (AP/Photo by Reed Saxon)

Pauline Friedman Phillips, best known as Abby Van Buren of the decades-old Dear Abby advice column, died last week at age 94 after suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Millions of readers enjoyed her sharp and witty advice on everything from dating to family issues.

Phillip's various obituaries hail her for having a "huge heart" and a "genuine desire to improve people's lives." But a recent study of Abby's columns reveals a far more dangerous legacy: a moral relativism that encouraged readers to seek their own pleasure, often at others' expense.

Phillips acknowledged her advice changed as the years went by. She often condoned divorce and homosexual behavior in her columns. In her 1981 book, The Best of Dear Abby, Phillips said she,"has always defended homosexuals' rights to go their own way."

Phillips turned the advice column over to daughter Jeanne Phillips in 2002. A 2008 report from the Media Research Center of the Culture and Media Institute (CMI) suggests that the column does more harm than good by supporting and promoting moral relativism and shunning traditional sexual morality espoused by most evangelicals.

The report analyzed columns from 2007-365 in all. It found 30 percent of the columns dealt with sex. Of those, 53 percent rejected traditional sexual morality, defined as the view that sex should be limited to marriage between a man and woman. Another 54 columns addressed sex between unmarried adults, and only one suggested sex should be preceded by marriage.

According to the study, 36 columns addressed infidelity. Only 10 of those suggested breaking off an affair, or not getting into an affair in the first place. Abby even appears to condone adultery, as well as homosexual adultery. When "Confused in Illinois" wrote to Abby saying she had no interest in sexual relations with her husband because she was involved in a "passionate sexual relationship" with a female friend, Abby told her to "look at the bright side. At least you now finally understand what has been missing [in marriage]."

The study also found Abby does not encourage sexually active teens to stop having sex, finds homosexuality morally acceptable, endorses same-sex marriage, and is permissive and perhaps even amused by traditionally objectionable sexual behavior such as cross-dressing.

CMI concludes Dear Abby has dished out bad advice in more than 1,000 newspapers worldwide for well over 30 years. That tradition has only intensified since Jeanne Phillips took up her mother's metaphorical pen.

The media mainly recognized the founding Dear Abby for her personal touch and caring demeanor, but her legacy has a much darker side. In a 1997 article on Abby and her twin sister, Ann Landers, W. Patrick Cunningham wrote: "Their pithy dictums have seduced many into accepting the reasonableness of moral relativism; they have, over the past 40 years, helped legitimize the revolution in morality that has taken Western culture to the brink of extinction."