The fourth season of the multiple award-winning series The Handmaid’s Tale recently commenced on SBS. Loosely based (by this season, at least) on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel of the same name, the series presents a dystopian picture of a country known as Gilead, based in the north-east of America and ruled by a patriarchal and totalitarian theocratic government.

The premise is that the world has been so badly poisoned by environmental neglect that few women are fertile. To provide children for the ruling elite of the society, women capable of conceiving are placed in reproductive slavery involving monthly forced intercourse, while other women — known invariably by the name “Martha” — fulfil servant functions.

The program is often distressing to watch. It portrays a dark world in which women are subjugated and treated as property. Yet it is also compelling, as a few brave women, led by the heroine, June, fight back.

Even without the themes of female subjugation and oppression, supported and justified by a kind of Christian Taliban, the portrayal of life in Gilead would be dystopian. It is a world in which people are desperate to have children, and babies are precious, not just because babies are always inherently precious, but because so few are able to be born.

Those in our own society who have suffered the pain of infertility understand this all too well. It can add salt to the wounds to see others abuse or neglect their own offspring. Nature does not always distribute its precious gift of new life to the people in the best position to be good parents.

Decline in fertility

Writing 35 years ago, Margaret Atwood could scarcely have predicted how much of her dark vision would come true by now. There seems to be considerable evidence of a sharp decline in male sperm production and concentration — between 50 per cent and 60 per cent in North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand between 1973 and 2011. This has been attributed by some scholars to chemical pollution, notably from plastics.

Fertility rates across much of the developed world are also in sharp decline. In Australia, the total fertility rate dropped to its lowest ever level in 2019, according to the official data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, at 1.66 children per adult female.

The total fertility rate is an estimate of lifetime female fertility based upon current rates of age-specific fertility in any given year. The replacement rate for the population is 2.1, to account for natural infertility. 1.66 may not sound like a low figure, but over a few generations, it means a precipitous decline in the population, offset only by greater longevity and immigration.

The 2021 budget papers anticipate a further fall in the fertility rate in 2021–2022 to 1.58, before rising again slightly. Will the long pandemic lockdowns have made a difference? Maybe, but from overseas indications it seems unlikely that there will be a pram jam on the pavements of suburban Melbourne.

The decline in female fertility is part of an international trend. Some will welcome this for an over-stressed planet. Even if it is a crisis, it is not an immediate one. Global population decline is still on the far horizon. The worldwide population is expected to keep increasing until about 2064, before beginning to fall. Furthermore, a declining birth rate is strongly associated with female education. An increase in girls’ educational levels is an unqualified good for humanity, as is a decline in pregnancies of children and young teenagers.

That said, for some nations, the long-term collapse in fertility is catastrophic. It has been estimated that the population of 23 countries will fall more than 50 per cent by 2100. The problem is particularly acute in some Asian countries: Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan are among the countries with the lowest fertility rates in the world.

South Korea’s total fertility rate in 2019 is recorded as 0.92 — well less than half the population replacement rate. China’s Global Times reported recently that demographers are expressing great concern about that country’s future unless the government can find ways to encourage couples to have more children. China sowed the wind with its one child policy. It will reap the demographic whirlwind in years to come.

It is economists who tend to sound the alarm the most about the fertility crisis. If the population on average gets older, and there are fewer people of working age to meet the needs of employers and to pay taxes, then the country will suffer long-term economic and social decline.

Family members who are healthy in mid-life not only provide the tax base and keep the country running. They also provide a lot of unpaid care for the elderly. Countries that have little history of immigration and successful adaptation to becoming multicultural communities will struggle if they cannot replace their lost population.

The dystopian vision of The Handmaid’s Tale in which babies are scarce has thus become a reality in many countries. Expressing the fertility rate as an average per adult female disguises the real effect at the individual level. What it means in reality is that just as there are women who will have three or four children over their reproductive lives, there are others who will have none. Childlessness — not from medical infertility, nor from personal choice, but for a range of other reasons — is becoming increasingly common.

Why is the fertility rate declining?

There are many reasons for the decline in fertility. It is not a simple matter of more people choosing to be childless or to have just one child. Research shows a gap between the number of children that men and women say they would like to have and their actual fertility many years later. One demographer has estimated that about half of female childlessness is unchosen.

When politicians or journalists discuss the issue of falling fertility rates, they will often refer to economic factors — the costs of raising children over their lifetime, and so on. No doubt cost plays a part in decision-making on having a child, or an additional child. In our large cities, housing costs make it very difficult to live on less than two full-time incomes. That is true of cities such as Seoul and Hong Kong as well.

There can also be little doubt that fertility rates plummet at times of huge economic hardship — such as during the Great Depression. That is not our current situation. Australia has never been so well off as at present; but still, the greater the opportunity for well-remunerated employment, the greater is the opportunity cost of taking time out of the workforce, or reducing working hours, to raise children. Government policy can do something to reduce those opportunity costs, for example by increasing the subsidy for child care and pre-schools, as the federal government has done in its latest budget.

However, we can exaggerate greatly the financial issues. The longer-term picture internationally is one of an inverse correlation between a society’s wealth and its reproduction rate. The convenience of financial explanations for reduced fertility should not blind us to their limited explanatory power.

Two other factors are also very significant. The first is that the age of having a first child has been rising steadily for years. 48 per cent of women having their first child in 2016 were over 30, up from 23 per cent in 1991. This mirrors the pattern of rising age at first marriage, being now over 30 for men and only a little less for women.

If a first child is born to a woman over 30, at a time when fertility is naturally beginning to decline, the window of opportunity to have a large family is necessarily smaller than for a woman in a stable, long-term partnership who has a first child a few years earlier.

The second reason is that fewer and fewer people are successfully forming, and maintaining, long-term partnerships that provide the optimal context for childrearing. The marriage rate per 1,000 population is now less than half what it was 50 years ago. In 1970, it was 9.3 per 1,000. In 2019, it was 4.5 (and, unlike in 1970, many of these are second or subsequent marriages).

Certainly, the rate of de facto relationships has increased over time and most couples who marry these days have lived together for at least some time beforehand. However, the break-up rate of de facto relationships, even when there are children, is very much higher than for marriages.

A de facto relationship entered into with the intention of having children may break up before a child is conceived, or after only one child has been born, leading some men and women into a relational wilderness period which decreases their opportunity to have more children.

Of course, it is not necessary, as a matter of biology, to have a long-term partner in order to have a child. Some mothers are single by choice. It is difficult to know what percentage of children are born to women outside of any cohabiting relationship today.

The last data we have appears to be from 2005. 13 per cent of babies in that year were born without a father in the home. For the most part, these children are likely to have been born into low-income households and will have a less than optimal start to their lives. Single parenthood is a very hard road to travel.

Longitudinal data from the Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia illustrates the speed of the decline — or at least postponement — in family formation and its effect on birth rates. Of young people who were living in the parental home in 2001, 18.6 per cent were married five years after leaving; 20.1 per cent were in de facto relationships; 11.2 per cent had dependent children.

This may be compared with the data 11 years later — that is, taking young people who were living in the parental home in 2012. Five years after leaving home, 13.1 per cent were married, 20.8 per cent were in de facto relationships; 5.7 per cent had dependent children. This represents a sharp decline in family formation, and, accompanying this, a decline in childbearing. The marriage rate had dropped substantially, but there was hardly any increase in the number who were living in de facto relationships.

The sex drought, identified in many developed countries, is in large part consequent upon the relationship drought. That is not rocket science, of course, but worth stating because the entertainment media presents a very different picture of the availability of sex outside of committed relationships.

The scourge of loneliness

While economists worry about the impact of low fertility on the working-age population and the tax base, there is a lot more to worry about, if the issue is viewed through a wider lens. One of the greatest problems we are facing as a society, and will face more as we age, is loneliness, as a consequence of having little family support and togetherness.

Children are both precious and very hard work. The beautiful innocence of newborn babies seems to be God’s way of preparing us for two-year-olds. Marriage, too, can be very hard work, with troughs, difficulties, and disappointments. Yet there is not much in life that is achieved without effort.

In the end, we reap the reward of love that is unconditional and the knowledge that someone else will care for us into our old age in ways that the paid aged-care worker, coming into and out of our lives in accordance with the frequency of her shifts, cannot really offer.

Is faith really such a negative?

The Handmaid’s Tale presents an appallingly negative picture of a faith community. To say that it is cruel, exploitative, hypocritical, patriarchal, and murderous is to understate the depths of its evil. While a fictional portrayal, it reflects some of the negativity that people now express towards faith. It is also premised upon a false belief that in marriages between people of faith, men oppress women and relationships are joyless.

Mostly, that negativity — even hatred in unrestrained channels of communication such as social media — is expressed towards conservative Christians. However, antisemitism is also on the rise in Australia, and attacks on people of Islamic faith have been a recurrent feature of Australian life since the awful events on 11 September 2001 in the United States.

It is worth remembering, however, as we now face a looming crisis in our societal capacity to form stable, long-term relationships, that it is people of faith who are more likely to “have their act together” in their intimate relationships. Research has consistently shown that people of devout faith have more stable marriages and more children. This holds true also for highly educated women, who might otherwise be expected to have lower levels of childbearing.

This correlation between faith, stability, and fertility is not altogether surprising. In the Abrahamic religions particularly, there is a strong emphasis on the importance of lifelong commitment and fidelity. The Christian teaching on forgiveness greatly aids conflict resolution.

Religious teaching on sex also makes a big difference. It calls us to constrain our powerful sex drives within the confines of a relationship in which we are committed to one another for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health. That commitment makes enduring love more possible. The sexual restraint taught by faith communities also has positive effects for the quality of sex, with women in highly religious partnerships more likely to be sexually satisfied. Drunken hook-ups really aren’t all that sexy.

The Christian code of sexual and relational ethics is hard to live by, and many of us fail to live up to its ideals, but it provides a roadmap to long-term fulfillment that has never been bettered.

Talking again about fertility

The situation in Australia is not yet dire, and we have a long history of successfully integrating migrants; but the long-term trends are concerning. There are limits to what governments can do about it. Just ask Singapore, which has struggled to persuade its population to reproduce, despite sustained efforts. Hungary is seeking to reverse its fertility decline with a coherent and ambitious all-of-government policy towards support of marriage and childbearing. Poland’s policies are showing some early signs of success.

Government policy in Australia did seem to have an effect in the mid-2000s. The introduction of the baby bonus in 2004 was associated with a very considerable increase in female fertility for a few years, while its abolition in 2014 is associated with a decline. There is room for argument about the extent to which this increase was the result of these governmental measures, and maybe the baby bonus was poorly targeted, but it does seem that it made a significant difference.

However, it is worth noting that the government initiatives were combined with public discussion about the issue. Peter Costello may have been mocked by the cognoscenti for saying that we should have one child for Mum, one for Dad and one for the country, but it certainly got people talking. In contrast, the announcement by the Australian Bureau of Statistics a few months ago that the fertility rate in 2019 was the lowest ever, was hardly mentioned in the press.

We need to talk about these issues which have such an impact upon lifelong happiness and wellbeing. We may not yet be living in the dystopian world of Gilead, and if we ever see totalitarian governments emerging in place of democracy in developed societies — and we may — it is most likely that they will be secular versions of totalitarianism.

However, the scarcity of babies is already a problem, and if we are to fix it, we will need more than government handouts. We will need to think afresh about ways we can better support safe and stable intimate relationships — relationships in which our precious children can flourish.

Originally published at ABC Religion & Ethics. Republished with permission.

Patrick Parkinson

Patrick Parkinson is a Professor at the TC Beirne School of Law, University of Queensland, and a former Dean of the School. Professor Parkinson is a specialist in family law, child protection, law and...