Yesterday I discussed the recent article in the Policy Review which brings to light the fertility decline that has occurred in all Muslim-majority countries (bar Kosovo for which there was insufficient data) in the last three decades. 

The article, which can be read here, is fascinating not just for what it reports but the reasons it gives for the change in fertility rates.  According to the authors, fertility rates have fallen throughout the Muslim world but we should not rush out to lay the thanks (or blame) at the door of increased contraceptive use or increases in national wealth. (Melinda Gates should probably read this report – she could add it to her bedside table, along with Evangelium Vitae).

First, the authors acknowledge that analysis of 48 different countries is necessarily going to be broad-brushed:

“We know, of course, that the 48 Muslim-majority countries and territories for which the [United Nations Population Division] provides demographic estimates encompass a rich diversity of national histories, cultures, languages, and specific traditions. But if we analyze this collectivity as a single group — in other words, as if there were something distinctive about Muslim-majority countries per se — we can conduct a preliminary inventory of readily apparent broad socioeconomic associations with fertility change for this, the lion’s share of the population of the contemporary Ummah.”

Although there is a correlation between fertility levels and urbanisation, per capita income, female literacy, utilisation of modern contraceptive methods and infant survival prospects in less developed regions as a whole, the authors contend that:

“…these broad associations between fertility change and material measures of modernization or socioeconomic development are not the whole story here. Nearly two decades ago, a path-breaking study by Lant Pritchett, “Desired fertility and the impact of population policies,” made the case that desired fertility levels (as expressed by women of childbearing age in [demographic and health surveys]) were the single best predictor for actual fertility levels in the less developed regions. Sure enough, as Figure 2 demonstrates, [demographic and health surveys] conducted since that study reveal a 90 percent association between wanted fertility and actual fertility levels in the 41 less-developed countries for which such recent data were available.”

The implications are clear:

“This finding still flies in the face of much received opinion in population policy circles. In particular, it seems to challenge the notion that family planning programs, by encouraging the prevalence of modern contraceptive use, may make an important independent contribution to reducing fertility levels in developing countries, especially by reducing what is called ‘excess fertility’ or ‘unwanted fertility.’…In reviewing the correspondence in recent [demographic and health surveys] between “excess fertility” (defined here as the difference between actual fertility levels and reported levels of desired fertility) and the prevalence of modern contraceptive use, we find no observable correspondence whatsoever between these two factors…the critical determinant of actual fertility levels in Muslim and non-Muslim societies alike at the end of the day would appear to be attitudinal and volitional, rather than material and mechanistic.”

If this report is accurate, then people aren’t having large families (read more than two children) because they do not have access to contraceptives and abortion but because they want to. Just because we in the West do not want big families (more than two children) doesn’t mean that everyone else in the world thinks like us. (Not for the first time that wonderful scene in Evelyn Waugh’s novel, Black Mischief, comes to mind about the white man’s “juju”. I would thoroughly recommend the book if you haven’t read it.) 

Furthermore, the article suggests that Muslim-majority societies are choosing to have fewer children than their relevant non-Muslim equivalent countries.  After taking us through some number-crunching that you can review for yourself, the authors conclude that:

“This is to suggest that, at any given level of per capita income, literacy, and contraceptive use, Muslim-majority societies today can be expected to have fewer children than their counterparts in non-Muslim societies nowadays!”

“Developmentalist” theories can’t help us to explain this result.  And nor can those emphasising the primacy of contraceptive use:

“Holding income constant, modern contraception usage was approximately fourteen percentage points lower in Muslim than in non-Muslim majority societies in the 1980s, and remained eleven percentage points lower 20 years later. Despite such characteristically more limited use of modern contraception, the pervasive, dramatic, and in some cases historically unprecedented declines in fertility highlighted earlier in this chapter took place nonetheless.”

As the authors emphasise, there are social, economic and other factors at play here.  But what we also need to recognise is that human agency (that pesky free will and free choice business) has appeared to play a critical part in this transformation. 

“Proponents of ‘developmentalism’ are confronted by the awkward fact that fertility decline over the past generation has been more rapid in the Arab states than virtually anywhere else on earth — while well-informed observers lament the exceptionally poor development record of the Arab countries over that very period.

By the same token, contraceptive prevalence has only limited statistical power in explaining fertility differentials for Muslim-majority populations — and can do nothing to explain the highly inconvenient fact that use of modern contraceptives remains much lower among Muslim-majority populations than among non-Muslim societies of similar income level, despite the tremendous fertility declines recorded in the former over the past generation.

Put another way: Materialist theories would appear to come up short when pressed to account for the dimensions of fertility change registered in large parts of the Ummah over the past generation. An approach that focuses on parental attitudes and desires, their role in affecting behavior that results in achieved family size, and the manner in which attitudes about desired family size can change with or without marked socioeconomic change may prove more fruitful here.”

Maybe other people in the World aren’t crying out for free contraceptives and abortion on demand in order to stop the workings of their natural fertility. Maybe, just maybe, they have chosen to have larger families than their NYTimes reading contemporaries.  If that is the case, the answer is simple: they obviously must be re-educated.

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...