I was talking with a Catholic college student who is enrolled in a graduate level demography class on fertility at a major state university.  She said that when her classmates make snarky remarks about “those Catholics” and their large families, the whole class nods knowingly in agreement.

However, the professor confessed that every female professor she knew had some sort of fertility problem, and had one or at most two, children. She went on to tell the mostly female class that this is what they too could expect, if they continue on doctoral paths. The general reaction of the class was a combination of “No duh” and feeling slightly cheated.

My young informant reported a sense of vertigo around about that time.

Fertility treatments, miscarriages, and small families — these are just the costs women are routinely expected to bear as the price of “having it all”.

This is inhuman. 

We insist that young women educate themselves for an independent financial future, because they cannot count on a husband to support them. We insist they follow an educational and career path designed for and by men. But, by the time they are socially ready for children their peak fertility will almost certainly be behind them. If they do want to have children, they must resort to degrading, dangerous and impersonal artificial reproductive technologies. These technologies further alienate the woman from her own body, from her child’s father, and place her health and her child’s health at unknown (because largely unstudied) risks.

And this is called “feminism”.

I call it a structural injustice against women to pit their bodies against their educations.

I thought of this conversation as I was reading Jonathan Last’s fine new book, What to Expect When No One is Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster.  I highly recommend this book, even if you are not a demography nerd, like my young friend and I are. That said, it is a good resource for nerds and normals alike, as there are more fun facts in this book than you would ever want.

For instance:

  • 50 percent of the women who got married between 1960 and 1964 were virgins on their wedding night, and 15 years later that number had dropped to 21 percent. (p 57)
  • In 2011, for the first time, people in Japan bought more adult diapers than they did baby diapers. (p 142)

One thing I especially like about this book is that, unlike others who have written on demography, Jonathan Last does not shy away from the subject of sex. I have always thought it odd that people want to talk about population decline, without addressing the underlying sexual culture. Last leaves no “third rail” untouched. Cohabitation, early sexual initiation, delayed age at first marriage, abortion, non-marital childbearing — he talks about them all.

And just to show he is really bold, he connects the dots between all these problems and the ultimate sacred cow, contraception. Yes, the technology of contraception makes all these things either seem like good ideas, or leads to behaviors that make delayed marriage, abortion and non-marital childbearing inevitable.

Last tries to end the book on an upbeat note, but it is not entirely convincing. Policies designed to increase fertility have had minimal success at best. Singapore started trying to reverse its fertility freefall in 1980, when its total fertility rate was 1.74 per woman. Despite tax incentives, paid maternity leave, cash bonuses and aggressive ad campaigns, their TFR today is 1.11, with no bottom in sight. (pp 151-4) While Last does offer a few potentially helpful policy suggestions, he does not sound entirely convinced himself.

Someone once said that the birth of a child is a sign that the human race should continue.  And in our day and age, where having a child is a choice, deliberately choosing to have a child requires an active hope on the part of the parents. This is why the only factor that seems plausible for reversing fertility decline is serious religious practice. Religious communities have a reason for hope.

I can only offer a small anecdote. This past year we had the Ruth Institute Christmas party at our home for our inter-faith constituency, which includes Catholics, Protestants, some unchurched folk… It was a very simple affair. No gift exchange. No video games. No TV.

We had people of all ages: college students, newly married couples, young couples with babies in arms, homeschooling families with little kids, and some with bigger kids, grandparents. I don’t know how we overcame the age segregation that is so common in our culture. We didn’t plan it.

To tell the truth, I don’t know how the young families are managing, since the whole society conspires against fruitful couples. But somehow, there they were, with their three, four, five, six and even nine children.  Against all odds and cultural headwinds, the human family renews itself. The human person is meant for love, and the human body cries out to be fruitful.

The solution to fertility decline is to stop calculating. Start managing, muddling through and enjoying each other, your spouse, the children you create together, and the grandchildren they procreate for you and themselves.

Stop asking, “Can we afford it?” and instead start saying, “Whip it on us, Lord. We can handle it!”

With that attitude, maybe the downward population spiral isn’t irreversible after all.

Dr Jennifer Roback Morse, PhD, is the founder and president of the Ruth Institute, a project of the National Organization for Marriage Fund.

Jennifer Roback Morse PhD is the founder and President of the Ruth Institute. Dr Morse brings a unique voice to discussions of love, marriage, sexuality and the family. A committed career woman before...