Ross Douthat has identified a serious problem. American women aren’t having enough babies.
You might not see this as a problem. This is because you’re selfish. You live a decadent lifestyle, only concerned about the here and now, rather than the future. How selfish you are, not to have seven kids right now!
You may think I exaggerate, but I don’t. In a Sunday New York Times column and a petulant follow-up blog post, Douthat grieves the decision of women not to have as many children as humanly possible. To do anything else would be anti-feminist.
Likewise for readers who regard any talk about the moral weight of reproductive choices as a subtle attempt to reimpose the patriarchy: Can it really be that having achieved so much independence and autonomy and professional success, today’s Western women have no moral interest in seeing that as many women are born into the possibility of similar opportunities tomorrow? Is the feminist revolution such a fragile thing that it requires outright population decline to fulfill its goals, and is female advancement really incompatible with the goal of a modestly above-replacement birthrate?
Isn’t that a silly thing to write? Shouldn’t a writer in the New York Times be capable of recognizing that having kids is not for every woman, and that therefore demanding women en bloc have more kids is sort of anti-feminist? Is the feminist revolution so frightening to Douthat that he can see no way that we could have fewer kids per woman, and yet have a functional society?
It is true that birth rates are down in the West. That is not, however, a reason to panic. Lower birthrates are, for the most part, a sign of a prosperous society with educated women. To see why, one only needs to look at history.
The Wonderful Past
Humans adapt. That’s what we do. From our earliest days, before we were even Homo sapiens, we found ways to get along, to change with the times. This has served us well; it has allowed us to advance to the point where there are permanent settlements from the South Pole to the equator, spreading across the globe. Once, survival for our species was difficult, dangerous; today, for good or ill, humans are unquestionably the dominant force on the planet; our near-term survival is endangered most not by wild animals or starvation, but by our own technological advances.
This has not been the case for most of our history. Surveying the past is a grim endeavor. In 1600s London, more infants died than survived their first year. Even into the 1950s, that rate was still over 3 percent for Americans, and over 15 percent worldwide.
If the child survived, there was no small chance that they’d be without a mother; until the 20th century, it’s estimated that 1 percent of childbirths ended in the mother’s death. In the 1800s, thanks to poor sanitation, those rates spiked as high as 40 percent in some places.
Bearing children was arduous, and being born was likely as not to kill you, and there was no good means of avoiding pregnancy other than abstinence. Women were expected to bear children, and so mothers who managed to survive childbirth often bore many of them — in part because they didn’t want to be abstinent, in part because they often didn’t have the choice to be abstinent, and in part because it increased the odds that at least one or two of the kids would make it to adulthood, where they could try their luck at reproduction.
Happily, we do not live in that world any more. We have adapted by refining medicine, learning good treatments and sanitation and medicines and educating others about them. Today, the rate of death in childbirth is about 0.02 percent in the U.S., and fewer than 1 in 100 children die before their first birthday.
At the same time as all of this has happened, something else, even more remarkable, has occurred: women, free to chart their own reproductive destinies by reliable, safe birth control, have begun to achieve a level of equality unheard of in human history. Where women were once expected to serve as mothers first, now women have the ability to choose to delay childbirth, or forgo it altogether, at least in the developed world. Moreover, a woman who is childless isn’t a failure, because she can succeed in many different facets of society; her role is no longer restricted to motherhood.
Because we now allow women to decide for themselves whether and when to have children, and because those women now have more life options than parenting children, many mothers choose to have fewer children than they would have centuries ago.
Add these factors up, and it’s no wonder that, in the developed world, we are having fewer children per capita than we used to. Women have more control over their lives, and more choices about what they want to do. When they do have children, the kids are expected to grow up — we are shocked when a child dies, rather than sadly resigned to it as our ancestors were. People are healthier, live longer and have more options. Nothing could be bad about that, right?
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