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The Neo-Natalist Argument: Help! We Need More Babies!

The Neo-Natalist Argument: Help! We Need More Babies!
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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.

No, really:

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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4:40PM PST on Jan 3, 2013

God bless you Andrea S.

No more human born until 500 years
from now. There far-far tooooo many
humans using up all of the earth natural resources.

What are we to do when its' ALL GONE??????

Wherever you go there once was a forest.
Plant & protect Danny's trees for life.
Trees are the lungs of the earth.

3:01PM PST on Jan 3, 2013

Are you kidding... The less we need is more people! It doesn´t matter how good would you think your ecological alternative is, it becomes destructive in such a large scale. Overpopulation is the key for every major and permanent ecological desaster. I´ve decide myself not to have any children and it will be my gift to this planet

6:56AM PST on Dec 19, 2012

This echoes a widespread Victorian middle-class attitude: that, since God had afforded you wealth, intelligence, education and the associated advantages, it was your duty to reproduce as fast as possible so as to populate the world with similarly perfect people and outcompete the poor, criminally-minded demographic of untermensch prone to breed like rabbits and pollute society with their impious, uncared-for offspring.

At best, this C19th outlook was highly flawed (plenty of wealthy, educated, "pious" Victorian gents secretly saw prostitutes, kept "fallen women", molested boys and brought home venereal disease to prove it; plenty of "sheltered," graceful wives were prone to sudden, incontinent affairs with men from every walk of life - it's human nature to be drawn to the exotic - gene pools strengthen through maximal variety). Anyway, delinquent, societally difficult kids also emerge from privileged backgrounds; so wealth and education cannot assure God's Grace.

At worst, the notion feeds cultural supremacism - the idea that an Enlightened Intelligence endows a superhuman race of Westerners, who must then work to outbreed the culturally inferior masses of the Third World. It's a short cultural step from the eugenics and ethnic cleansing which infect dogmatic societies (consider the fierce cultural idealism of Magda Goebbels, raising six beautiful babies for the Third Reich only to murder them when her dream turned sour).

11:08PM PST on Dec 13, 2012

Unfortunately, and sadly I completely realize where the condition of the Earth is heading at an ever increasing acceleration. I simply choose not to bring into this world someone who is going to have it far more difficult, in almost everyway, than I do now. Water, food, all costs of everything, more stringent divisions between the well to do and the have nots. Sorry. My decision not to procreate is for their(potential child) best interest.

2:57PM PST on Dec 13, 2012

Yep, we can't take care of all of the people on the earth now, so let's make more humans that we cannot take care of. Douthat needs to get out in the real world. And don't get me started about "my body, my choice" because I get fired up about that.

2:54AM PST on Dec 13, 2012

Misogyny at its finest.

10:48PM PST on Dec 12, 2012

NO need to the "help!" call. We have MORE than enough people in the world right now. What is wrong with this man? There are already so many people here that NEED help. Thx for posting.

10:36PM PST on Dec 12, 2012


10:31PM PST on Dec 12, 2012

Tiffany......Great comment........
.Common sense evidently does not exist in the human brain!!

Wherever you go there once was a forest.
Plant & protect Danny's trees for life.
Trees are the lungs of the earth.

9:04PM PST on Dec 12, 2012

child abuse is reported every ten seconds in the united states and 5 to 6 children die daily from abuse. This doesn't count death from disease, lack of medical services, lack of food, and lack of supervision. 80 percent are under the age of 4. Also the numbers are grossly underestimated due to missed cases, negligent case managers, Please lets take care of the children in our own community first! My daughter's preschool is asking for socks and underwear for infants to teenagers. This facility provides excellent food because they know this is the only good meal some children receive. Statistics prove we as a country are failing our children. Stop the insanity, over 7 billion people on earth. How much more can this planet or its inhabitants take?

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