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The use of a baby

A generation’s idea of ‘freedom’ challenges the human enterprise

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In 1783, the story goes, Benjamin Franklin witnessed the world’s first manned flight in the gardens of the Rue de Montreuil, Paris. As he and several hundred spectators gazed in slack-jawed wonder at the magnificent hot-air balloon, rising with its intrepid aviators, an acquaintance scoffed beside him. A pretty sight, admitted the skeptic, but what use is flying in the air? To which Franklin replied, “Sir, what is the use of a newborn baby?”

Fifteen years later, a mild-mannered Anglican clergyman published the first edition of An Essay on the Principles of Population. In his signature work, revised five times, Thomas Malthus presented a simple thesis: Times of peace and prosperity tended to increase the population, which would, at a certain indefinable point, begin to stretch available resources. This would lead directly to famine and disease, and indirectly to war, all of which would bring the population down to a manageable size until it began to outgrow its bounds again. The cycle was probably God’s way of curtailing human vice.

Malthus had his critics, notably Karl Marx, who believed that population increased production, not want. But the clergyman’s defenders included such heavy hitters as Darwin, John Stewart Mill, and Herbert Spencer of “survival of the fittest” fame. If Malthus didn’t introduce the fear of overpopulation, he gave his name to it. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, for example, young women are never without their Malthusian belt: an essential fashion accessory with a contraceptive for every occasion.

By mid-20th century, even after two world wars had crimped the population, fears of overcrowding reached a crescendo. A lecture by ecologist William Vogt in the early 1950s propelled a young biology student down the Malthusian road: Paul Ehrlich, who made himself a prophet with The Population Bomb. In his landmark work, published in 1968, Ehrlich predicted a crushing global famine by the 1980s. Though disaster did not arrive, he has never backed away from his central theme, claiming that the general theory still stands despite some variation in the specifics (i.e., no proof whatsoever).

This would be funny were it not for some tragic policy consequences. Merchants of Despair by Robert Zubrin describes how the Johnson, Nixon, and Ford administrations bought into population control hysteria. In 1966 an Office of Population was created within the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), headed by Dr. Reimert Ravenholt. An outspoken anti-humanist, Ravenholt nearly tripled his office’s budget in five years at the expense of USAID’s disease-prevention work (to him, pregnancy was a disease). The continuing complicity of the United States in abortion and sterilization programs in developing countries is to our everlasting shame.

Back to Ben Franklin’s “What is the use of a newborn baby?” In his time, the question was understood as satirical. Babies are not “of use”; they just are. They are the future—not a sappy metaphor, but a literal fact. The current generation produces the next generation and so it’s always been. But an odd thing happened on the way to the 21st century: We lost faith. In God, first of all, but also in the entire human enterprise. The healthiest, wealthiest, most leisured generation in world history has disconnected itself from the past and is letting its bridge to the future fall into disrepair.

Babies don’t look like hope to us; they look like a huge risk (which they are), to be taken on only when we think we are “ready” (which may be never). It’s not uncommon to talk to young women who have never even held a baby and perhaps never will, unless their biological clock sounds off. But while the population alarmists are still alarming, social observers are beginning to wonder how a shrinking labor force can support a growing retirement community.

That’s a real concern but not, I think, the main one. In denying our children, we deny the best of ourselves. Many potential parents choose childlessness for the sake of their freedom, but hedging our bets and hoarding our pleasures are not marks of freedom. Instead, they are the essence of fear.

Email jcheaney@worldmag.com

Janie B. Cheaney Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD's annual Children's Book of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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