The birth dearth gives rise to pro-natalism | WORLD
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The birth dearth gives rise to pro-natalism

But children and their mothers are much more than a mere means to an end

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The birth dearth gives rise to pro-natalism
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The United States is now in demographic decline. As of 2023, its birth rate reached a new low: 1.62 births on average per woman—well below the 2.1 replacement rate. This is a major problem for national health, as the economy, gross domestic product, Social Security, military readiness, and eldercare largely rely on new generations of children.

On an individual level, this birth dearth reflects a much darker reality. Happy, and hopeful, people have babies. If fewer and fewer people are having children, what does this say about the state of our souls?

In response to the birth shortage, a new movement of pro-natalists—those who want to see more children born—has arisen. Their solutions range from the generous financial benefits for families recommended by the Institute of Family Studies and its Pronatalism Initiative to artificial wombs and emerging reproductive technologies such as in vitro gametogenesis proposed by dystopian Silicon Valley.

Pro-natalism, except for those advocates in the pro-family camp, tends to treat children, and their mothers, like a means to an end. For some, the end is an increase in the economy or native-born population growth. For others, their end goal is personal self-fulfillment, such that their desire verges on self-glorification as they pursue a certain kind of child.

Still others, who perhaps fall in a middle category, react against the pro-natalist call to have children for one reason or another. As Monica Hesse opined in The Washington Post: “A lot of women don’t want 2.1 kids. We need an economic model in which that’s okay.”

Hesse’s approach, which overlooks the high birth rates among religious communities—where birth control is also widely available—and the self-reported happiness of married mothers and fathers over every other group, highlights the ultimate shortcoming of some pro-natalist messaging.

When children, and their mothers, are treated like a means to an end, childbearing becomes a collective action problem for someone to solve. It also tends to leave a bad taste in the mouth of women and cause the opposite response.

It is certainly true that more children solve many of the looming crises related to the economy, military readiness, and individual happiness. But this is not the reason we should have or encourage others to have children.

China’s demographic woes, and its inability to woo large portions of women to have children, is a case in point. As I noted in “Demographic free fall,” China’s birth rate is declining to the point of no return. After decades of its one-child policy—with forced abortions, contraceptives, and adoptions—the Chinese Communist Party reversed course in 2016. In the last eight years, China slowly lifted its restrictions on how many children someone could have.

Despite this national effort—from messaging campaigns to work benefits—it is not working. Indeed, women report feeling fed up with this whiplash messaging. In either scenario, women and their children are treated as a means to China’s national agenda. Now, The Wall Street Journal reports, many women are “putting themselves ahead of what Beijing and their families want.”

Hesse’s essay, which calls for a solution that does not involve an individual woman’s “reproductive system,” reflects this sentiment. After decades of Roe v. Wade and girl-boss feminism that made women feel inferior for prioritizing marriage and children over a formal career, it is no surprise that mainstream women are skeptical. Still, this does not mean the solution is for women to forgo childbearing. It points to a deep-seated need to reframe motherhood altogether.

It is certainly true that more children solve many of the looming crises related to the economy, military readiness, and individual happiness. But this is not the reason we should have or encourage others to have children.

For many women, the answer is far simpler. They need to trust that the losses and changes of parenthood they might fear—of their bodies, lifestyles, sense of self, and current relationship dynamics—will be worth it. They need to believe that having children is a good that is worth the sacrifice. Just as Christ promises that it will be. Indeed, as Jesus says in John 12:24–26: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

More true words could not be said about the call of motherhood and fatherhood. We need a generation that encourages people, despite the unknowns, to embrace this self-sacrificial call of Christ. It is only then that marriage and children as a gift received rather than a mere act of the will will be celebrated rightly.

Emma Waters

Emma Waters is a research associate in The Heritage Foundation’s DeVos Center for Life, Religion and Family.

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