Pregnancy is patriotic!

Conservative men are in a frenzy over birth rates. Is your birth control really contributing to American decline?

Topics: Reproductive Rights, Conservatives, Contraception, Birthrate, Fertility, Editor's Picks,

Pregnancy is patriotic! (Credit: Hitdelight via Shutterstock/Salon)

In the fast-growing canon of literature panicking over the supposed fertility crisis, one alarmist feature on the declining birthrate provides an innovation: an anthropological excursion to a hookah bar in the East Village to hear from the young miscreants themselves. (“Decadence,” thy name is hookah.)

There, amid jokes about “popping one out,” and “horrible little grubs,” was a “more serious conversation about their fears of relinquishing sole ownership of one’s own body.” At least the authors of this Daily Beast piece asked actual women how they feel about childbearing, and the tensions between making a living, getting by in a city, and being treated like a “womb on legs,” in the memorable words of one of the interviewees. Most of the other accounts have left women out of the story entirely, with the convenient but noxious result of waging backlash while appearing to change the subject.

It’s getting crowded out there among the hand-wringers over what the birthrate says about America’s imperial future or the sustainability of our social insurance programs. Ross Douthat practically lives here, though in his most-talked-about column about insufficient fertility in December, he was careful to blame “late modern exhaustion” without having to talk too much about the women who evidently were suffering from it. And earlier this month, an excerpt from Jonathan Last’s “What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: American’s Coming Demographic Disaster,” under the headline “America’s Baby Bust,” was widely debated.

“The root cause of most of our problems is our declining fertility rate,” Last declared, with all of the understatement of a man with a book to sell, citing retirement programs and healthcare costs. When it came to the inconvenient question of “ownership over one’s own body” and the root causes of fertility numbers, Last hinted at it, mentioning women attending college and “branching out into careers beyond teaching and nursing,” as well as the pill and couples cohabitating. He did admit that “many of these developments are clearly positive. But even a social development that represents a net good can carry a serious cost.” When it comes to what other countries have done to make it easier for women who want to have children but face grim tradeoffs — an order in which the U.S. consistently places last — Last dismisses these policies as only producing “marginal gains.”

You Might Also Like

Not long ago, I received an 11th-hour request to discuss this topic on a public radio show with Last, a writer at the Weekly Standard. The urgency was probably due to the fact that the lineup included, along with Last, two other gentlemen and a male host. I agreed to represent we wombs with legs. On the show, I was introduced as “someone who comes from a very different point of view from our other guests, inasmuch as she is a woman.” I said that I questioned any conversations about fertility decline without centering around the people who are exclusively bearing and primarily raising children — the ones I’d been asked to solely represent. “These abstractions, I don’t think that they really speak to the lived realities of people’s lives,” I said. “I think lots of women are making rational decisions about how many children to have.” I mentioned the lack of paid family leave and daycare, the stigmatization of single mothers, families separated in deportation proceedings.

Last responded as if I’d just poured my own heart out, though I’d only spoken about the impact of policy on decision-making.”When it comes to big social questions like this, big economic questions like this, I really think there is a lot of value in abstracting and looking at data, looking at numbers,” he said, “and not getting caught up in anecdotal, like, there was a story in the Washington Post that said that working mothers have it this hard because these three people were interviewed.” In other words, take your messy female-friendly policies elsewhere and let the adults in the room — all men, at least at that moment — do the math.

On the substance of things, lots of baby is being thrown out with the bathwater here. For one thing, as the demographer Philip Cohen points out, those middle-class, educated women, the ones whose selfishness everyone is either implicitly or explicitly blaming for all this, are still having most of the babies. “Women with the least education did have more kids than their share of the population,” Cohen recently wrote at The Atlantic. “But there were twice as many children born to women who were college graduates.” And overall, the gap is closing: More educated women are having more babies, while less educated women — who may be gaining better access to family planning — are having fewer.

Meanwhile, the economist Nancy Folbre writes at the Times, “I know of no historical evidence that either the productivity or the creativity of a society is determined by the age structure of its population. The interaction between demographic and economic change is so much more complex than the simplistic doomsday scenario implies.” She does say that an aging population with lower (but stabilized) fertility raises concerns about the long-term viability of how our retirement programs work, but that’s an issue of program design and priority, not certain civilizational destruction.

So why the hysteria? I’d argue that it serves several retrograde political functions, besides its marketability as a counterintuitive rebuttal to the “Population Bomb” fears of old. We are in a moment of partial Republican self-examination, in which certain party reformers are facing the fact that there just aren’t enough white voters to keep them in power — a demographic problem! (While there have been some serious conversations about family-friendly policies started by feminists, including Stephanie Coontz in the Times last weekend, it’s currently edgy among Republicans to support tax breaks for working families they once proposed.) And every conversation about how allegedly unsustainable Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are, for one reason or another, mainstreams the pressure to radically cut its benefits or reshape it to the whims of the market.

Finally, we are fresh off an election season in which many politicians who celebrated women’s reproductive freedom and vowed to protect or enhance it were declared winners, and others who tried to attack it or equivocate about its importance lost. (Sandra Fluke didn’t even try to testify about birth control for the purpose of voluntary, non-procreative sex, but she became a vessel for all of the crude fantasies of the salivating right about liberal women having reckless, consequence-free sex.)  What better way to reclaim the narrative, to change the subject from the inconvenient autonomy of women, than to claim that all of this contracepting is bringing on the decline of America for all?

Irin Carmon

Irin Carmon is a staff writer for Salon. Follow her on Twitter at @irincarmon or email her at icarmon@salon.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>