Ladies, Uncle Sam needs your uterus!

The New York Times' conservative columnist blames "late-modern exhaustion" for fertility decline. He's wrong

Published December 3, 2012 6:30PM (EST)

    (<a href=''>Andresr</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Andresr via Shutterstock)

Ladies of America, are you suffering from "late-modern exhaustion"? Have you been selfishly "shrugging off the basic sacrifices" of your patriotic childbearing duties, by which we mean sacrificing your own goals and aspirations? And more to the point, do you really need better access to affordable birth control and abortion when your "decadence" is already so efficiently bringing down American society?

Of course, when New York Times opinion columnist Ross Douthat filed his Sunday column warning of the coming American demographic winter, he was too smart to so openly blame women's choices and feminism that way, or talk about women much at all. He knows the audience he's trying to persuade, which doesn't openly blame such things but does worry, in polite terms, about the U.S.'s toppling from its "global perch."

As Matt Yglesias points out, Douthat nods at "the evidence from countries like Sweden and France [that] suggests that reducing the ever-rising cost of having kids can help fertility rates rebound" and at the lack of a "secure economic foundation beneath working-class Americans," exacerbated in the recent recession. But then he heedlessly skips on to cultural selfishness, throws in a dig at children born "out of wedlock" (those still count in the birthrate, right?) and at gay marriage, and ends with "the slow accumulation of individual choices, which is how all social and cultural recoveries are ultimately made." Why doesn't he look at how Sweden and France pulled it off? Well, that would make him sound like a liberal, and the New York Times editorial page already has enough of those.

The problem with totally leaving women out of this story is that it buries a possible solution to the problem, and obscures what we should really be asking here. That is, are women and their partners having as many children as they would like? And if not, why not?

Answering those questions could mean finding out that some women are already having more children than they wish, because they can't access contraceptive or abortion services. Douthat doesn't mention that having one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the developed world has contributed to the U.S. having "more babies to the competition," though that number, too, is in decline. The anxiety about U.S. demographic dominance over "the competition" (occasionally known as our allies) was a mostly unspoken subtext to the battles over reproductive rights, this year as before.

And it could also mean that as soon as women can have control over their fertility, they're choosing to have fewer children than before. That's evident among those immigrants that Douthat blithely claims the U.S. has a "willingness to welcome" (as long as they don't demand citizenship, apparently, and for some of his conservative brethren, don't have too many of the wrong kind of babies). The same Pew study to which Douthat pegs his argument found that among U.S.-born women, the birthrate declined by 6 percent between 2007 and 2010. For foreign-born women, it declined 14 percent; for Mexican immigrant women, it declined 23 percent.

But asking this question also means asking why some families that want to have more children than they do cannot -- and why women, for whom childbearing is still a huge physical, social and financial cost, are choosing to have fewer children as soon as they have the tools. (Half of the pregnancies in the U.S. every year are still unintended, according to Guttmacher, but the women with the most resources to exert control over their pregnancies -- "higher-income white women" -- have an unintended pregnancy rate "at one third the national rate."

Europe, where population hand-wringing is more familiar, offers plenty of data. (Its example also includes an entire body of literature, much of it written by conservatives on this side of the Atlantic, in terms less diplomatic than Douthat's --  from Pat Buchanan's pronouncement that "the rise of feminism spells the death of the nation and the end of the West," to Mark Steyn's assertion that parts of Europe were "too self-absorbed to breed," to open fear of Muslim takeover.) As Michelle Goldberg notes in her excellent book, "The Means of Reproduction," in Europe, too, liberal social values were blamed for the erosion of traditional family structures.

But, in fact, looking across countries, "a great body of research … shows that after a certain point of development, liberalism," including legalized abortion, no-fault divorce, and laws meant to bolster gender equality, "doesn't cause population decline -- conservatism does." That is to say, women look at what having more children will cost them, in financial but also professional and social terms, and make a rational decision to have fewer.

When countries like Sweden and France enacted such policies, plus generous family leave and daycare, these calculations weren't simply based on feminist values (if they included them at all). Instead, they were keenly aware of rebuilding the population after the second World War, or meeting a shortage of workers without relying too heavily on immigration. As a result of those policies, Goldberg points out, they have higher birthrates than fellow European countries where women can control their fertility but that still have very sexist family structures -- where, she says, some women may be on "birth strike" because they don't want to be wholly consigned to traditional roles without help from partners or the state.  In  2003, Conservative British MP David Willetts came to the same conclusion, noticing that in Italy and Spain, "traditional family structure now leads to very low birth rates," and remarked, "Feminism is the new natalism."

We are very, very far from the Swedish example, and as rhetoric about exploding "entitlements" gets ratcheted up, probably getting further. Most conservatives would like to keep the demographic conversation tied to individual choices and as far away as possible from government policy, because it conflicts with other, more pressing goals. Just look at the nominal standard-bearer of the party this year, Mitt Romney, who proved sympathetic to the demographic decline argument at a speech at CPAC in 2008. "Europe is facing a demographic disaster," he warned. "That's the inevitable product of weakened faith in the Creator, failed families, disrespect for the sanctity of human life and eroded morality."

Douthat has correctly noted on his blog that Swedish social policies might be difficult to replicate here because Sweden is a small, wealthy and still homogenous country. Another way of looking at it is that in this country, even the most moderate social policies of inclusion are sneeringly called "gifts" to the presumed undeserving -- women, people of color, immigrants -- by the Republican nominee. Romney, with his five sons, enormous wealth and stay-at-home wife, hasn't made the connection between one's stable position in society and one's desire to bring more people into it -- but plenty of women already have.


By Irin Carmon

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

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Abortion Contraception Demographics Demography Ross Douthat Sweden