Ross Douthat wants you to have more babies. And he wants you to be married when you have those babies. And not just any babies. He wants you to have American babies—though, if you’re an immigrant, he’ll take your babies, too, because that’s really the only reason to allow immigrants (who he thinks have been slacking off in the bedroom recently) to be here.
And he wants you to hurry up and have those American babies, because if you don’t, we’ll run out of workers, and if we run out of workers the United States will get “knocked off its global perch.” Because that’s what’s at stake, ladies and gentlemen—American domination.
So, my (heterosexual) compatriots, take off your clothes, take off your condoms, take out your IUDs and diaphragms, stop swallowing your birth control pills, have your vasectomies reversed, quit it with the rhythm method, and do the hard, hot, steamy work your country needs you to do: reproduce. And then do it again. It’s your civic duty.
Douthat is sounding his make-more-babies alarm in response to last week’s Pew Research Center report that U.S. birth rates hit the lowest ever recorded in 2011, with just 63 births per 1000 women of childbearing age (compared to 71 per 1000 in 1990). Americans used to be good at populating the planet, Douthat laments. “Our famous religiosity, our vast interior and wide-open spaces (and the four-bedroom detached houses they make possible), and our willingness to welcome immigrants” gave us a “demographic edge,” he writes (though Douthat’s own Republican party had a lot to say in the last year about exactly what kind of welcome immigrants should be given—that is, none).
Douthat seems nostalgic, sentimental over a time when fewer women earned college degrees, when husbands and wives believed children were the key to successful marriages, when gay marriage (which he condemns for “formally sever[ing] wedlock from sex differences and procreation”) was not a “no brainer,” and when women did the only thing they were good for—making more American babies.
Never mind the melting ice caps. Never mind mass extinction on a scale never seen before. Never mind the environment or pollution or climate change. Make more people! And if you don’t, shame on you. You’re selfish. You’re “decadent.”
Who can help us out of this decline? The government, obviously, which Douthat calls on to “exercise its power over fertility.” “America has no real family policy to speak of at the moment,” Douthat writes, and he’s not talking about Head Start or a living wage or any other social program that might help support families in concrete ways. He’s talking about a “more family-friendly tax code.” He wants the government to pay people to procreate. It’s a “big government” Republicans can get behind—a “baby government.”
Though women of childbearing age are the people Douthat wants to get busy getting pregnant, he doesn’t talk about women very much—or the social, physical, and financial costs women still pay for having kids. Douthat blames women without talking about (or to) them, as Irin Carmon points out in a recent essay for Salon—and he hasn’t been listening to women much, either. Carmon notes that Douthat ignores the fact that half the pregnancies in the United States are unintended, meaning that if more women had the resources they needed to control their fertility, the declining birth rate that worries Douthat would be even lower.
And there are other questions to consider. What about the fact that we’re not taking care of the babies we’ve already given birth to, like the 104,000 children in the U.S. foster care system alone. And what about the fact that Americans are only 5% of the world’s population, but we consume almost a quarter of the world’s energy?
“No Babies Of Your Own?”
I am a woman of childbearing age without children, and that gives me a curious vantage point from which to examine the rhetoric around baby-making. Douthat, after all, isn’t the only person encouraging me to get pregnant. His argument is extreme—and its racism and misogyny are in high relief—but it’s not that far off from the kinds of things my liberal-minded acquaintances say. When they discover my husband and I have been considering adopting a child instead of giving birth to one, they ask, “But don’t you want babies of your own?”
Others take a different approach. “You two are exactly the kind of people who should be having children,” they say, conspiratorially, and I wonder who they think should not reproduce. Their words, with their echo of eugenics, make me uncomfortable.
I went to see a doctor about pain I was having in my lower back. “You’re getting older,” he said. “Do you plan to have kids?”
“I’m not sure,” I said.
“Do you want to be lonely when you’re old? Do you want to die alone?” he asked, and when I didn’t answer, he continued:
“When you get pregnant make sure you do Pilates. It will help your back get strong and keep your stomach flat after you have the baby. Then you should move to a different neighborhood with fewer migrant workers so your kids can go to better schools.”
And there it was, that strange and strangling knot of social pressure and racism and entitlement and fear all laid out on the table in the doctor’s office for me to examine—the pressure that will never stop no matter what I do, even if I follow the commandments shouted in advertisements and during family gatherings and in doctors’ offices when I’m sitting in a paper gown that opens in the back.
Because, really, that’s what having children is—a commandment. There is a biblical mandate supporting Douthat’s argument to have more babies no matter what the consequences. And it is exactly this mandate—this demand by the biblical God—that needs to be unpacked, critically analyzed, rethought, even thrown out. Have you read Genesis 9:1-2 recently? The verses are chilling:
God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered.”
I have chosen not to have a biological child because I don’t want to live in a world where every animal of the earth and bird of the air experiences fear and dread at my approach. Douthat frames that decision as selfish and decadent:
The retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion—a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe. It’s a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be. It embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place.
Only ignorance, disdain, and denial allow such an enormous reversal. I am not decadent, nor am I exhausted—though I do tend toward despair. It is not the present I am privileging. It is the future of this fragile planet we call home. A planet we share with other living beings.
I can hear birds now as I type this—cranes, flying, their v-shape slicing through the air, beating their wings to travel away from me. Listen. Can you hear them? Can you hear the spider spinning a web at the corner of my window? Can you hear the elephants, the polar bears, the blue whales, the wolves, the lions, tigers, cheetahs, gorillas, salamanders, frogs, coyotes, cougars?
I hear them all.
Enough. Enough. Enough.