Ross Douthat’s Missing Pregnant Women

As many of you know, Ross Douthat has written a curious column in which he warns of population decline and its threat to American power.

Dear reader, imagine that, in some other node of the multiverse, there exists a species very much like homo sapiens, living in a country very much like the United States ca. 2012, with one exception: On this planet, babies grow in the backyard, like rhododendrons. In such an alternate world, Douthat’s column could be run with very minimal edits. Women, pregnancy, and the fact that babies come from pregnant women… these things really do not show up in the column at all. 

Both Irin Carmon at Salon and Sarah Sentilles, here at RD, offer rebuttals which you should definitely read, and which I won’t try to, uh, reproduce. (Sorry.) 

For my part, I’d only like to point out the various places where women and pregnancy might have shown up in the column, but didn’t. Ready? Let’s begin.

In the eternally recurring debates about whether some rival great power will knock the United States off its global perch, there has always been one excellent reason to bet on a second American century: We have more babies than the competition.

[taps on x-ray board and draws circles with pointy thing]

Ah, see, I think we may have a problem in this area here. Because while there is a general sense in which “we” Americans “have babies,” there is also a more specific sense in which “we” women who undergo pregnancies and give birth “have babies.” (And those babies may or may not be parented by those women, of course. Fertilization and gestation do not a parent make.) 

Oh, but that couldn’t possibly be important. I mean, unless you’re about to talk about why “having babies” in this narrow sense comes with tradeoffs, and as such, is something women might be glad to exercise some control over if given the opportunity. SPEAKING OF WHICH:

It’s a near-universal law that modernity reduces fertility. But compared with the swiftly aging nations of East Asia and Western Europe, the American birth rate has proved consistently resilient, hovering around the level required to keep a population stable or growing over the long run.

“It’s a near-universal law that modernity reduces fertility” is a grand-sounding observation, isn’t it? So beautifully unimpeachable. It feels like we’re talking about any old inverse relationship: modernity goes up, fertility goes down. Reduce friction, your car goes faster.

Yet hidden in those grand abstractions are, once again, actual people making decisions about the resources they have available to them. In general, when women can exercise some control over the timing and number of pregnancies they have, many of them opt to do so; not because they are mindlessly driven to do so by the sociological version of Van Der Waals forces, but because undergoing pregnancy and giving birth to babies involves trade-offs specific to women. There are health risks that come with pregnancy, up to and including death. Less dramatically, there are things you can’t do if you have three children under five and are pregnant with another. 

On the other hand, some people would like to have more children but opt not to, because they can’t afford it. Douthat has them covered, at least. Skipping ahead: 

The plunge might be temporary. American fertility plummeted during the Great Depression, and more recent downturns have produced modest dips as well. This time, the birth rate has fallen fastest among foreign-born Americans, and particularly among Hispanics, who saw huge amounts of wealth evaporate with the housing bust. Many people may simply be postponing childbearing until better times return, and a few years of swift growth could produce a miniature baby boom.

Good. Here we have actual people making decisions about childbearing, and in the process considering their own economic conditions. He goes on to say that “America has no real family policy to speak of at the moment, and the evidence from countries like Sweden and France suggests that reducing the ever-rising cost of having kids can help fertility rates rebound.” (Er…  it could also make things better for people parenting children. That could be a social good in its own right, quite apart from whether it produces the desired behavioral result involving reproductive organs, you know? Squicky.)

But then we get to this:

Beneath these policy debates, though, lie cultural forces that no legislator can really hope to change. 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.

Such decadence need not be permanent, but neither can it be undone by political willpower alone. It can only be reversed by the slow accumulation of individual choices, which is how all social and cultural recoveries are ultimately made.

Stop! Grammar time! Here, in order, are all of the grammatical subjects of all of the sentences just quoted: “Cultural forces,” “retreat,” “spirit,” “it,” “decadence,” and “it.”

Astounding. In a paragraph where Douthat besmirches those whose choices contribute to declining fertility—accusing them of being “haunted” and unwilling to make sacrifices—he says exactly nothing about actual people. 

And again, he shows a breathtaking lack of attention to the trade-offs involved in the actual having of the babies, or how those trade-offs are apportioned according to biological sexWomen making decisions about pregnancy are thus neatly spirited (see what I did there?) right out of Douthat’s column. 

Well, that’s odd. One might think—at least on the non-rhododendron-baby planet called Earth—that such women are important interlocutors in any discussion about having more babies. It’s enough to make you wonder exactly who Douthat wrote his column for.