Too Few Children

“The story of births in England and Wales in 2019 is one of decreases and record lows, with the total number of births continuing the fall we’ve seen in recent years. Wales had the lowest fertility rate since our records began and England’s is nearing its record low.” (Office for National Statistics, 2019)

From time to time on this Blog we look at this (literally) vital issue. But we are not alone. Virtually, every international state in recent years shows a drop in the rate of births per women of fertile age. Bearing in mind that we need 2.1 births per women of fertile age to replace population, the current UK rate is about 1.7. (The extra 0.1 allows for infant mortality.)

Does this matter? We can argue the advantages of a reduction in population and, at first sight, a relatively small reduction may be valuable. But the change has its dangers: it leads to a higher proportion of older people, and a smaller proportion of workers. An extreme example is Japan where the proportion of over-65s is around 30% and continuing to rise. It has become a serious problem. It is likely to affect many other countries in the future. Including us.

If we consider natural law we may understand the importance of morality. This has been the basis of moral law in Catholicism. The Ten Commandments illustrate this. These assume that human beings are created as social animals. “Thou shall not steal” or “Thou shalt not bear false witness” are simple examples. Society cannot flourish in their absence. Such rules were originally accepted on the assumption that human beings were directly created by God. They could not take into account the concept of evolution. Thus, for instance, homosexual activity flew in the face of God-created biology. Nowadays we have to allow for our understanding that homosexuals cannot be automatically recognised as immoral and wicked. However, giving the term ‘marriage. to homosexuals in permanent relationship is, in my mind, questionable. Should not ‘marriage’ be confined to couple who can, at least in principle, produce their own children?

Similarly, the whole issue of artificial contraception cannot be discussed simply in biological terms. In primitive times, child conceptions needed to be high because of infant death. That is no longer the case. Does that require a review of the rules? Such a review would also need to consider the other, sometimes questionable, effects of artificially controlling conception. There are many. I speak as someone with twenty seven descendants already. Fortunately, no serious problems so far.

https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/livebirths/bulletins/birthsummarytablesenglandandwales/2019

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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17 Responses to Too Few Children

  1. pnyikos says:

    A pedantic correction: you mean “infant mortality,” not “infanticide.”

    The declining fertililty rate in urbanized countries was known to Hungarians already a century ago: my father said that the fourth generation in a big city (Budapest was the only really big one, still is) had been shown to be pitifully small. With people in almost all countries flocking to big cities, this is a serious problem worldwide. It is only by maintaining large rural and small town populations that a country can experience the “explosion birthrate” that was once thought to be the norm by “almost everyone”, thanks to Malthusians and some hardcore “greens”.

    The reasons are complex, and not well understood. I have some ideas, but I am very busy these days, what with online classes taking so much more time than in-person teaching, and me being still a fulltime faculty member at the age of 74. But I hope to do at least one reply a day for the next two weeks.

  2. Quentin says:

    The error of ‘infanticide’ has now been corrected. Q

  3. Hock says:

    WE need to ask why is the birth rate falling? Is there a single major cause ? I read somewhere that it is male fertility that is the problem. Sperm counts are not what they used to be! Something to do with modern diets and chemical intake into men’s bodies of chemicals that were not there 50 years ago but are now prevalent in our eco systems and lead to an imbalance in bodily chemistry.

    I like the Church of England marriage ceremony which makes a strong public proclamation that one of the purposes of marriage is for the procreation of children. I don’t think we have this reminder in the RC Church.

    • pnyikos says:

      Hock, I still think the main reasons for the decline are social rather than biological. But they are complex, and I’m still gathering my thoughts on them. One undeniable trend is that marriages are contracted later than in the past, leaving less time for having children and thus reducing the number of children even among couples who want them. There are a number of reasons in turn why this is so, and I’ll be coming back to them next week.

      In response to your closing paragraph, it seems that until latter half of the 20th Century, most Roman Catholic emphasis was on the procreative aspect of marriage; in fact, there have been theologians all through the centuries who thought it sinful to have relations except with the intent of procreation.

      With Vatican II came a revival of the unitive aspect of conjugal love. Shortly thereafter, the balance radically shifted in that direction with the widespread resistance to Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae . The America bishops made a highly publicized statement about one’s individual conscience overriding Church teaching under some circumstances. Human frailty being what it is, untold numbers of individuals over the ensuing decades have decided that they had sufficiently well formed consciences to decide the matter for themselves. I have read from time to time that the rate of contraception among Roman Catholics in the USA is just about the same as that of the general population, and I believe the same is true of the average number of children per family.

      • milliganp says:

        As I remember it, the Italian bishops did not undermine Humanae Vitae in quite the same way as the American bishops – however Italian birth rates are well below the USA. I would suggest that, by the mid 1970’s, most Catholics no longer looked to the church for guidance in decisions about family life. Blaming actions of bishops 50 years ago is a poor starting point for understanding a current problem.

    • milliganp says:

      There are many, often ludicrous, theories about male fertility – but in the current situation this could only ever be a second order effect. The widespread use of contraceptives, abortion and the “morning after” pill are all primary causes.
      Similarly, a woman does not have to be a feminist to realize that, without a stable long-term relationship (what we used to call marriage) getting pregnant and starting a family is something to be avoided.
      Finally, having children, in our affluent society, is an immense long-term financial commitment – thus large families are only seen among the very well off and the poorest sections of our society.
      In London, the average house price is 13 times the average income; since families need homes I would suggest that the whole economic structure of our society is hostile to families.

  4. Hock says:

    Forgot to add that, allegedly, by an incredible irony, one of the ‘chemicals’ is that produced by the contraceptive pill that have , over the years, found there way into the water system. The same chemical has evidently led to a change of sex in some of the minute creatures that inhabit the waterways in areas that process waste water.
    There will of course be multiple reasons for this drop in birth rate but it is only recently that alarm bells have begun to ring. I read an article a couple of years back that Russia now pays a ‘bonus’ to women who have more than one child so as to increase the birth rate, which had fallen dramatically. The fact that Russia also has one of the world’s highest incidence of abortion (per capita,) may also have something to do with it, but this was not mentioned.

  5. David Smith says:

    Pnyikos writes ( https://secondsightblog.net/2021/02/10/too-few-children/#comment-62800 ) :

    // it seems that until latter half of the 20th Century, most Roman Catholic emphasis was on the procreative aspect of marriage; in fact, there have been theologians all through the centuries who thought it sinful to have relations except with the intent of procreation.

    With Vatican II came a revival of the unitive aspect of conjugal love. Shortly thereafter, the balance radically shifted in that direction with the widespread resistance to Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae . The America bishops made a highly publicized statement about one’s individual conscience overriding Church teaching under some circumstances. Human frailty being what it is, untold numbers of individuals over the ensuing decades have decided that they had sufficiently well formed consciences to decide the matter for themselves. //

    A nice summary of sequence and causes. Thank you.

    I don’t see things changing much. The hierarchy are climbers and career men and ill disposed to alienating probably far more than half of their nominal flock over an issue as unimportant to them as the magisterium. A billion nominal Catholics make the cardinals and bishops important people outside the Church.

    We’re living in very unhappy times. Perhaps the pain will be worth it, in the end, whatever the end may be.

  6. galerimo says:

    One thing is for sure. This outline of declining birth numbers in England and Wales is not likely to meet with much sympathy from Aussies! Fewer POMs! What’s the problem?

    But, as you point out, the problem is not confined to just England and Wales. It is an international one.

    Those who believe in that age old spiritual principle of cause and effect known as karma, will see it manifesting in this drop in the birth rate as an inevitable detriment.

    Given our total devotion to the economics of never-ending expansion and constant productivity, often with little regard for consequences, there is some natural justice to be seen in the collapsing of fertility. Nature is reacting!

    User pays, another principle on which our consumerism is founded, makes it inevitable that a “use by date” must arrive if we continue to pollute our atmosphere, fill our oceans with filth and seek to exhaust our earth’s natural resources. And that date is right now.

    It is right to point out how our younger generations are the ones who will meet the burden of this cost for affluence, disposability and sheer greed.

    Unfortunately, it will not be the only burden on their shoulders. The prospect of being able to make a decent living in secure employment is diminishing too.

    The falling rate of fertility, at least in the first world, is easily matched by the failure to meet the need for affordable housing among the young.

    And the diminishing returns from our health and education systems are already all too evident.

    In the USA, to point to one example as the largest economy in the world, is also where two-thirds of US born adults have low levels of English literacy. And if your employer does not provide your health insurance there, you are not likely to be able to afford it, at all.

    You have to wonder, are we the first generation ever to face the prospect of our children not inheriting a better world from us, their parents?

  7. John Thomas says:

    Quentin, it does seem to me (admittedly, from a quick reading) that you stray from low-childbirth rates to the validity or otherwise of same-sex marriage (a different issue). Your real issue is the low childbirth rates, which is the consequence of contraception, abortion, and feminism. Certainly, societies which have low/no replacement will fade away. Here, the panacea will be yet more immigration; the Japanese will not allow that, as they have (dare I say it?) considerable belief in their race. Certainly, we have chosen to replace child mortality with abortion. Artificial aids to conception simply convince couples that they have a RIGHT to parenthood, which cannot be denied – and this makes children into just another acquisition for them, along with all their others, thus promoting further the ME! society; in the past, “childless couples” just turned to something else

    • milliganp says:

      John, you make an interesting point that the modern attitude to “why have children” is often one of consumer choice rather than a natural part of family life. Economic “necessity” leads women to have children later in life and this increases demand for IVF.

  8. galerimo says:

    To consider the Ten Commandments as an illustration of how natural law is the basis for moral law, in Catholicism, is like putting the cart before the horse.

    Our basis for morality is the divine revelation gifted to us in the Incarnation of Jesus as the Son of God, for our salvation.

    The decalogue was not a working out of the application of natural principles, but revealed to us by God in preparation for and in participation with, the Incarnation.

    Perhaps in Catholicism, we can mistake Aristotle for Jesus, at times.

    The basis for living good lives is founded in God’s goodness revealed to us in the love of Jesus and the success of his work for our salvation through his brutal execution and rising from the dead.

    Sadly, we do tend as Catholics to give a lot of attention to sex and it can be to the detriment of the sins of lying, institutionalised social injustice, gossip, and slander.

    The story goes of a great Jesuit, warning a colleague to be careful in giving absolution, because the most serious sins are those that are more “angelical”: pride, arrogance, dominion…And the least serious are those that are less “angelical”, such as greed and lust.”

    “One dimension of clericalism is the exclusive moral fixation on the sixth commandment,” Pope Francis said in response to a question while visiting Mozambique.

    Is my reading here correct? That a broader interpretation of Catholic teaching on contraception and same sex marriage/parenting may in some small way be part of a solution to increasing rates of infertility?

    If so, awakening to our responsibility as stewards of God’s earth, surely contributes more to the solution.

    • milliganp says:

      Galerimo, though I agree that putting reason above revelation is dangerous; Catholic Theology has developed using methods derived from Greek thinking. As I understand it, Thomas Aquinas was Aristotelian and Bonaventure Platonic.
      If we follow Anselm’s maxim of “Faith Seeking Understanding” then nature and natural law are also part of God’s self-revelation.
      However, your final point eludes me. Perhaps the church has been obsessed with sexual sin, but far less so than our current societies’ obsession with committing them!
      Surely, the cure for the falling birth rate must reside in society valuing families and children so that people see raising children as a positive benefit worthy of the sacrifices that have to be made.

    • FZM says:

      I’d agree with milliganp here, society has become hyper-sexualised to a point that using these old talking points about the ‘Church being obsessed with sex’ starts to seem very strange. It is possible that there was always an element of projection in this, given the influence of thinkers like Freud and Marcuse on promoters of libidinal liberation, but at the moment it is not the Church using sexuality as a means of social control and exploitation (Pornhub, Only Fans, Seeking Arrangement, Tinder etc. even Instagram partly functions on this basis) .

      If we see fertility rate as an indication of being favoured by Nature, certainly it is a reflection of which people are favoured by natural selection, it can be useful to look at which kinds of people are having children at replacement rate or above in developed Western societies. Looking at correlation between political and religious affiliations, those couples with traditional religious beliefs have the highest fertility rate, followed by those with far-right political beliefs, then traditional far-left political beliefs (Leninism and so on), then people with limited education and in the lower range for intelligence.

      Another group which maintains a strong fertility rate in Western societies is Muslims.

      There is an interesting book called ‘Darwin’s Cathedral’ by the biologist David Sloan Wilson that looks at monotheistic religion as a powerful evolutionary adaptation.

  9. galerimo says:

    There is so much here that stimulates thought, compels reflection and even provokes strong feelings.

    When your attachment (Births in England and Wales: 2019) says “The total fertility rate (TFR) was lower in 2019 than in all previous years except 2000, 2001 and 2002. The TFR accounts for the size and age structure of the female population of childbearing age and therefore provides a better measure of trends than simply looking at the number of live births”

    I want to know why exclusively focus on females? How about male fertility? Did it not have any bearing on declining rates of child birth in England and Wales in 2019?

    Is there not equal importance that deserves analysis and study of both male and female fertility?

    I agree there may well be some advantage to the fall in population but then drawing a distinction between “older people and a smaller proportion of workers” might just show traces of ageism!

    Like our essential, co-natural racism, the tendency to put a negative value on the older population in terms of work, just goes to show how much we worship at the shrine of economics.

    Older lives matter too. Science has made even fertility possible in the elderly – or, as Sarah and Elizabeth might ask, is it not God who can do that?

    To suggest that noncompliance with the commandments “thou shall not steal” or “thou shalt not bear false witness” would mean the failure of society to flourish, also raises an eyebrow.

    Clearly, we have systems built into our governance and social structures that mean the rich get richer and the poor get poorer?

    Somebody has to get robbed to support a distribution of wealth that results in 1% owning 44% of the world’s wealth.

    Being the generation that proliferated the reality of fake news on a world-wide scale, as well as our perennial practice of propaganda, how could we ever be seen as “not bearing false witness”

    Our society flourishes and seems to be doing quite well in the face of rejecting God’s commandments!

    “artificial contraception cannot be discussed simply in biological terms” very true! And neither should our understanding of homosexuals lead to automatic recognition of something immoral and wicked – true too.

    And calling for the rules to change on these matters also makes a lot of sense.

    But the good news is – the rules have changed!

  10. David Smith says:

    Quentin writes ( https://secondsightblog.net/2021/02/10/too-few-children/ ) :

    // If we consider natural law we may understand the importance of morality. This has been the basis of moral law in Catholicism. The Ten Commandments illustrate this. These assume that human beings are created as social animals. “Thou shall not steal” or “Thou shalt not bear false witness” are simple examples. Society cannot flourish in their absence. //

    I’m afraid morality has been replaced throughout most of the world with situational, majoritarian, and politically fabricated ethics. The traditional culture of the Western world has been discarded wholesale by the dominant political and cultural powers. What’s happened consequently is reminiscent of what happened in the Church in the aftermath of Vatican II. When adults are set free from the socially and individually necessary constraints of morality, they become undisciplined children. Thenceforth, they will constrain themselves only as they are compelled by fear and force – as they have been over the past year as fear and force have been applied with a very heavy hand by most of the world’s governments.

    A sensible level of ordered procreation is indispensable for the health and stability of any society. The order can come from a mature sense of individual capacity and social responsibility or it can be compelled by brute force, as it is in at least one very large modern nation. To my mind, the only acceptable choice is the former. Brute force kills the human spirit, and if the human spirit is killed wholesale, the resulting society is sterile.

  11. galerimo says:

    A good thing to remember is how the ten commandments were given AFTER God set God’s people free.

    The ten commandments does not free us any more than it did them.

    They had already been liberated from the oppressive forces and evil before their journey began.

    The ten Words of God were to keep that freedom from withering in the social and personal lives of God’s people by maintaining focus on God as our loving and liberating companion as well as our sisters and brothers as humankind and other kind.

    Gaining freedom cannot cause us to do wrong even more than law can cause us to be good.

    Forever grateful for God’s gift of freedom we look to God to help us respond to it in life. (responsibility).

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