WASHINGTON — A May report from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) revealed that U.S. fertility rates have reached historic lows, but the development was not unexpected to Catholic experts who follow demographics and fertility.
"Frankly, I’m not surprised, but I find it very sad, for women, the culture and our Church," said Mary Rice Hasson, a fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center, who studies trends in sexuality and fertility in America.
The NCHS study found that, in 2013, there were 62.9 births per 1,000 women between the ages of 15-44 years, a slight drop from 2012, although there was an increase in total births. Additionally, the total fertility rate, which measures the number of expected births the average woman will have in her lifetime, dropped to under 1.87, also a record low. According to the study, this rate is "below replacement (2.1 births per woman), the level at which a given generation can exactly replicate itself."
The total fertility rate has not been above replacement since 2007, and it has dropped every year since.
Many demographers point to a poor economy as the primary reason why more women, especially those in their 20s, are choosing to forgo having children. Jonathan Last, a senior writer at The Weekly Standard and the author of What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, says economic factors like stagnant wages and high unemployment are certainly part of the spiraling fertility rate, as is the high amount of college loan debt recent graduates often carry.
However, Last said that non-economic factors play just as big of a role in the lower frequency of births.
"Marital instability lowers the fertility rate by breaking up the unions that lead to kids," Last told the Register. "And divorce has, just objectively speaking, not-great outcomes for both kids and adults."
Last also said a rise in cohabitation — in place of marriage — has probably contributed to decreased fertility, because cohabitating couples are more unstable and fragile than married couples. "A [cohabitating couple] might have a kid, but then they break up, depriving them of the time to have more kids."
Last also referenced the prevailing use of contraception as an obvious factor in decreased fertility, as well as many people’s decisions to marry later in life.
Last said the long-term decline in fertility rates — which has been going on since the 1970s — might also be attributable partly to positive factors, such as decreased rates of infant mortality and higher educational attainment among women.
But he also cautioned that the trend doesn’t only reflect changes in Americans’ understanding of sex and parenting, but is a deeper indicator of a "fundamental shift [in how] individuals see their place in the world." Last said marriage has "become an arrangement that individuals can modify at their pleasure," with no regard to religious authority, traditional mores or communal duties.
"Today, everybody is the star of their own movie, and no one has obligations to anyone else," Last said in describing the prevailing anthropology of the day.
Hasson agrees that the decline in fertility is largely the product of "radical" cultural changes that promote self-centeredness as something that isn’t only acceptable, but is laudable.
She says this causes people to evaluate the cost of children instead of valuing them as the fruit of a loving marriage.
"Our culture sees children through a warped lens," she explained, "where children represent loss and burden — lost ‘freedom,’ lost privacy, lost wages, lost opportunities to travel, independence, even sex."
Hasson argued that the media and pop culture are often responsible for promoting this distorted view. She said the culture’s obsession with "hyper-control" and a flawed understanding of sex, disjointed from procreation, are the other factors leading more people to forgo or delay having children. Together, she called these factors a "triple-whammy" of self-focus: "my pleasure, my timing, my choice."
Pointing to Pope Paul VI’s dire warnings in his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth), Hasson said the acceptance of contraception has fundamentally changed the way people think about sex, which in turn affects individuals’ ability to practice self-sacrificial love.
"The very same selfishness that leads adults to have few children is really destructive to the husband-wife relationship and the family as a whole," she said.
Hasson and Last’s assessment of the situation in America closely parallels remarks Pope Francis made only days after the NCHS study was released. Speaking to 15 married couples in Rome on June 2, the Pope criticized a "culture of comfort" that pushes married men and women to intentionally avoid having children in favor of vacations, prosperity and independence.
In his homily, the Pope identified fidelity, perseverance and fruitfulness as the three pillars of a Christian marriage.
While urging couples who deal with infertility to look to Jesus for strength, the Pope said "there are things Jesus doesn’t like," such as married couples "who don’t want children, who want to be without fruitfulness."
"And in the end, this marriage will end in old age ... with the bitterness of bad solitude," he added.
According to Last, the negative consequences of fruitless marriages don’t only affect the couples in question; they affect entire countries. This is especially true when the fertility rate is below the replacement level, as has been the case in the United States for the past seven years.
"The big consequence is that the age profile of the society shifts, so that you have more old people than young people," Last explained. "This creates all sorts of problems, both economic and practical. For instance: How do you pay for Social Security or Medicare?"
"The math gets pretty tyrannical pretty fast," he added.
No Easy Solution
Most demographers recognize the negative consequences associated with fertility rates below the replacement level, but some of them dismiss long-term concerns for one of two reasons: Latino immigrants, who have higher relative fertility rates, and the expected bump associated with an economic recovery.
But Last takes issue with both responses.
For starters, he said immigration into the United States from Latin America is a "band-aid" to the problem, because the fertility rates of Latinos who have been in America for more than one generation "regress to the mean." This means that the further removed descendants of Latino immigrants are from the first generation of immigrants, the more their fertility rates mirror those of other, non-Latino Americans. Additionally, the fertility rates of Latin-American countries are decreasing, meaning there will be less incentive for Latinos to immigrate to the United States.
Last also cautions against being too optimistic about the impact an economic recovery could have on the fertility rate. A slight "bump" in the U.S. fertility rate, he said, is not the same as restoring it to a healthy level, a development that he thinks is highly unlikely without more fundamental changes.
"There is very little precedent for an industrialized country stabilizing at 2.1 after going severely sub-replacement," Last said. "Most of the time, it doesn’t work that way."
When considering potential solutions, Last points to other countries that have been dealing with low fertility rates for decades — such as France, Scandinavia and Russia — as good places to start the search.
"There have been really thoughtful policies and ideas which are essentially crazy," he said. "Most of the research suggests that there is no silver bullet and that raising fertility rates is hard: really, really hard."
Last says he’d like to see more research done in the U.S. to try to "identify policies that might bear fruit, and then some experimentation from there."
The Role of the Church
While Last is focused on policy and the role of the government, Hasson emphasizes the part the Catholic Church can play to help revitalize a healthy culture concerning fertility and parenting, relying heavily on her extensive research on Catholic women and their views on sexuality and motherhood.
"Seventy-two percent of churchgoing Catholic women say their primary source for learning about their faith is the Sunday homily," she revealed. "So priests need to preach — about the value of generosity and self-sacrifice of love, about the eternal value of children and that children are a gift to be cherished, not a ‘right’ to be demanded of God once we finally decide we’re ‘ready.’"
Her research also indicates that this is an understanding that most Catholic men and women don’t grasp. "Few couples seriously consider whether it’s God’s will for them to have another child or not," she said. "They base their decision about having children on finances, relationship status and whether they feel ready."
She said this "suggests that [Catholic women] are not hearing — from the pulpit, from parish women’s groups, from RCIA and adult religious classes — the truth that our sexual reproductive decisions have moral consequences and affect our happiness."
Hasson said that the Church needs to not only reach adult women with this message of self-giving love, but it also needs to connect with younger generations, who learn from society that "gender is fluid, sex is about pleasure, and children are a burden — or at least an optional choice."
"As a Church, I think we have yet to come up with a strategic plan for reaching our teens with truth about sex, children and marriage, when they are marinating in a culture that perverts the truth about [these things]," she added.
Hasson and Last both agree that Catholic teaching on these topics can be very attractive if presented in the right way, and Last added that the Church’s opposition to contraception and liberal sexual norms has been vindicated by the dangerous trends in sexuality and fertility in recent years.
He said, "The bumper-sticker version of this entire subject should be: Paul VI, 1; Sexual Revolution, 0."
Jonathan Liedl writes