Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in California..
A couple of years ago, China’s Communist Party mandarins received a rude shock. Though the party leadership had tweaked its brutal one-child policy to allow for a second child, relatively few women took advantage of the new opening.
Fearful that declining birth rates will torpedo the national economy and undermine social safety nets for an aging population, Beijing is now poised to lift all restrictions on family size, but experts say it may be too late to reverse course.
Europeans and Americans have been spared the trauma and distorting effects of coercive population control. And yet the West is now facing its own demographic winter, with no clear awareness or consensus on the scope or roots of the problem.
Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that for two years in a row, U.S. fertility rates dropped to a record low. In 2017, there were just 60.2 births per 1,000 women, a 3 percent drop from 2016. The replacement rate is 2,100 births per 1,000 women.
Nobody can pinpoint the precise problem. Young Americans have cited a variety of reasons for delaying or opting out of child bearing, from financial and work-life balance issues, to worries about overpopulation and global warming. And teenagers are more likely to use long-acting contraceptives today. Meanwhile, a parallel drop in U.S. marriage rates, combined with a delay in the age that couples decide to start a family, help account for this worrisome trend. And whether a man and woman marry in their twenties or thirties, too many spouses also face the heartbreak of infertility.
Church leaders have long been criticized for failing to provide adequate support for couples who aren’t able to have a child of their own, or siblings for their firstborn. But two years of a record decline in fertility rates should also inspire a thoughtful and robust debate about the big and small ways our world encourages young people to view children as a burden, an intrusion, or even a luxury they can ill afford. Without even realizing it, we are already constructing a future with fewer families, more childless couples, and many more solitary adults. Is this what most of us truly desire, or is it merely the outcome of unexamined practices and values that have gained currency in recent decades?
These reflections came to mind as I read The Children of Men, P.D. James’ remarkably prescient novel set in a childless landscape in the near future.
At the start of this story, Theodore Faron, “Doctor of Philosophy, Fellow of Merton College in the University of Oxford, historian of the Victorian age, divorced, childless, solitary,” contemplates a human race approaching extinction.
Twenty-five years have passed since a child was born in the world and experts can’t explain the cause of this unprecedented tragedy.
“[M]any diseases … have been difficult to diagnose and cure,” Theo muses as he begins a new journal on his 50th birthday in the 2020s.
“Science… our god,” has always provided the key to the puzzle.
“For all our knowledge, intelligence, our power, we can no longer do what the animals do without thought,” he writes, with his unstinting candor.
Looking back to the years before the start of the crisis, Theo recalls the preponderance of pornography and sexual violence on film, “but less and less in the West we made love and bred children.” Many embraced this trend as a reprieve from overpopulation, but this sharp-eyed historian describes it “as the beginning of the end.”
With Theo as a reliable guide, the reader probes a dying world cut off from the wellspring of hope.
As James explained when the novel was released, “I thought, if there was no future, how would we behave?”
Theo and his peers struggle to remember the gurgling of a contented infant, the halting steps of a determined toddler, and the rush of questions from an inquisitive 6-year-old.
Small wonder that younger, childless women are seen cuddling dolls, and sympathetic pastors allow kittens to be baptized in lieu of infants.
A childless world poses another set of problems for the last generation of human beings, called the “Omegas.” They are generally self-absorbed and passive, with no particular reason for disciplining themselves for future responsibilities. Some have formed themselves into marauding tribes that can turn violent. “If from infancy you treat children as gods they are apt to act like devils,” says Theo.
He respects truth and posterity too much to engage in self-deceiving or destructive behavior. And he is brutally honest about his own flaws, including his “terror of taking responsibility for other people’s lives or happiness.”
But he has one claim to fame: he is the cousin of the “dictator and warden of England” — the egocentric ruler who oversees a nation too fragile and depressed to resist dictatorship.
Theo’s ties to the warden draw the attention of a small band of anti-government dissidents who seek to reform the warden’s policies, including the practice of euthanasia.
Among them is a Christian woman named, Julian. She invites Theo to join a thrilling mission that will have consequences for the entire human race. Likewise, their deep, unconditional bond transforms this brittle elitist into a man capable of genuine love and service for the common good.
The Children of Men is about a world in desperate need of renewal. It is also about one man venturing beyond the fortress of self-sufficiency.
In our culture and in the personal sphere, the battle between good and evil continues relentlessly until the return of the Bridegroom. But with Theo’s transformation, James also reminds us that there is indescribable joy to be found in answering God’s call to communion, and in laying down one’s life to defend the most vulnerable among us.
These Christian insights are absent from the acclaimed, but more secularized 2007 film adaptation of the same name. James was a high Anglican, and her novel is a work of literary imagination that takes up the culture of death as its subject — two years before the release Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life).
James never does explain why children disappeared from the world she has created. That is not her purpose.
Rather, The Children of Men is a shot across the bow of a culture that increasingly can find no room for children. Our leaders have never exhibited the arrogance of China’s totalitarian leaders, who presided over the mass slaughter of tens of millions of unborn children, violating the dignity and rights of their grieving families, especially their mothers. But declining U.S. fertility rates should inspire an examination of our habits of mind, and the complex interplay of social and economic forces that have conspired to make children scarce.
The Church is well-placed to initiate and shape this looming national debate, and she must resist every effort to push believers to the sidelines.
As James reminds us, the “god of science” cannot go deep enough to answer the question our world could face one day: “What happens when the human race has lost its power to breed?”