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Reviving Fertility Might Require a Cultural Revolution

Catherine Pakaluk’s thesis is as radical as it is succinct: “religion is the cardinal family policy”. In the highly developed world, until fifty to one hundred years ago it was men who held sway over the birth rates of their societies. Today, of course, it is women, both socially (through feminism) and technologically (through abortion and modern birth control) empowered as the ultimate deciders of human fertility. And they cannot be bribed into child-bearing by mere “cash incentives and tax relief”. Pakaluk’s claim is that human beings will be produced, and human civilization reproduced, in adequate numbers and quality only through acts of religious faith:  “People will lay down their comforts, dreams, and selves for God, not for subsidies.”

  There is certainly evidence in support of this argument. Sociological research demonstrates that, in countries with wide differences in religiosity, women practicing highly institutionalized faiths (e.g. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism) always have higher fertility than non-religious women. At the individual scale, marital fertility is always higher than non-marital fertility, even in European countries where marriage is in rapid decline; as marriage and religiosity become ever more highly correlated, this relationship will only become more acute. The history of secularization is simultaneously the history of fertility decline. Nearly all institutionalized faiths in all civilizations are ‘pro-family’ in that they encourage marriage, procreation, and ordered harmony across the generations. Extreme instances of simultaneous rapid secularization and birthrate decline – Quebec in the 1960s, Spain after the death of Franco, Ireland today – give us the clearest views of the entanglement of fertility and faith.

  That being said, it is not the case that religiosity is the prime mover of fertility. Broader social, economic and political contexts matter much more. The fertility rate of Catholic women in Europe is more similar to the fertility rate of non-religious European women than to Catholic women in the United States. So, too, is the fertility rate of Catholic women in the United States more similar to the fertility rate of non-religious American women today than to Catholic women of two or three generations ago (much less five or six). Our response to these demographic facts should not indulge the ‘no true Scotsman’ fallacy, either, and simply define religiosity by fertility. At least in the Catholic tradition, many of the most religious women have a lifetime fertility of zero!

  To make sense of Pakaluk’s claim that “religion is the cardinal family policy,” we need a clear understanding of ‘religion’. For Pakaluk’s interviewees Hannah, Amanda, and Leah, religion is a deeply held personal belief in a very particular god: “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”. This is also the God of Sarah who begged Him in her barrenness for a child and was granted Isaac, the God of Hannah who blessed her with Samuel, the God of Mary who in her virginity conceived of the Holy Spirit, bore a son, and together with her husband formed the Holy Family. This is the God who blesses His people by giving them children.

  ‘Religion’ is not simply an object of belief, however. It is also an intensity of belief. Among Pakaluk’s exemplars, fertility comes less from being raised in a tradition than from a personal commitment or even a personal calling. For each of the women Pakaluk interviews, motherhood is an intentional act, a personal choice to “die to self” and live for God, children, husband – in reality, the entanglement of all three. Out of this robust faith arises a rich “personal and subjective” sense of identity, purpose, and fulfillment in and through the family.

  If this is to be family policy, it is a tall order indeed. As Pakaluk herself admits, the faith of her interviewees is hardly typical, and communities of such faithful are few and far between. But is such religious intensity truly necessary for human beings to form families? Until the twentieth century (and for some societies still today), even those weak in faith were likely to bear five or more children in a lifetime.

The difference between now and then is thus not a matter of religion, at least not in the deeply personal sense as Pakaluk defines it. The cause is more social and cultural than psychological. Anthony Giddens observed a quarter century ago that our ancestors lived lives embedded in nature and tradition. We contemporary Westerners live after the end of both. Giddens means by this that all of creation is now touched by human intervention, and human life is no longer experienced as fate but as choice. After nature, highly effective (and universally available) contraceptive technology enables women to subject their own natural fertility to conscious self-direction. After tradition, technologically-enabled infertility is one’s default status while pregnancy occurs through intentional choice. In such a society, intense personal belief is probably more needed to motivate fertility. But after nature and tradition, belief is unmoored and as likely to trust in politics or celebrity or self as in the God of Sarah, Hannah and Mary.

  Pakaluk is certainly correct that any pronatalist policy cannot expect success from financial incentives alone. No government can bribe women into motherhood. At the same time, there is considerable evidence that material conditions do influence general fertility levels. High levels of male unemployment lower fertility. High housing prices decrease fertility among non-owners (but increase fertility among owners). Affordable childcare via both subsidized institutional care and paid parental leave has demonstrated positive effects on fertility. In highly developed societies, of course, family policy can only hope to raise actual fertility to the level of desired fertility. If surveys are to be believed, the average woman in such countries desires two to three children. With current total fertility rates at two-thirds to half that level, one would expect ample policy room exists for government to support more favorable economic conditions for fertility.

  Unfortunately such economic evidence may be premised upon social and cultural conditions which no longer hold. The coincidence in the mid- and late-2010s of economic recovery with fertility decline continues to puzzle economists. The dramatic 2022-23 crash in fertility across much of continental Europe, especially in strong family policy countries like France, Sweden, and Poland, is not only disheartening but positively frightening. Record-low fertility rates from China to Canada to Finland to Thailand suggest a truly global phenomenon that no national-level story can capture – and perhaps no national government can counter.

  And yet we need policy if for no other reason than the implications of our current predicament are so grim. At a sustained fertility level of 1.3 children per woman – what demographers twenty years ago dubbed “lowest-low” fertility and where Japan, Canada, and Italy are today – a stable population with contemporary West European demographic characteristics will be cut in half in under 50 years. Due to feedback loops in which low fertility today drives fertility even lower tomorrow, especially low fertility may also be a trap out of which no society can escape. By 2023 fertility rates had fallen so low that even a 1940s-style baby boom would fall short of returning birth levels in the developed world to replacement. If the politics of migration is ugly and contentious now, under such fertility conditions it will become inevitably worse.

  If Pakaluk’s premise is correct that “religion is the cardinal family policy,” we need to know why religious women have more children. One important reason is that such women have higher fertility intentions, and these intentions are rooted in conservative views on the family. In highly developed countries, religiosity is strongly associated with belief in the prescriptive unity of sexual behavior, marriage, and procreation. Religious women more than others believe that the proper expression of sexual desire is within marriage, that cohabitation is immoral, and that bearing and raising children is essential to marriage. The opposite is also true. My own research has shown that Americans of childbearing age holding the most progressive sexual attitudes have the lowest fertility. Thus the rapid normalization of sexual liberalism, pornography, cohabitation and homosexuality throughout the West have been part and parcel of the general decline in fertility.

  In fact, it is rare to find even highly religious women in the most developed countries intending five or more children, the group studied by Pakaluk (in 2021, just 5.5% of children born in the United States were fifth-parity births or higher; in the European Union, 6.0% were fourth-parity births or higher). If Pakaluk’s project is to simply encourage young American women to reconsider their commitments to low fertility, that is laudable cultural work. If it is the case that a larger number of women with five or more children is encouragement for the decreasingly fecund majority to simply have one or two, then it may be necessary work as well. But thankfully there is no need for fertility rates to return to levels last seen in Western countries 100-150 years ago, or even to levels such countries experienced as recently as the early 1960s.

  A total fertility rate of 1.8, while falling well short of Pakaluk’s ideal, would be perfectly adequate for avoiding all the most dire consequences of low fertility. Assuming a stable population with currently typical West European demographic features, a society at 1.8 children per woman would halve its population in about 175 years at an annual –0.4% rate of change. Population levels could even be prevented from falling at all with moderate permanent levels of immigration. In order to fund Social Security in the United States, for example, a long-run total fertility rate of 1.8 would require somewhat higher economic productivity, lower unemployment, and/or higher tax rates than otherwise, but certainly all at levels within the range of the reasonable. The total fertility rate of the US and Sweden surpassed 1.8 as recently as 2016; of New Zealand, as recently as 2017; of France, just last year. Most remarkably, Israeli women have a total fertility rate that has never fallen below 2.8 and thus far appears immune to global trends. Is it really out of the question that nothing short of a wholesale cultural revolution is needed to return Western fertility rates to their levels of less than a decade ago? If so, then Pakaluk’s project will be even more necessary as a seed of revival not to be harvested for many decades to come.


 Darel E. Paul is a professor of political science and leads the Political Economy Program at Williams College.







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