The New York Times Reacts to Falling Fertility Rates

A recent article in The New York Times on America’s declining fertility rates—“American Fertility Is Falling Short of What Women Want” (I note the article’s title appears to have changed)—was as concerning and risible as the news they reported.

The concerning part was its statistical confirmation of a trend bedeviling (not just) the Western world: the fall of fertility below replacement levels. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now calculates the U.S. fertility rate at 1.77 lifetime births per woman: anything below about 2.1 to 2.2 means that society is aging and shrinking.

The really interesting part of the article is its details and what it says (and doesn’t say) about why fertility is declining.

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The one detail that stands out is that fertility rates appear to be declining for all age cohorts of women except for women over 40. Women over 40 make up the one group with an increase in fertility, but the article opines that this phenomenon is a temporary outlier: “the generation of women finishing up their childbearing years now had more children than their mothers did, but that isn’t likely to be true for their daughters.” Even 30-something women are now reporting a fall in fertility. Millennials do not augur a new Baby Boom.

The article also offers a plethora of reasons explaining the downward trend in fertility. It gives prominence to delayed marriage and childbirth: women are marrying later and having babies later. “The average age of [an American] woman at first birth is over 26 years old. … [M]any European countries have an average age of first birth over 30. … In fact, the United States has the youngest age of first childbirth of any developed country.” One wonders how much that may be attributable to immigrants.

Other reasons for declining fertility rates are proliferation of contraception and abortifacients and less frequent sex (which may be a function of social media—“diminished face-to-face interaction”—and “possibly” pornography addictions).

Glaringly absent from the discussion are economic factors. There’s an oblique reference to the downturn in fertility rates since “its most recent peak at 2.12 [the base replacement rate] in 2007,” which happened to coincide with the beginnings of the housing market recession. We know that economic downturns can be gut punches to marriage rates, even if they tend to reinforce marriage among the already married. We also know that marriage rates, parenthood, and social glue are now all under assault in poor, working class, and middle class families, irrespective of race. Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned of the stresses on black families. The same trends are now affecting other groups.

One is surprised, therefore, that the analysis, written by an economist, gives short shrift to America’s inhospitable economic climate to family formation. The cost of raising a child is rising while many Americans’ economic progress is marginal, static, or even declining over decades.

Social transitions reinforce this. Call it patriarchal or not, but young American men are challenged to be providers. Fewer are pursuing (and even fewer completing) post-secondary education; if they do, they are saddled with high debt. In many fields, post-graduation entry level jobs (when they are found) are nothing to write home about. “Basement boys” hardly present promising marital prospects; socio-cultural factors also reinforce American male immaturity. A woman who completes secondary education, is socialized into believing a “successful” woman is measured professionally, not in relation to a family, and also faces student debt and a less-than-bullish marriage market, has even more reason to focus on her career to the expense of her personal life. Even when her “biological clock” ticks louder, technology tempts with its siren song: how many “hip” companies now pay for egg freezing (but say little about the personal cost).

One can, of course, also challenge too tight a nexus between “financial security” and marriage/parenthood. I continue to think that Dickens’s “Christmas Carol” is underappreciated for its message to adults, and that its 1984 movie adaptation, featuring George C. Scott, is a masterpiece. In Victorian England, marrying for “love” versus out of financial and social security was considered ridiculous, hence, Ebeneazer Scrooge’s disdain for his nephew, Fred. In the movie scene, the Ghost of Christmas Past watches with the elder Scrooge as Belle dumped his younger self (see here, starting at 11:45). Scrooge again hears how Belle asked whether he would have “sought her” now that he was making money and she remained a “dowerless girl, with only myself to bring to a marriage.” When the Ghost asks the elder Scrooge “why didn’t you go after her?” he replies that “my father left me a sum of money” by whose investment he “had laid the foundations for financial success.” The Ghost acidly replies “you have told me what you gained; let me show you what you lost,” carrying to another Christmas Eve when Belle and her husband rejoiced in their “brood” while Scrooge sat alone as his business partner lay dying.

We need to challenge the economic conditions that inhibit family formation: family life does not occur in a vacuum. But even if America was prosperous and economically booming, it does not necessarily follow it would be also be demographically booming. Although economics may play a factor, the malaise lies deeper. The rot has cultural roots.

And that is what I meant when I said the article is one part concerning, one part risible.

Re-read the title: “fertility is falling short of what women want.”

Fertility—life—is (to borrow Germain Grisez’s term) a “basic human good.” Fertility is good because it is good. Period. Not because it is useful. Not because it serves some further purpose. Not because it is another notch on one’s power résumé.

Fertility is also a normal aspect of a bodily person’s life. Fertility plays a normal role in human corporeal functioning. To say it is “falling short” of women’s expectations is as logical as saying “digestion fails what women want if they get fat from eating too rich food.”

But the great cultural rot born of the 1960s and the rejection of Humanae vitae lay precisely in this degradation of life/fertility from being a good-in-itself (bonum in se) to being merely a useful good (bonum utile).

But you cannot turn life into a merely utilitarian good unless you live with its consequences. One of those consequences has been a progressive disregard of the value of human life, especially when it does not meet a parent’s “project” (as Paris archbishop Michel Aupetit put it). That’s why even life has to meet my project and plans and, if it does not, too bad for life. That’s why we’ve had 60,000,000 abortions in the past 45 years. Why we are eliminating disability by eliminating the disabled.

And why some women are disappointed with fertility.

I can complain that my bank pays lousy interest rates. But now we are griping about the egg banks’ lousy fertility rates?!

The Washington Post recently ran a series of articles on the disappointment women are experiencing to discover that freezing their eggs was no panacea. They bought (literally) into that proposition on the Faustian bargain that they could put life—theirs and their future child’s—on hold while they advanced their careers. Now, in their 40s (the one age cohort the Times says sees a fertility rise), many are discovering that their frozen ova are not letting them become mothers now that they want to be.

To paraphrase Ecclesiastes: “there is a time to give birth, and a time to die.” To a man (or a woman) who decides that he (or she), not God, is the Lord and Giver of Life and Time, Qoheleth has another response: “vanity of vanities.”

The gift of life, welcomed when given, demands humility. Which may not always be “what [some] women want.”


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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