Scott Yenor

What to expect when nobody is expecting: population decline and the birth dearth

Scott Yenor
By Scott Yenor

March 5, 2013 (thePublicDiscourse) - All Western countries have birthrates below the replacement rates, suggesting that soon all countries will experience a graying of, and a decline in, population. Jonathan Last asks why this has happened in his new book, the cleverly titled What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, putting demographic decline in a broader context.

Before we get to Last’s argument, we should revisit a debate between two great Enlightenment philosophers: Montesquieu and David Hume. In Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu argues that ancient republics had more people than modern ones. Catastrophes aside, this lack of fecundity shows that a country is plagued with “internal vice and bad government.” The internal vices can range from a proud celibacy to a self-indulgent libertinism.

Montesquieu argued that population trajectory is partly the product of marriage laws. Ancient republics encouraged men and women to marry, and penalized bachelorhood. “Old Roman laws sought to induce the citizens to marry,” and censors were established to mind marriage mores. Roman law penalized parents without children and rewarded those with children with special honors and exemptions.

Hume accepts Montesquieu’s comparison of ancient and modern republics, but questions the reliability of the evidence from the ancient poets and historians. “In the flourishing age of the world,” he writes, “it may be expected, that the human species should possess greater vigour both of mind and body, more prosperous health, higher spirits, longer life, and a stronger inclination and power of generation.” Inventiveness and creativity and hope in a genuinely better future move human beings to live and generate. All things being equal, Hume contends, “it seems natural to expect, that, wherever there is most happiness and virtue, and the wisest institutions, there will also be the most people.”

Giving birth, much like educating students, requires some sort of faith or hope in the future, a belief that the human condition is worth experiencing, and a confidence that one can nurture a proper environment for the education of a new life. Welcoming new life reflects openness to the gifts of life, and appreciating these is itself confirmation of a life worth living.

Hume concludes that conditions in the modern world are much better than those of the ancient world. He observes that modern political communities oppose slavery, govern by the rule of law, establish commercial relations, encourage more consensual and relatively egalitarian sexual relations, afford general protection to private property, and encourage progress in the arts and sciences. All these factors make life freer and better, and all point to the steady growth of actions leading to an increase of population. With the numbers he has access to, Hume shows that modern communities are indeed much more populous than their ancient counterparts.

Interestingly, both Hume and Montesquieu argue that Christianity tends to suppress population growth. Neither blames Christianity directly for slow growth, but each equates it with a world-denying celibacy that did much to dampen sexual interest and fecundity in late Roman and post-Roman times; modern fecundity, they seem to suggest, comes in part from embracing a worldliness that the waning of Christianity, as they see it, allows.

Enter into this debate Jonathan Last. Last synthesizes scholarly research with an engaging blend of statistics, anecdotes, and judicious observations. His is very much a book for contemporary readers, as he sympathizes with many of the advances that have, in turn, fostered population decline. I imagine Last at a coffeehouse in a toney urban neighborhood, looking out at his mini-van and wondering if he and his wife should have more children. He appreciates the pull of post-family culture, but he is still a human being in the old sense of seeing himself as part of an intergenerational compact. Neither Cassandra nor fuddy-duddy, his tone is one of detachment from the conflicts in his soul and in the American soul.

Last makes two central claims. First, he argues that declining birthrates are longstanding. At one time, most places in the world had total fertility rates of well over five children born to the average woman, but that rate has been in almost inexorable decline for hundreds of years. In part this long-term trend is due to the salutary decline in infant mortality, but Last’s second claim is that the trend has now moved way beyond that.

Today’s total replacement rates are headed dangerously south, he argues, and population decline has turned into a birth dearth. The rates are below replacement in many countries: Singapore’s is 1.1; Japan and Poland’s 1.3; Germany, Austria, and Italy’s 1.4; Russia’s 1.6; France’s 2.08; the United States’ 1.9. The number of childless women has increased dramatically over the past forty years, while families with more than three children are increasingly rare. The global nature of falling birthrates means it defies easy characterization and cannot be explained with simple causal arrows. We have a dangerous fall (to below the replacement rate) within a much larger long-term decline. Are the two declines related? Is the birth dearth merely “finishing off” what the population decline has started, or is it a new phenomenon on top of population decline?

The urgency of addressing these questions becomes evident every time we consider the wealth of nations today. Declining populations are at the root of many of our policy and social problems, Last shows. The welfare states throughout the Western world are based on the idea that the young will fund the benefits for the old, but the dearth of the young means that as debts and deficits keep rising, something has to give. Either benefits will be trimmed, or the young will have to pay an even higher portion of their income to fund their older relatives.

And as taxes rise, productivity declines. The modern economy depends on innovation and increased productivity, but, as Last argues, the few people being squeezed more and more are much less likely to take daring acts to improve our lives. There you have the contemporary American crisis of government in a nutshell.

We don’t have to travel too far to see these consequences playing out. Japan’s economic “lost decade” (still underway nearly twenty years later) is partly the result of its graying population and shrinking labor force. This same shrinkage is happening in many European countries and, probably, in the United States, where a larger proportion of our workforce is entering its post-creative years. The current “fiscal crisis” will be nothing in comparison to what it will be when our country is sustaining more retirees on fewer workers.

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Last makes a strong argument for seeing the population decline and birth dearth as intimately related. Since birth rates have been falling for at least two hundred years, we can’t simply say that innovations of the past fifty years (such as accessible contraception, legal abortion, or even the modern welfare state) are responsible. While China’s “One-Child” policy and Singapore’s feminist indoctrination programs have lowered birthrates more dramatically than American child safety seat laws (which make it harder for an average family to have lots of young children at the same time and still drive an affordable car) or the price of American homes, no particular explanation would seem to suffice if all nations are caught up in the same tide. There must be some general explanation if tyrannical control (China) and free choice (the United States) yield the same general population declines.

Last’s effort to explain this situation is provocative, especially in light of the Hume-Montesquieu debate. Whereas Hume believes modernity and its political customs foster population increase, Last blames modernity for population decline and the birth dearth. Recent population declines coincide with recent developments in family experience, loosely labeled the “decline of marriage.” As marriage rates and the marriage culture decline, divorce rates, cohabitation rates, and living-alone rates rise. There is a snowball effect as these alternatives become more attractive and marriage less normative. Childlessness is much more accepted than it once was, as are the alternatives to marriage. Birthrates are at their lowest in places where, generally, trends away from marriage are most pronounced.

This seems to be the modern tide. For Last, America’s fertility problem and the world’s fertility problem is “the result of an enormous, interconnected web of factors that constitute something like the entire framework of modern life.” Marriage and fertility are “pulled along by massive, invisible cultural undercurrents” and “disparate parts of modernity evolving independently.” Precisely what Last means by “modernity” is not clear, but while summarizing an argument from the late James Q. Wilson, he suggests that “when reason replaced religion and custom as the lodestars for human thinking, it became natural for the sacramental view of marriage to be replaced by the contractual view.”

Think of population decline and the birth dearth as aspects of this modern project. The “First Demographic Revolution,” Last shows, was one of modern science’s great accomplishments: Beginning in the 1750s, the mortality rate, and especially the infant mortality rate, started declining, a trajectory that accelerated through the 1800s. As more infants survived and life expectancy surpassed forty years, more people had longer “fertility” periods. This, as Hume observed, created what Last calls “demographic momentum,” as larger generations begat larger generations, even as each generation had, on the whole, fewer children. This, according to Last, is the population decline that most of today’s developing world is currently experiencing, as improvements in nutrition, sanitation, and medicine span the globe.

Is there a point when such birth rates level off? Is there a natural limit to thedeclines characteristic of this “First Demographic Transition”? Last’s answer is that the First Demographic Transition started a second, one directed at controlling birth instead of limiting death and reconstructing marriage to favor individual autonomy. Here, Last intimates, the modern project turned more than a little on itself and caused a genuine demographic problem; the First Transition was mostly salutary; the second caused a much more dangerous and destabilizing plunge.

Yet those demographic transitions are united in principle, as Last’s general comments suggest. His suggestive comments force us to understand with greater depth the meaning of modernity. The heart of the modern project lies in conquering nature, in making “nature” obey the creative wills of human beings. First in defying death. Second in controlling life and in redesigning marriage, the institution capable of generating life. Contraception (which asserts a power to control birth), abortion (which asserts a power to define life), the constructivist revolution afoot in marriage (which asserts a human power to define marriage or “relationships” as whatever we wish them to be) are thinkable only in a time when we are preoccupied with making ourselves, in Descartes’s phrase, “Lords and Masters of Nature.” The Transitions are united in their aim and understanding of the world and human power.

The most respectable reason for undertaking this project is, as Last thinks, to allow individuals to actualize themselves or experience the conscious making of their own lives and life plans, which Last sees as the hallmark of the “Second Demographic Transition.” Yet the demographic collapse suggests that our mastery of our situation is not as complete as we think, which should suggest to Last the limits of modernity. Our search for autonomy and mastery over nature has led to a species of revenge from nature. Or, perhaps, our attempt to design and “control” birth can only be successful if we also must rely on nature (i.e., the natural desire for procreation), and nature in this respect seems to be letting us down, as Pierre Manent has argued. This is a problem of technology and its way of thinking; its prominence in our way of thinking is the most compelling reason to see the birth dearth as a consequence of modernity’s general population decline.

Last’s provocative book raises questions about what can be done about population decline and the birth dearth. Initial findings on efforts across the Western world to raise birthrates suggest that there is little we can do to move the needle. The most promising developments in this respect are connecting fecundity with the revitalization of faithful religious practice, as seen in Last’s fascinating discussion of the former Soviet land of Georgia. Swimming against the modern tide seems to require embracing institutions appreciative of such limits.

Scott Yenor is the department chair and a professor in the Department of Political Science at Boise State University. He is author of Family Politics: The Idea of Marriage in Modern Political Thought (Baylor University Press, 2011). This article reprinted with permission from The Public Discourse

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Pelosi asked: Is unborn baby with human heart a ‘human being’? Responds: ‘I am a devout Catholic’

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By Dustin Siggins

Tell Nancy Pelosi: No, supporting abortion and gay 'marriage' is not Catholic. Sign the petition. Click here.

WASHINGTON, D.C., October 2, 2015 (LifeSiteNews) -- Top Democrat Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, won't say whether an unborn child with a “human heart” and a “human liver” is a human being.

Pelosi, who is the Minority Leader in the House, was asked a question about the issue by CNS News at a press conference last week. The conservative news outlet asked, "In reference to funding for Planned Parenthood: Is an unborn baby with a human heart and a human liver a human being?”

Pelosi stumbled over her answer, saying, “Why don't you take your ideological questions--I don't, I don't have—”

CNS then asked her, "If it's not a human being, what species is it?”

It was then that Pelosi got back on stride, swatting aside the question with her accustomed reference to her “devout” Catholic faith.

“No, listen, I want to say something to you,” she said. “I don't know who you are and you're welcome to be here, freedom of this press. I am a devout practicing Catholic, a mother of five children. When my baby was born, my fifth child, my oldest child was six years old. I think I know more about this subject than you, with all due respect.”

“So it's not a human being, then?” pressed CNS, to which Pelosi said, “And I do not intend to respond to your questions, which have no basis in what public policy is that we do here.”

Pelosi has long used her self-proclaimed status as a “devout” practicing Catholic to promote abortion.

In response to a reporter’s question a proposed ban on late-term abortion in 2013, Pelosi said that the issue of late-term abortion is "sacred ground" for her.

"As a practicing and respectful Catholic, this is sacred ground to me when we talk about this," Pelosi said. "This shouldn't have anything to do with politics."

In 2008, she was asked by then-Meet the Press host David Gregory about when life begins. Pelosi said that "as an ardent, practicing Catholic, this is an issue I have studied for a long time. And what I know is that over the centuries, the doctors of the Church have not been able to make that definition....We don't know."

The Church has always taught that unborn human life is to be protected, and that such life is created at the moment of conception.

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New video: Planned Parenthood abortionist jokes about harvesting baby’s brains, getting ‘intact’ head

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By Ben Johnson

I interviewed my friend, David Daleiden, about his important work exposing Planned Parenthood's baby body parts trade on the Glenn Beck Program. David urged Congress to hold Planned Parenthood accountable and to demand the full truth. He also released never-before-seen footage showing a Planned Parenthood abortionist callously discussing how to obtain an intact brain from aborted babies.

Posted by Lila Rose on Monday, October 5, 2015


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WASHINGTON, D.C., October 5, 2015 (LifeSiteNews) - In the newest video footage released by the Center for Medical Progress, a Planned Parenthood abortionist laughs as she discusses her hope of removing the intact "calvarium," or skull, of an unborn baby while preserving both lobes of the brain.

She also describes how she first dismembers babies up to twenty weeks gestation, including two twenty-week babies she said she aborted the week before.

Dr. Amna Dermish, an abortionist with Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, told undercover investigators she had never been able to remove the calivarium (skull) of an aborted child "intact," but she hopes to.

"Maybe next time," the investigator said.

"I know, right?" Dr. Dermish replied. "Well, this'll give me something to strive for."

Dermish, who performs abortions up to the 20-week legal limit in Austin, then described the method she used to collect fetal brain and skull specimens.

"If it’s a breech presentation [in which the baby is born feet first] I will remove the extremities first - the lower extremities - and then go for the spine," she began.

She then slides the baby down the birth canal until she can snip the spinal cord.

The buyer noted that intact organs fetch higher prices from potential buyers, who seek them for experimentation.

"I always try to keep the trunk intact," she said.

"I don't routinely convert to breech, but I will if I have to," she added.

Converting a child to the breech position is the first step of the partial birth abortion procedure. The procedure has been illegal since President Bush signed legislation in 2003 making it a federal felony punishable by two years in prison and a fine of $250,000.

According to CMP lead investigator David Daleiden, who debuted the video footage during an interview with Lila Rose on The Blaze TV, Dr. Dermish was trained by Planned Parenthood's senior director of medical services, Dr. Deborah Nucatola.

Dr. Nucatola was caught on the first CMP undercover video, discussing the side industry while eating a salad and drinking red wine during a business luncheon.

Between sips, she described an abortion process that legal experts believe is a partial birth abortion, violating federal law.

“The federal abortion ban is a law, and laws are up to interpretation,” Dr. Nucatola said on the undercover footage. “So, if I say on day one that I don't intend to do this, what ultimately happens doesn't matter.”

Daleiden told Rose he hoped that Congressional investigators would continue to pressure the organization about whether the abortion technique it uses violates federal law, as well as the $60-per-specimen fee the national organization has admitted some of its affiliates receive.

Trafficking in human body parts for "valuable consideration" is also a federal felony carrying a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a $500,000 fine.

"That would be enough to construct a criminal case against Planned Parenthood," Daleiden said.

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Nancy Flanders


He used to be an abortionist; now, he fights to save the lives of the preborn

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By Nancy Flanders

October 5, 2015 (LiveActionNews) -- In 1976, Dr. Anthony Levatino, an OB/GYN, graduated from medical school and was, without a doubt, pro-abortion. He strongly supported abortion “rights” and believed abortion was a decision to be made between a woman and her doctor.

“A lot of people identify themselves as pro-life or pro-choice, but for so many people, it doesn’t really touch them personally; it doesn’t impact their lives in the way that I wish it would. If nothing more than in the voting booth, if nowhere else,” said Levatino in a speech for the Pro-Life Action League. “But when you’re an obstetrician / gynecologist and you say I’m pro-choice – well, that becomes rather a more personal thing because you’re the one who does the abortions and you have to make the decision of whether you’ll do that or not.”

Levatino learned how to do first and second trimester abortions. Thirty to forty years ago, second trimester abortions were done by saline injection, which was dangerous.

"For the first time in my life, after all those years, all those abortions, I really looked, I mean I really looked at that pile of goo on the side of the table that used to be somebody’s son or daughter and that’s all I could see."

At that same time, Levatino and his wife were struggling with fertility problems and were considering adoption. They knew however, how difficult it was to adopt a newborn.

“It was the first time that I had any doubts about what I was doing because I knew very well that part of the reason why it’s difficult to find children to adopt were that doctors like me were killing them in abortions,” said Levatino.

Finally, in 1978, the couple adopted their daughter, Heather. Right after the adoption, they discovered they were expecting a baby, and their son was born just 10 months later.

Levatino describes a “perfectly happy” life at this time and says that despite those first qualms about abortion, he went right back to work performing them.

In 1981, after graduating from his residency, Levatino joined an OB/GYN practice which also offered abortions as a service. Saline infusion was the most common method for second trimester abortions at the time, but it ran the risk of babies born alive. The procedures were also expensive, difficult, and required the mother to go through labor. Levatino and his partners trained themselves to perform the D&E abortion procedure, which is used today.

In his speech, he describes what it’s like to perform the now routine procedure:

You take an instrument like this called a sopher clamp and you basically – the surgery is that you literally tear a child to pieces. The suction is only for the fluid. The rest of it is literally dismembering a child piece by piece with an abortion instrument […] absolutely gut-wrenching procedure.

Over the next four years, Levatino would perform 1,200 abortions, over 100 of them D&E, second trimester abortions.

But then everything changed. On a beautiful day in June of 1984, the family was at home enjoying time with friends when Levatino heard tires squeal. The children were in the street and Heather had been hit by a car.

“She was a mess,” he explained. “And we did everything we possibly could. But she ultimately died, literally in our arms, on the way to the hospital that evening.”

After a while, Levatino had to return to work. And one day, his first D&E since the accident was on his schedule. He wasn’t really thinking about it or concerned. To him, it was going to be a routine procedure he had done many times before. Only it wasn’t.

“I started that abortion and I took that sopher clamp and I literally ripped out an arm or a leg and I just stared at it in the clamp. And I got sick,” he explained. “But you know something, when you start an abortion you can’t stop. If you don’t get all the pieces – and you literally stack them up on the side of the table […] your patient is going to come back infected, bleeding or dead. So I soldiered on and I finished that abortion.”

But by the time the abortion was complete, Levatino was beginning to feel a change of heart:

For the first time in my life, after all those years, all those abortions, I really looked, I mean I really looked at that pile of goo on the side of the table that used to be somebody’s son or daughter and that’s all I could see. I couldn’t see what a great doctor I was being. I didn’t see how I helped this woman in her crisis. I didn’t see the 600 dollars cash I had just made in 15 minutes. All I could see was somebody’s son or daughter. And after losing my daughter this was looking very, very different to me.

Levatino stopped performing second trimester abortions but continued to provide first trimester abortions for the next few months.

“Everybody puts doctors on a pedestal and we’re all supposed to be so smart but we’re no different than anybody else,” he said.

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He realized that killing a baby at 20 weeks gestation was exactly the same as killing one at nine weeks gestation or even two weeks gestation. He understood that it doesn’t matter how big or small the baby is, it’s a human life. He has not done an abortion since February 1985 and says there is no chance he will ever perform one again.

Adamant that he would never join the pro-life movement because of the media’s portrayal of pro-lifers as crazy, he was eventually invited to a pro-life potluck dinner where he met people who he realized were intelligent volunteers who spent their time defending preborn humans.

After that, Levatino began speaking out against abortion specifically with young people, graphically describing for them what an abortion really is.

Levatino has also testified before Congress, asking our government to end legal abortion.

Reprinted with permission from Live Action News

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