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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BREAKING: Planned Parenthood shooting suspect surrenders, is in custody: police

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By John Jalsevac

Nov. 27, 2015 (LifeSiteNews) - Five hours after a single male shooter reportedly opened fire at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood, chatter on police radio is indicating that the suspect has now been "detained."

"We have our suspect and he says he is alone," said police on the police radio channel. 

Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers also confirmed via Twitter shortly after 7:00 pm EST that the suspect was in custody.

The news comes almost exactly an hour after the start of a 6:00 pm. press conference in which Lt. Catherine Buckley had confirmed that a single shooter was still at large, and had exchanged gunfire with police moments before.

According to Lt. Buckley, four, and possibly five police officers have been shot since the first 911 call was received at 11:38 am local time today. An unknown number of civilians have also been shot.

Although initial reports had suggested that the shooting began outside the Planned Parenthood, possibly outside a nearby bank, Lt. Buckley said that in fact the incident began at the Planned Parenthood itself.

She said that the suspect had also brought unknown "items" with him to the Planned Parenthood. 

Pro-life groups have started responding to the news, urging caution in jumping to conclusions about the motivations of the shooter, while also condemning the use of violence in promoting the pro-life cause. 

"Information is very sketchy about the currently active shooting situation in Colorado Springs," said Pavone. "The Planned Parenthood was the address given in the initial call to the police, but we still do not know what connection, if any, the shooting has to do with Planned Parenthood or abortion.

"As leaders in the pro-life movement, we call for calm and pray for a peaceful resolution of this situation."

Troy Newman of Operation Rescue and Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney, Director of the Christian Defense Coalition, also issued statements.

"Operation Rescue unequivocally deplores and denounces all violence at abortion clinics and has a long history of working through peaceful channels to advocate on behalf of women and their babies," said Newman. "We express deep concern for everyone involved and are praying for the safety of those at the Planned Parenthood office and for law enforcement personnel. We pray this tragic situation can be quickly resolved without further injury to anyone."

"Although we don't know the reasons for the shooting near the Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs today, the pro-life movement is praying for the safety of all involved and as a movement we have always unequivocally condemned all forms of violence at abortion clinics. We must continually as a nation stand against violence on all levels," said Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney, Director of the Christian Defense Coalition, based in Washington, D.C.


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Rubio says SCOTUS didn’t ‘settle’ marriage issue: ‘God’s rules always win’

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By Dustin Siggins

WASHINGTON, D.C., November 27, 2015 (LifeSiteNews) -- Surging GOP presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-FL, says that "God's law" trumps the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision imposing same-sex “marriage” nationwide.

The senator also told Christian Broadcast Network's David Brody that the Supreme Court's redefinition of marriage is not "settled," but instead "current law."

“No law is settled,” said Rubio. “Roe v. Wade is current law, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t continue to aspire to fix it, because we think it’s wrong.”

“If you live in a society where the government creates an avenue and a way for you to peacefully change the law, then you’re called to participate in that process to try to change it,” he explained, and "the proper place for that to be defined is at the state level, where marriage has always been regulated — not by the Supreme Court and not by the federal government.”

However, when laws conflict with religious beliefs, "God's rules always win," said Rubio.

“In essence, if we are ever ordered by a government authority to personally violate and sin — violate God’s law and sin — if we’re ordered to stop preaching the Gospel, if we’re ordered to perform a same-sex marriage as someone presiding over it, we are called to ignore that,” Rubio expounded. “We cannot abide by that because government is compelling us to sin.”

“I continue to believe that marriage law should be between one man and one woman," said the senator, who earlier in the fall was backed by billionaire GOP donor and same-sex "marriage" supporter Paul Singer.

Singer, who also backs looser immigration laws and a strong U.S.-Israel alliance, has long pushed for the GOP to change its position on marriage in part due to the sexual orientation of his son.

Despite Singer's support, Rubio's marriage stance has largely been consistent. He told Brody earlier in the year that "there isn't such a right" to same-sex "marriage."

"You have to have a ridiculous reading of the U.S. Constitution to reach the conclusion that people have a right to marry someone of the same sex."

Rubio also said religious liberty should be defended against LGBT activists he says "want to stigmatize, they want to ostracize anyone who disagrees with them as haters."

"I believe, as do a significant percentage of Americans, that the institution of marriage, an institution that existed before government, that existed before laws, that institution should remain in our laws recognized as the union of one man and one woman," he said.

Rubio also hired social conservative leader Eric Teetsel as his director of faith outreach this month.

However, things have not been entirely smooth for Rubio on marriage. Social conservatives were concerned when the executive director of the LGBT-focused Log Cabin Republicans told Reuters in the spring that the Catholic senator is "not as adamantly opposed to all things LGBT as some of his statements suggest."

The LGBT activist group had meetings with Rubio's office "going back some time," though the senator himself never attended those meetings. Rubio has publicly said that he would attend the homosexual "wedding" of a gay loved one, and also that he believed "that sexual preference is something that people are born with," as opposed to being a choice.

Additionally, days after the Supreme Court redefined marriage, Rubio said that he disagreed with the decision but that "we live in a republic and must abide by the law."

"I believe that marriage, as the key to strong family life, is the most important institution in our society and should be between one man and one woman," he said. "People who disagree with the traditional definition of marriage have the right to change their state laws. That is the right of our people, not the right of the unelected judges or justices of the Supreme Court. This decision short-circuits the political process that has been underway on the state level for years.

Rubio also said at the time that "it must be a priority of the next president to nominate judges and justices committed to applying the Constitution as written and originally understood…"

“I firmly believe the question of same sex marriage is a question of the definition of an institution, not the dignity of a human being. Every American has the right to pursue happiness as they see fit. Not every American has to agree on every issue, but all of us do have to share our country. A large number of Americans will continue to believe in traditional marriage, and a large number of Americans will be pleased with the Court’s decision today. In the years ahead, it is my hope that each side will respect the dignity of the other.”

The Florida senator said in July that he opposed a constitutional marriage amendment to the U.S. Constitution to leave marriage up to the states because that would involve the federal government in state marriage policies.

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Former The View star Sherri Shepherd and then-husband Lamar Sally in 2010 s_bukley /
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Court orders Sherri Shepherd to pay child support for surrogate son she abandoned

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By Steve Weatherbe

November 27, 2015 (LifeSiteNews) -- Sherri Shepherd, a Hollywood celebrity who co-hosted the popular talk show The View for seven years, has lost a maternity suit launched by her ex-husband Lamar Sally, forcing her to pay him alimony and child support for their one-year surrogate son LJ. The decision follows an unseemly fight which pro-life blogger Cassy Fiano says has exposed how surrogacy results in “commodifying” the unborn.

Shepherd, a co-host of the View from 2007 to 2014, met Sally, a screenwriter, in 2010 and they married a year later. Because her eggs were not viable, they arranged a surrogate mother in Pennsylvania to bear them a baby conceived in vitro using Sally’s sperm and a donated egg.

But the marriage soured in mid-term about the time Shepherd lost her job with The View. According to one tabloid explanation, she was worried he would contribute little to parenting responsibilities.  Sally filed for separation in 2014, Shepherd filed for divorce a few days, then Sally sued for sole custody, then alimony and child support.

Earlier this year she told PEOPLE she had gone along with the surrogacy to prevent the breakup of the marriage and had not really wanted the child.

Shepherd, an avowed Christian who once denied evolution on The View and a successful comic actor on Broadway, TV, and in film since the mid-90s, didn’t want anything to do with LJ, as Lamar named the boy, who after all carried none of her genes. She refused to be at bedside for the birth, and refused to let her name be put on the birth certificate and to shoulder any responsibility for LJ’s support.

But in April the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas, and now the state’s Superior Court, ruled that Shepherd’s name must go on the birth certificate and she must pay Sally alimony and child support.

“The ultimate outcome is that this baby has two parents and the parents are Lamar Sally and Sherri Shepherd,” Shepherd’s lawyer Tiffany Palmer said.

As for the father, Sally told PEOPLE, “I'm glad it's finally over. I'm glad the judges saw through all the lies that she put out there, and the negative media attention. If she won't be there for L.J. emotionally, I'll be parent enough for the both of us.”

But Shepherd said, “I am appealing the ruling that happened,” though in the meantime, Sally will “get his settlement every month. There’s nothing I can do.”

Commented Fiano in Live Action News, “What’s so sickening about this case is that this little boy, whose life was created in a test tube, was treated as nothing more than a commodity…Saying that you don’t want a baby but will engineer one to get something you want is horrific.” As for trying to get out from child support payments now that the marriage had failed, that was “despicable.”

Fiano went on to characterize the Shepherd-Sally affair as a “notable example” of commodification of children, and “by no means an anomaly.” She cited a British report than over the past five years 123 babies conceived in vitro were callously aborted when they turned out to have Down Syndrome.

“When we’re not ready for babies, we have an abortion,” she added. “But then when we decide we are ready we manufacture them in a laboratory and destroy any extras. Children exist when we want them to exist, to fill the holes in us that we want them to fill, instead of being independent lives with their own inherent value and dignity.”

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