(LifeSiteNews) — It’s a situation unprecedented in human history: most of the world’s people live in a country that has dipped below replacement rate, its population now spiraling downward.
No place on earth is exempt from declining birth rates, including Africa, which is just a few steps behind the rest of the world.
The scenario is – perhaps without exaggeration – quietly apocalyptic.
“No society in history has been known to come out of that spiral,” filmmaker Stephen Shaw explained in his documentary “Birthgap,” which explores the thoughts on childbearing of young women all around the world, and attempts to find the cause behind today’s record-low fertility.
The dip into the trend of population collapse seems to have crept up on us, with much of academia seemingly unaware of the phenomenon. And for most, the trend doesn’t have a readily apparent reason. In Shaw’s interviews, which take place across the span of several continents, he is hard pressed to find someone who can explain, or even guess, how the world has arrived to this uncharted territory.
Shaw, a data analyst, crunches numbers in search of an explanation, and uncovers a surprising finding: from about 1973 to 1978, a worldwide population decline has been driven not by changes in family size, but by an explosion of childlessness.
READ: Pope Francis, Italian PM Meloni address nation’s plummeting birth rates at recent conference
By comparing statistics on first-time mothers and the number of children they go on to have with national fertility rates, Shaw found that childlessness rates skyrocketed within only a few years in many countries.
For example, in Japan in 1974, one in 20 women were childless. By 1977, this ratio was one in four, and by 1990, it had reached one in three, a statistic which held in 2020.
Italy had significantly lower rates of childlessness in 1974, with only one in 30 women childless at the time. But by 1977, childlessness had exploded there as well to a rate of one in five women, and by 1990, it was one in three, according to Shaw.
However, throughout this time, as in Japan, “family structure hadn’t changed at all,” Shaw noted, meaning the proportion of women who had one child, or two, or three, or four or more, all remained the same.
While Shaw doesn’t give specific numbers for most countries, he shares that most have become, like Italy and Japan, “childless nations,” where one-third or more people will become “childless for life.”
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Just as remarkable as this trend is the finding in a Dutch meta-analysis, cited by author Jody Day in Shaw’s film, and using data from the early 2000s, that only 10 percent of such women are childless “by choice.”
Another 10 percent are childless due to “known” medical reasons, including infertility. This leaves an undefined but high percentage of women who are “childless by circumstance,” that is, as Day puts it, women who have been unable to find a “suitable partner.” As Shaw shows with moving testimony, this includes women whose partners have been unwilling to have children with them.
However, Shaw’s conclusions about the driving causes of childlessness only minimally integrate these findings. He essentially attributes the explosion in childlessness to the oil shock of 1973, speculating that women delayed childbearing for economic reasons, and considers the lack of rebound in birth rates – a historical norm after economic recovery – as mysterious.
Shaw’s finding that childlessness is a major factor in low birth rates today is revelatory, and needs to be explored further. But to do so, one needs to examine the gaps in his analysis, which I believe unconsciously stem from the bias of the very culture that has engendered the “birthgap” in the first place.
The first problem is that Shaw does not discuss or show fertility rates around the world before 1970. He entirely fails to address that a decline in fertility rates had already begun in the 1960s in countries such as the U.S., the U.K., and Australia, shortly after the introduction of the birth control pill. My understanding is that he doesn’t discuss this because of disparate fertility rate trends among Western countries before the 1970s, when the trends largely began to mirror each other and converge.
READ: Moral theologian at Rome conference debunks new book defying Church teaching on contraception
Looking at historical trends that stretch back even further can help uncover other unaddressed causes of declining fertility. If one steps back further and looks at, say, the fertility rates of the U.S. and in Europe in the 1800s, the realization emerges that in addition to economic factors, cultural norms are powerful influencers of fertility rates.
Fertility drop trendsetting
For example, researchers have found that by 1870, France was “the first European region in which women started to have fewer children,” with data supporting the claim that France was also the “origin of social norms that lead to declines elsewhere.”
This is evidenced by the fact that language barriers affected the timing of fertility rate declines, according to George Alter and Greogry Clark. They found that in Belgium, French-speaking areas experienced a fertility decline that occurred 20 years earlier, on average, than in Flemish villages of “identical economic conditions.”
What cultural factors may have contributed to this decline? Studies have found that fertility rates in France dropped after the French Revolution (1789–1799), with the European Journal of Population (January 1985) noting:
“Before 1800, marital fertility in France was similar to that of other European countries, but after 1800 the French rate declined rapidly. By 1840 it was two-thirds of the 1800 level, and by 1900 it was half of the 1800 level. In other European countries marital fertility did not begin to decline until the 1870s.”
The French Revolution having been inspired by the Enlightenment, this fact lends credence to the suggestion by Ron J. Lesthaeghe that lower fertility may have been “driven by the spread of Enlightenment ideas and the simultaneous turning away from the pro-natalist doctrines of the Christian religion in Europe.”
READ: Elon Musk blames low fertility rates on abortion, birth control in Tucker Carlson interview
Alter and Clark observed, “Enlightenment ideas about reason and humankind’s role in nature, as well as opposition to religious authorities, made birth control within marriage ethically and socially acceptable.”
However, Shaw completely shies away even from suggesting that social factors have potentially influenced fertility rates. Admittedly such factors are much harder, if not impossible, to quantify, and as a data analyst he is likely much more comfortable with clear-cut numbers than with “soft” social sciences. Nevertheless, human behavior has never been a merely economic endeavor, as 1800s Europe numbers show.
That cultural norms influence fertility rates is also shown by the unusually high birth rates of deeply religious communities today, another phenomenon left undiscussed by Shaw. This can’t be predicted by religious affiliation alone, but researchers have found that across denominations, “women who report that religion is ‘very important’ in their everyday life have both higher fertility and higher intended fertility than those saying religion is ‘somewhat important’ or ‘not important.’”
Among Catholics, for example, surveys have found that those who attend mainstream Novus Ordo Masses have an average fertility rate of 2.3, as compared to 3.6 for those who attend Traditional Latin Masses (TLM). Notably, only two percent of TLM-going Catholics approve of contraception, versus 89 percent of Novus Ordo attendees. This gap is remarkably wider than the current fertility rate between mainstream Catholics and Protestants, which is now virtually nonexistent.
The question remains: was there any significant cultural change affecting the world anytime from the 1960s through the 1970s that may have impacted mating and childbearing? If one is searching for cultural drivers of childlessness, and of changed relationship and family dynamics necessarily tied up with it, the sexual revolution should be an obvious potential culprit.
Empowered by the birth control pill, it decoupled sex from babies in practice, a monumental social shift that triggered a whole slew of effects: Big rises in premarital sex, the view of sex as a recreational activity, changed relationship goals and dynamics, increased illegal abortions and demand for legal abortion (since women treated a pill only about 90 percent effective in practice as 100 percent effective), a rise in adultery, a rise in divorce… the effects were nothing short of monumental.
Furthermore, its effects weren’t confined to the U.S. or even developed Western countries, and even influenced countries like Japan, which Shaw is careful to note had not legalized the birth control pill until 1990. James Balmont pointed out in a column for i-dvice.com that “just as the ‘swinging sixties’ in America had projected sexual liberty as protest against the Vietnam War, so too did sex become utilised as a means of defiance in Japan.”
An indicator – or trigger – of changing sexual mores in Japan was the sudden explosion of films containing softcore porn in the 1960s. As changed societal mores opened the door to “mainstream” pornographic film in the West, Japan began to produce porn-laced “pink” films that became so commonplace that by 1970, “almost half of movies produced in Japan fell into the ‘pink’ category,” Balmont noted.
While the birth control pill wasn’t yet legal there, a combination of other birth control methods, permissive abortion laws, and the cultural practice of infanticide meant that the pill was not necessary for the country to dramatically reduce birth rates. This is shown by Japan’s sharp fall in fertility during the 1950s. Shaw himself noted that there were “mass abortions” in Japan in the 1970s.
If the explosion in childlessness in Japan and other countries from 1974 to 1977 can’t be attributed to economic factors alone, since there was no birth rate increase associated with recovery from the oil shock of 1973 – what were the other contributing factors? And how much of the childlessness can be accounted for by the sexual revolution?
Some clues may be found in a December 8, 1973 New York Times article entitled “Infantcide in Japan: Sign of the Times?” which tells how that year saw a drastic increase in the discovery of babies abandoned at railway stations. The article explains that the practice extends back over 1000 years in Japan, was outlawed in the “latter third” of the 1800s, and reappeared after World War II.
While the numbers of babies left at railway stations had dramatically increased in 1973, numbers of babies being deserted overall were already high: the article notes that “in Tokyo alone there were 119 cases of children being deserted” the previous year.
Perhaps because the increasing trend of child abandonment predated the oil shock, the Times reported that “many experts attribute contemporary infanticide and child desertions in Japan to rapid urbanization and a resultant drastic shift from the traditional extended family to the nuclear family.” More specifically, “as the size of a family gets smaller, there appear many young mothers who lose confidence in their ability to raise children,” according to Dr. Takemitsu Henmi of Tokyo University’s mental health department.
In an op-ed titled “The Nuclear Family was a Mistake,” David Brooks affirms the close association of urbanization with the nuclear family, asserting that “the decline of multigenerational cohabiting families exactly mirrors the decline in farm employment.”
While the trend of urbanization had begun long ago in parts of the West, and Japan’s urbanization was already well underway by the early 1970s, the impact on fertility rates of an increasing shift to a family structure in which grandparents were not readily available to assist with child rearing, should not be entirely dismissed.
In acknowledgement of this fact, in one of several measures aiming to increase the birthrate today in Hungary, grandparents will be “eligible to receive a childcare fee if they look after young children instead of the parents,” as CNBC has reported.
However, given that urbanization had been underway during the post-war baby boom, the uninterrupted decline in fertility by the 1970s cannot be explained by lack of extended family support systems.
The 1973 New York Times article contains what may be yet another clue. Regarding the rise in child abandonment, “More than half the deaths were attributed to the mother’s lack of mental maturity,” that is, “the increase in the number of childish parents,” as Tokyo University psychiatrist Dr. Takeo Doi described it.
This is another “unquantifiable” factor, but the conclusion is a common-sense one: a parent who will leave their own child for dead embodies the rock-bottom depth of childishness – the total abdication of responsibility for their own child.
To explain the rising infanticide (and abortion, and contraception) phenomenon in another way: lots more people were having sex without readiness to be a parent.
Is it possible that a global shift in attitudes about sex, in which it is no longer associated with babies in people’s minds, could have contributed to an explosion in childlessness as well as to a rise in “childish” parents or would-be parents who were saying “no” to children?
To answer this question, and to understand the effect of the sexual revolution on relationship and family dynamics, we must go back to the introduction of the birth control pill in the West.
Rise of the contraceptive mind in Western culture
For Western societies for which abortion remained illegal and for which infanticide was not culturally “accepted,” unreliable birth control methods meant that until the early 1960s, sex was inextricably tied up with childbearing in the minds of men and women alike. Unless they wanted to risk a dangerous and illegal abortion, or outrage their parents and bear the scorn of their peers, they had to wait until marriage for sex, or marry shortly after discovering the woman was pregnant.
Thanks to the pill, women had (what they thought was) a 100 percent assurance of avoiding pregnancy. Sex was now, in the minds of many, “free.” The possibility of sex before marriage was now nearly irresistible for people unrestrained by moral qualms, and even for the more religious for whom premarital sex tugged at their conscience.
The result was that by the mid-1970s the “majority of newly married American couples had experienced sex before marriage,” according to the Journal of the European Economic Association. In addition, “By 1971, more than 75% of Americans thought that premarital sex was acceptable, a threefold increase from the 1950s,” and the number of unmarried 20 to 24-year old Americans more than doubled from 1960 to 1976.
READ: Oxford study finds link between birth control, increased risk of breast cancer
This last statistic highlights the tremendous impact of the pill in lessening the incentive to marriage and child rearing. Now that men (and women) uninterested in children could satisfy their sex drive without thinking twice about raising kids, women entered into intimate relationships without the assurance that their man wanted to be the father of her children, and vice-versa. The incentive for men and women both to step up and parent children was now much reduced, with the promise of indefinite free sex.
Furthermore, the accompanying rise in magazine and film pornography, which became more and more socially acceptable and widely disseminated – even in places as far-flung from the West as Japan, as noted above – meant that men had unprecedented means for sexual stimulation and “satisfaction,” furthering lessening their incentive to suffer the hurdles of finding a wife or even simply a girlfriend or “fling” partner.
The sad consequences of the new norm of childless sex was shown most poignantly in Shaw’s film during the interview of a Thai woman and her husband of six years. When asked why she hasn’t had children yet, despite the fact that she wants them, she tells Shaw, in reference to her husband, “I just want to make sure that we’re synchronized with our plans.”
Shaw doesn’t have to say it out loud: her husband is emblematic of the modern man-child. His head is shaved except for a middle strip, grown long and pinned up in a top bun. He is texting on his phone, beer in hand, as Shaw interviews his wife and invites her to ask her husband on the spot whether he is ready for children.
“Are we planning to have children for [a] fact?” she asks.
“I want at least five kids, yes,” he replies, seemingly serious.
She turns to Shaw. “My husband is being ridiculous about that, because I am ‘age-delayed.’ I am 44.”
Her husband promptly gets up and walks away as she continues speaking to Shaw.
If Shaw’s numbers are correct, and an explosion in worldwide childlessness is what has tipped fertility rates below replacement level, then this scene embodies the major root cause: men and women are “empowered” to engage in sex and intimate relationships without the commitment to parenthood, and this has triggered a ripple of other mediating factors exacerbating childlessness, such as:
- Women are prioritizing education and career (and becoming more educated in relation to men),
- Childbearing is delayed until a woman’s fertility window closes,
- Changed relationship dynamics making it difficult for women and men both to find partners with whom to have children.
The 1973 oil crisis may have been a temporary trigger of increased abortions, contraception, and overall delayed childbearing (which for some women meant waiting until their fertility window closed).
However, the fertility of the English-speaking world, a cultural standard-bearer, had already been in decline since the 1960s, and in that part of the world major social shifts, and their cascading effects, were already underway.
Difficulty in finding a “suitable partner” with which to parent children is the most difficult factor to unravel, but it is also, Shaw notes, the most important: the most common reason for unplanned childlessness, he says, is “not finding the right partner at the right time.”
Shaw highlights what appear to be contributing factors: women tend to want to settle with men at least as educated as they are, and everywhere, significantly more women are enrolling and staying in college than men; there are “too many options;” a number of young men are staying at home playing video games instead of pursuing women (or have given up on that).
In an interview with Jordan Peterson, Shaw suggested that, instead of asking how women can become less educated, one might ask why men are becoming less involved in society, and why so many are becoming “incels,” that is, the involuntarily celibate.
Peterson objected that people are asking the questions “backwards” in this respect.
“Why people become useless” is “not a mystery,” said Peterson. “It’s easy to be useless. The mystery is why that doesn’t happen to everyone all the time, and the answer is we build up extremely careful structures of societal discipline to encourage people to adopt long-term responsibility. And when you allow those structures to collapse or you undermine them, you get the default. And the default is useless, the default is short-term gratification.”
While Peterson may be primarily referring to the massive numbers (more than 7 million in the U.S.) of prime working age men who aren’t looking for jobs and are living off of family, girlfriends, and government stipends, the role that pornography plays in our modern day relationships crisis can’t be underestimated.
Porn substitutes, for some men, the satisfaction they would otherwise seek in a meaningful relationship with a woman (I would say marriage, except that premarital sex is the norm today). With porn as an outlet for men’s sex drive, and video games as an outlet for their otherwise productive hunter-gatherer instinct, it’s no wonder that men are “checking out” of society altogether.
Alternatively, for men in intimate relationships or who are married, porn is inflicting serious damage on their relationships. The evidence is mounting that porn addiction is destroying sexual intimacy, hiking up divorce rates, and producing record rates of erectile dysfunction. It is also associating arousal with violence, with a reported 88 percent of scenes in “top rented and downloaded porn” containing violence against women.
Of course, in our cultural breakdown, women are not blameless. They have relinquished their role as sexual “gatekeepers,” and the first to do so have set the standard for other women, so that many cannot have a relationship with a man in the first place if they’re not willing to have sex with him before marriage.
Feminism has also done a number on relationships through a few pathways. By causing women to scorn their own femininity, to scorn the idea that they should try to please their man, and to scorn the chivalry of men, both sexes’ respect for and attraction to each other were weakened.
And like men, women have capitulated to the sexual revolution’s new attitude towards relationships, which transforms their whole mating approach. Instead of looking for qualities that will make for good mothers or fathers, many men and women now focus on superficial qualities, forgetting the meaningful root behind their appeal (ie. women demanding a tall man or a high-earning man, instead of focusing on whether he can be a provider and protector).
Making matters worse, the increasing secularization of society and the “anything goes” mentality of the sexual revolution means that mate selection is decreasingly related to shared meaningful values, so that men and women are even more at a loss as to how to choose a mate, let alone build a lasting marriage.
There is no shortage of stories to back up these sad conclusions. Shaw highlights the common occurrence of women who waste five or more years with men who either won’t commit to them for marriage and parenthood, or with whom they eventually realize they cannot see themselves having children.
Only those ideologically wedded to the sexual revolution and the contraceptive pill can deny the unmitigated disaster inflicted by these cultural bombs. With the ripple of their impact only worsening relationships and families today, liberal-minded commentators like Louise Perry are beginning to question the societal benefits of the contraceptive pill, which for the vast majority of mainstream commentators has long been unthinkable (thoughtful Catholics like Janet Smith, who discussed these issues in her famous “Contraception: Why Not?” being the exception).
Now, as Shaw points out, unless fertility returns to replacement level or above, the ensuing population collapse will not only wreak havoc on economies, but will bring about a new epidemic of loneliness, which Shaw has seen tragic glimpses of in Japan.
Solution: A revolution of values
Fundamentally, a societal shift in fertility can only occur if men and women alike change their attitude to relationships, to children, to motherhood, and to fatherhood.
Our contraceptive mentality reveals a strange disconnect between our ideas and reality. Ask almost any parent, and they will affirm, even for the “accidental” kids, that they wouldn’t for a second think of trading their children for a nicer house or car or having a more comfortable life. And yet, in the decision to contracept, that is exactly how many think: they are sacrificing the existence of a child for greater material well-being.
It is as if we are turning to our would-be child and saying, “It is better that you don’t exist.”
We need to let this sink in. Would we say this with respect to any of our living children? God help us if we do. Could this mentality be at the root of so much family trauma?
Many will say contraception is for the benefit of their other children. And yet, Archduke Eduard Habsburg, father of six, has testified that in his experience, “having lots of children is the greatest gift you can give yourself, your spouse, and also all the children.”
He added that “it will be a gift to have more siblings” for each child not least of all because of how they learn to get along with one another, and how they learn to look out for the youngest, that is, the most vulnerable, in the family.
WATCH: Catholic author explains how the Sexual Revolution led to millions of abortions
And it is not only children who need to be celebrated and esteemed. In his interview with Shaw, Peterson spoke of the importance of “culturally elevat[ing] the sacred significance of motherhood, to put the mother again on something approximating the necessary pedestal.”
“You see this in Catholic imagery all the time… I would say any society that doesn’t hold the mother and the infant as sacred is doomed. For obvious reasons, since we all have mothers and we’ve all been infants,” said Peterson.
Indeed, it is the authentic Catholic worldview that esteems motherhood, and children, to the fullest. Time has now borne out how the Church’s teaching on contraception comes from a place of wisdom that perhaps could not be totally understood until now.
Esteem for fathers is also paramount. One need only look at the devastating effects of fatherlessness on young men and society as a whole to begin to grasp this. Their presence, involvement, discipline, and love – or lack thereof – profoundly affects their children in just about every respect, and can “make or break” the trajectory of their children’s lives. Their ideas also have a heavy influence on their children’s worldview, usually more so than that of mothers.
I believe that another step to reversing the explosion in childlessness involves men becoming better men, and women becoming better women. This will help foster stronger, lasting relationships, and is a precondition for people even beginning to consider the birth control pill a failed experiment.
This is also part of the necessary work of simply relearning what it means to be a man, or relearning what it means to be a woman.
But I don’t think this will work if it’s done merely in modern-day fashion, for the purpose of “self-actualization.” In fact, an attitude which only does anything for “self-actualization” is contrary to parenthood itself, because having children is not a “self-improvement” exercise or act of self-gratification – it is for the sake of the children, to give them the most fundamental good: the gift of life.
What’s required for lasting change is real love-in-action, and this is engendered deeply, cohesively, and meaningfully by a belief that God is the first and ultimate Father, who Himself lovingly welcomes each new life and has a transcendent vision for each human being, in which they bear fruit that lasts for eternity.