“Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the begetting and educating of children. Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute very substantially to the welfare of their parents.”
─ Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, no. 50
Politically speaking, the United States and China could scarcely be more different. China is ruled by an authoritarian Communist Party. Individual Chinese citizens lack many of the basic rights and freedoms that Americans take for granted. Political speech is closely monitored by a rapidly growing surveillance state, and censorship of the press and of the Internet are pervasive. Meanwhile, the government is continuing to expand its “social credit” system, in which citizens are rewarded and punished for a variety of behaviors deemed helpful or harmful to the Chinese state.
However, perhaps the most dystopian of the Communist Party’s inhumane policies has been the country’s decades-old, forced birth control policy. Enforced population measures were rolled out in China in the 1970s, before being hardened into a nationwide one-child policy in 1979. Under the policy, those who became pregnant with a second child (there were some exceptions for rural women) faced paying enormous fines, among other punishments, or even underwent brutal forced abortions, sometimes into the ninth month of pregnancy. Forced sterilizations were also the norm. “Illegal” second or third children were also punished by being excluded from many of the privileges of Chinese citizenship, including access to state universities.
In the United States, of course, no such widespread, enforced birth control policies exist. Of course, there were some instances of forced sterilization in the early-to-mid-twentieth century – truly abominable experiments in eugenics, implemented against those deemed by the medical and political elite of the time to be “unfit” to reproduce. Such policies are an enormous stain on our national history and have been far too quickly forgotten. However, these policies, as inhumane as they were, only targeted certain small subsets of the population. America prizes its freedom too much to go about enforcing birth quotas. No official policy has ever prevented an American couple from having as many children as they like.
Plummeting Birth Rates in China and the U.S.
However, last week two stories drew my attention to a remarkable and disturbing similarity between China and the United States.
The first story is the Chinese government’s announcement that it is loosening its population control policy to a three-child policy. That is, Chinese families will now be “free” to have three children, without fearing forced abortions or other repercussions. This comes after the government had already loosened the policy in 2016, permitting couples nationwide to have two children.
However, the decision to further loosen the policy comes after the more liberal two-child policy failed to reverse plummeting birth rates in China (currently 1.7; with 2.1 needed to replace current population). In fact, not only did the liberalization of the law fail to reverse falling birth rates, but birth rates have in fact accelerated in their decline. The graph in the BBC report shows a very brief uptick in the birth rate after the 2016 announcement, followed by a steep decline.
Clearly, the Chinese government is alarmed. And for good reason. After decades of enforcing the one-child policy, the country is facing a rapidly aging population, with fewer and fewer young workers available to keep the economy going. Furthermore, the cultural preference for male children in China, combined with the one-child policy, has led to an enormous, and growing, gender imbalance. Huge numbers of Chinese men can never hope to get married or have children, something that experts fear could increase social unrest in the country.
The second story that caught my eye is about new CDC data showing a sharp decline in birth rates in the United States, bringing the country’s birth rate to the lowest in its history. According to the CDC, birth rates fell by 4% in 2020.
As Business Insider reports, the number of children born per woman in the United States has plummeted from 2.12 in 2007 (marginally above the level needed to replace the population) to just 1.64 in 2020. That is a staggeringly rapid shift in demographic trends. What it means is that the United States is not even remotely close to replacing its population through births. The only way its population can be maintained – let alone grow – is through mass immigration.
At the same time, a new study from Melissa S. Kearney and Phillip Levine at the Brookings Institution has claimed that it is unlikely that the birth rate will rebound any time soon. As the authors note, one possible hypothesis is that women are only temporarily delaying having children, and that this decrease could be followed by a significant increase. However, as Kearney and Levine argue, the evidence clearly shows that women are increasingly not only delaying childbearing until well into their 30s but also are having fewer children altogether. Their conclusion? “[L]ow birth rates and below replacement level fertility rates in the U.S. are probably here to stay for the foreseeable future.”
Our Mutual Culture of Death
However, the thing that really shocked me was when I compared the U.S. to the Chinese birth rate. According to the World Bank, China’s fertility rate is 1.7 births per woman. Astonishingly, this is higher than the United States’ current fertility rate of just 1.64 births per woman.
In other words, after decades of the single most repressive forced birth control policy on the planet, China’s birth rate is higher than that of the wealthiest, freest, most prosperous nation in the world. What China “accomplished” through a police state and brutal human rights abuses, the United States accomplished through…
Well…through what? That’s the million-dollar question. How exactly did the United States and China take such radically different paths, and yet end up at almost exactly the same place?
I think the answer can be found in one word: culture. Specifically, both the United States and China have, in their own ways, inaugurated an anti-natal culture: a Culture of Death.
In this it turns out that China and the United States are not so very different after all. As I noted above, the reason the Chinese government has announced the three-child policy is that the two-child policy made no difference. Why did it make no difference? You would think that, after decades of being told how many children they could have, Chinese couples would be thrilled that they could have more kids, without being punished. Why wouldn’t they make use of this newfound freedom?
Our answer is twofold. Firstly, vivid accounts of the brutality against human dignity and human rights, punishment and imprisonment, and executions are not easy to erase from public memory. Furthermore, decades of government intrusion, exploitation, propaganda, and policy nurtured something unexpected. At some point Chinese couples started choosing not to have children not only because the government told them they couldn’t, but also because they didn’t want to have children. Having one child became the cultural norm, such that having more than one child was viewed as undesirable. The government’s policy had worked far better than the government had anticipated, completely re-writing Chinese culture. Thus, one could possibly conclude, that the forced birth control policies aren’t even needed. Culture alone is sustaining the low birth rate.
This is the irony pointed out by an economist in that BBC report I mentioned above. “If relaxing the birth policy was effective, the current two-child policy should have proven to be effective too,” said Hao Zhou, a senior economist at Commerzbank. “But who wants to have three kids? Young people could have two kids at most. The fundamental issue is living costs are too high and life pressures are too huge.”
And then there is the United States. The U.S. does not have, and never has had, a forcible birth control policy. However, what the new data is showing is that the U.S. has in essence fostered a population control policy that is at least as effective as China’s forcible policy.
The U.S. government, media, and elite institutions have aimlessly worked through propaganda (the legal system, legislation, sex-education, TV, radio, social media, etc.), to redefine human sexuality, the dignity of marriage and the conjugal act, and the family. A utilitarian view of life has generated a rebellious attitude; particularly, a mindset that considers children burdensome, cumbersome to obtaining happiness and prosperity. Meanwhile, Americans have become wealthier and wealthier, with bigger houses, better cars, longer lives. But…no children.
The revolutionists of the 60s are seeing the fruit of their actions. They must be very, very pleased.
This calls to mind Pope St. John Paul II’s prophetic definition of a Culture of Death in Evangelium Vitae, no. 12:
“This culture is actively fostered by powerful cultural, economic and political currents which encourage an idea of society excessively concerned with efficiency. Looking at the situation from this point of view, it is possible to speak in a certain sense of a war of the powerful against the weak: a life which would require greater acceptance, love and care is considered useless, or held to be an intolerable burden, and is therefore rejected in one way or another. A person who, because of illness, handicap or, more simply, just by existing, compromises the well-being or life-style of those who are more favoured tends to be looked upon as an enemy to be resisted or eliminated. In this way a kind of “conspiracy against life” is unleashed. This conspiracy involves not only individuals in their personal, family or group relationships, but goes far beyond, to the point of damaging and distorting, at the international level, relations between peoples and States.” (emphasis added)
As Americans, we rightly celebrate our democratic freedoms, and we view China’s repressive regime with distrust. And yet, I must ask, what good are all our freedoms, if we use them only to serve our own self-interests, and to pursue our own pleasures?
It used to be that nearly every man and woman viewed settling down and establishing and supporting a family as the mark of maturity, as possibly the primary aim of their life. Certainly, raising a family was viewed as one of the most important, interesting, and productive things any human being could do. To be a good father or mother, was to be a good human being, and a good citizen.
But clearly, something has changed. A profound anti-natalism has been written deep in our cultural DNA. We are only just beginning to wrestle with the demographic, political, economic, and spiritual repercussions of this anti-natalism.
Our job, however, and the Church’s job, is to respond to this change by proclaiming the Gospel of Life. We must celebrate the goodness of life, and the ordinary heroism of mothers and fathers who welcome life, and dedicate their lives to serving their children, raising them up to become good citizens, and preparing them for life with their Eternal Father in heaven.
As Pope St. John Paul II put it so memorably in Evangelium Vitae, no. 96:
“The first and fundamental step towards this cultural transformation consists in forming consciences with regard to the incomparable and inviolable worth of every human life. It is of the greatest importance to re-establish the essential connection between life and freedom. These are inseparable goods: where one is violated, the other also ends up being violated. There is no true freedom where life is not welcomed and loved; and there is no fullness of life except in freedom. Both realities have something inherent and specific which links them inextricably: the vocation to love. Love, as a sincere gift of self, is what gives the life and freedom of the person their truest meaning.”