Birth Rates Are Plummeting in China and the U.S.

“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.

Empty swings representing antinatalism

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.”

As president of Human Life International, Fr. Boquet is a leading expert on the international pro-life and family movement, having journeyed to nearly 90 countries on pro-life missions over the last decade. Father Boquet works with pro-life and family leaders in 116 counties that partner with HLI to proclaim and advance the Gospel of Life. Read his full bio here.

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  1. Sheila on June 10, 2021 at 5:17 PM

    Thank you for providing such an excellent explanation of how our culture has become a Culture of Death, Father!
    Could not find words to summarize all the excellent points that you made.
    The Holy Spirit is working in you & Human Life International.
    Please pray for those of us who are trying to help our crippled dioceses effectively promote the Culture of Life.

  2. Jason Ficklin on June 9, 2021 at 8:11 PM

    Great article! Thank you Father!

  3. CD on June 8, 2021 at 5:39 PM

    It may get worse, as our health and ability to bear children is under attack. How many women are hemorrhaging due to the latest vaccine protocol? Can this be studied? Something is happening to eliminate our chances of giving birth. It is not just choice anymore, it is further than that I feel. We do not have health, we do not have choice. Please consider the effects of current vaccines are unknown, but causing much damage! Proud Mom of 12! Thanks for hearing me.

  4. Sue Fryer on June 8, 2021 at 10:11 AM

    Thank you for this article Father

  5. Waigolo Timothy on June 8, 2021 at 7:08 AM

    Thanks for this information

  6. cecille de villa on June 7, 2021 at 8:14 PM

    Couples are well aware of the consequences when bearing children. Only those who see the need to have children are the ones that are happy to bear. The media and school education are factors why our young couples do not want to have children. They were taught that having a big family will jeopardize their way of living and could not be able to sustain the needs of the young ones. We are in the context of securalization. The only reason why they do not want to have more children is the fear of losing their freedom. Freedom of having a luxurious life, freedom of self, freedom to do what they want to do, since having children as God has given us the gift of life is to be nurtured and care. The culture of DEATH has been taught in school in a subtle way. Our children were taught that having a big family will cost disaster and hardship in their way of living.

  7. Michael V. Rossetti on June 7, 2021 at 6:58 PM

    So well defined and spoken, the reality of what we are faced with in our world today. The solution as you have noted is in our courage to speak, pass on and live the ‘Gospel of Life’ as given to us by our loving God. Thank God for all that we have been blessed with, first and foremost our gift of life.
    Thank you Fr. Shenan for reminding us of our plight and even more so for guiding us on our path back to reality and the reminder of this most beautiful gift that God has given us.

    God bless you.

  8. KATHERINE schlaerth on June 7, 2021 at 4:02 PM

    As a physician who does urgent care, I see many people who need at least temporary support while they are fighting illness. When I inquire about having their child or children help out a bit, often I am told that they have no children. Many of these people are in their fifties or sixties. I often wonder what will happen to these adults when the help they need is no longer temporary. Will they be massively institutionalized in state nursing homes? Deprived of medical care and placed on hospice? Will there be widespread euthanasia? WE, like China, and Japan, and Italy and many other countries whose birth rates have declined precipitously, don’t have the resources to cope well with a huge onslaught of elders without depleting the resources of a smaller younger population whose time and treasure will be diverted to their elders, and who therefore will not be able to support many children of their own.

  9. Steven Destler on June 7, 2021 at 3:28 PM

    I am not religious nor Catholic but do observe what is around me. My step daughters may never give us grandchildren. One due to health and related issues but the other in her mid 30’s is just as you say in your article. She is all about herself and states out load that there is no place for children as it would interfere on her “fun.” I find a lot of the last several generations extremely narcissistic and yet politically liberal and argue for more governmental control of their lives. This is a strange world we presently live in where the Lemmings are following their leaders off the cliff. It may not be China and forced but
    brainwashed to do others biding in a “free nation.”

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