Advocates for gender equality and family planning should brace for a new wave of resistance—a swell of depopulation alarmism coming from both the Left and Right. Depopulation narratives frame declining birthrate as a threat to power, prosperity, or survival. The discourse implicitly or, sometimes, explicitly blames this perceived threat on females having access to education and contraception. It re-centers woman back in the traditional role of child producer. Anyone who cares about reproductive autonomy should have this swelling wave on their radar.
Depopulation doomsaying is trending. You may have noticed some of the headlines and popular book titles as they’ve cropped up: Empty Planet—The Shock of Global Population Decline; “With global births expected to decline, experts warn ‘crisis’ looms”—CBS; “The U.S. fertility rate just hit a historic low. Why some demographers are freaking out”—The Washington Post; “The US needs more babies, more immigrants, and more integration”—Vox; or “COVID-19 ‘baby bust’ an acceleration of longer-term trend—CBS. . . . (Links and additional examples at the end of this article.) This wave of alarmism has roots in genuine demographic changes that will demand innovation and adaptation, but alarmist discourse instead fans ancient anxieties about scarcity and competition. It has sobering implications for the rights of women and wellbeing of children.
When intimacy gets uncoupled from reproductive roulette, women have fewer babies, especially if contraceptive options are paired with access to education and other opportunities. In the 20th Century, birthrates dropped from an average of over five children per woman in 1900 to just over two by the end.
If you think about this in terms of individual empowerment or health, that’s an extraordinary accomplishment: Less maternal mortality, better birth spacing and healthier babies, parents who are more able to form the families of their choosing and then invest deeply in their chosen children, and more women able to pursue other interests and roles.
But that is not how everyone thinks about it.
New Times, Old Roles
Historically and traditionally women tend to think about reproduction in terms of caretaking, family well-being, healthy children and the trajectory of their own lives. Men—especially men in positions of power—have often thought about reproduction in economic and competitive terms: More children means more workers for the field, more adherents for the church, more serfs or slaves, and more foot soldiers to help one clan or tribe or kingdom or nation win conflicts with others.
We glimpse this historical view in the iron age texts of the Bible and Quran, where women and children are, essentially, economic assets belonging to a patriarch, the head of family. The Ten Commandments forbid a man to covet his neighbor’s house, wife, slaves, livestock or anything that belongs to his neighbor. A girl can be given by her father in marriage; virginity is guarded to ensure progeny of known lineage; a rapist can be forced to buy and keep the damaged goods; and a father can sell his offspring into slavery or even sacrifice his son. In one ancient story God gives Satan the right to destroy Job’s wealth—including his children—and then later replaces them.
In recent centuries societies have gradually evolved toward a different view of women and children, one in which each is fully a person, valued not as a means to an end but as an individual whose thoughts, feelings, preferences, intentions, and life experience matter in their own right. Women and children are seen to merit life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for the reasons that men merit the same. In his book The Prophet, poet Kahlil Gibran beautifully expressed this view:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow.
People rarely change in unison, and this particular transition is far from complete. Ambivalence abounds even at the bleeding edge of the shift, and old scripts remain largely intact in traditional and conservative subcultures. The World Health Organization estimates that each day 39,000 families give their underage girls in marriage, often as soon as they are capable of becoming pregnant. Many of these child brides drop out of school as they transition to the role of wife and mother, joining 129 million unschooled girls and 12 million teens who give birth annually. Among women, 190 million would like to prevent or delay the next pregnancy but lack modern means to do so. These girls and women have the highest rates of unsought pregnancy today, and they are particularly vulnerable to decreases in funding and service delivery if depopulation narratives become prominent enough to drive philanthropic and government priorities. Lack of information and access is de facto coercion.
Ironically, the second most vulnerable group may be those women in countries with the greatest degree of female education and contraception, which increasingly have the below-replacement birthrates at the heart of the depopulation narrative. These women lead very different lives than their sisters in the poorest areas of the Global South, but the challenge that depopulation alarmism poses for both groups is the same. Psychologically, it creates a powerful affective shift in which the thought of female empowerment elicits anxiety, ambivalence, uncertainty, frustration or overt hostility.
This emotional shift has the potential to stall progress even among individuals and institutions that continue paying lip service to gender equality, which most depopulation alarmists do. Mixed feelings lead to bureaucratic resistance, sluggish public investment, and philanthropic skittishness. That is because when people feel unsure about the fundamental goodness of a course of action, they cease to act.
Mixed feelings and moral muddying are a challenge in the family planning sector already, largely as a product of traditional religious teachings that frame female virtue in pronatalist terms. Bureaucrats, aid agencies and foundations often seek non-controversial, uncontested strategies, leading them to avoid family planning investments even when these might be central to attaining their goals—as, for example, in PEPFAR or the Green Climate Fund. But in much of the world, education of girls has been seen, at least by those in power, as an unmitigated good.
What Should We Do?
Among reproductive justice advocates, anti-coercion vigilance in recent years has centered on concern that women may be pressured not to have babies. This concern merits serious attention and safeguards. But advocates for girls and women also need to recognize that humanity may be returning to a phase when many women will face pressure in the opposite direction, as has been the case through much of human history. Language and practices that safeguard against coercion need to be broad enough to protect against both. Empowering women is the solution–the only solution to both of these.
To avert problems, we need to start with the facts. Human population skyrocketed during the 20th Century, and the curve is bending. Global population will grow for at least another generation, exacerbating climate change and resource depletion and some countries now face a new set of challenges associated with shrinking populations. With women having fewer babies and people living longer, a few countries now have more retirees than kids—Japan, for example, and Spain, and others will soon follow.
Advocates for women and girls need to take seriously some of the concerns raised by alarmists, for example questions about geopolitical power dynamics, changing dependency ratios—meaning fewer working age people relative to everyone else, and potential loss of creativity or productivity as populations become older. We need to press relevant experts (e.g., economists, social scientists, policy makers) to engage on these topics; and we need to be prepared with answers when alarmist hyperbole and legitimate questions come up. Unless there are credible paths forward, depopulation alarmists will continue to center on their current old “solutions” to new challenges—that women produce more babies or, temporarily, that wealthy countries recruit immigrants from places where women have less means to manage their fertility.
We need to ensure that women who do want more babies are supported in having them. The majority of decline in birthrates flows from empowerment of girls and women. But some portion of the drop is due to factors that discourage women from having babies they might want—financial constraints, lack of childcare options, fertility problems, health issues, and in the most extreme, anti-conceptive policies or practices that are coercive. As depopulation doomsayers raise these concerns we need to validate and address them without diminishing progress on reducing unsought and unwanted pregnancy. Credibility and integrity require that family planning and equality advocates support pro-conception and pre-conception care as well as contraception and abortion.
Organizations working on gender equality and family planning should prepare to inoculate their partners, funders, influencers, and the general public against the alarmist cultural wave. Depopulation doomsaying is flawed, often relying on unrealistic extrapolation and economic indicators that ignore per capita prosperity. The pronatalist calculus typically excludes non-monetized dimensions of wellbeing, environmental considerations, and technology shifts such as artificial intelligence and robotics. These flaws need to be exposed and corrected in both policy papers and popular media. This may require a coordinated communications strategy. We also need to be prepared for more generalized critique of gender equality and family planning driven by a diffuse climate of FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt).
The alternative to depopulation alarmism is creative innovation. Old school Malthusians made the mistake of underestimating human ingenuity, specifically our ability to feed people and grow prosperity as world population swelled from under two billion at the start of the 20th Century to almost eight billion at the close. Now reverse Malthusians make the same mistake and derive similarly wrong conclusions. If we can reach Mars, we can create a future that merges declining population, broad prosperity and reproductive autonomy. Rocket science takes will, work, smarts, imagination and teamwork; that’s how we as a species cross uncharted distances. So, let’s get on it. We can’t roll up our sleeves if we’re busy wringing our hands.
Subscribe for a coming series analyzing this trend more deeply.
Valerie Tarico, Ph.D.
Links, Additional Examples
“Experts sound the alarm on declining birth rates among younger generations: “It’s a crisis”
COVID-19 “baby bust” an acceleration of longer-term trend (yahoo.com)
Seeing Like a Pro-Family State: Addressing our fertility and family formation crises . . .
Fertility rate: ‘Jaw-dropping’ global crash in children being born – BBC News
Would Americans Have More Babies if the Government Paid Them? – The New York Times (nytimes.com)
The U.S. fertility rate just hit a historic low. Why some demographers are freaking out. – The Washington Post
A Fear of ‘White Extinction’ Is Provoking Racial Bias Among American Whites – Pacific Standard (psmag.com)
Population Growth Is Slowing. Why that Matters for the U.S. Economy | Barron’s
China’s registered number of newborns drops 15% amid population decline fears (msn.com)
Empty Planet: The shock of global population decline
One Billion Americans: The case for thinking bigger
Maximum Canada: Toward a country of 100 million
Could Japan’s Shrinking Population Lead to Shrinking Rights for Women? (newsweek.com)
Tanzanian president bluntly attacks contraception, saying high birth rates are good for economy (theconversation.com)
The great greying of China – The Hindu
The US needs more babies, more immigrants, and more integration – Vox
On the Demographic Path to Human Self-Extinction (linkedin.com)
Are Women “Baby-Making Machines”? | TIME.com
Noah Smith: Everyone has to pay when America gets too old | The Sunday Dispatch (psdispatch.com)