Here's something that I didn't know before I read the rather ambitious New York Times feature that ran with this headline: "Americans Are Having Fewer Babies. They Told Us Why."
Apparently, if you ask young Americans why they are not choosing to have babies -- even the number of babies that they say they would like to have -- you get lots of answers about economics and trends in what could be called "secular" culture.
That's that. Religion plays no role in this question at all.
For example: In a graphic that ran with the piece, here are the most common answers cited, listed from the highest percentages to lowest. That would be, "Want leisure time," "Haven't found partner," "Can't afford child care," "No desire for children," "Can't afford a house," "Not sure I'd be a good parent," “Worried about the economy," "Worried about global instability," "Career is a greater priority," "Work too much," "Worried about population growth," "Too much student debt," etc., etc. Climate change is near the bottom.
You can see similar answers in the chart describing why gender-neutral young adults are choosing to have fewer children than "their ideal number."
Now, what happens if you ask people why they ARE choosing to have children? If the question is turned upside down, do issues of faith and religion show up?
It's impossible to know, since it appears that -- for the Times team and the Morning Consult pollsters -- religious questions have nothing to do with the topic of sex, marriage (or not) and fertility. Hold that thought, because we'll come back to it.
So what do Times readers find out about the reasons people give to have more children, even more than one or two? While it appears that no questions were asked about this issue, it's clear some assumptions were built into this story. This summary is long, but essential. Read carefully:
“We want to invest more in each child to give them the best opportunities to compete in an increasingly unequal environment,” said Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland who studies families and has written about fertility. At the same time, he said, “There is no getting around the fact that the relationship between gender equality and fertility is very strong: There are no high-fertility countries that are gender equal.”
The vast majority of women in the United States still have children. But the most commonly used measure of fertility, the number of births for every 1,000 women of childbearing age, was 60.2 last year, a record low. The total fertility rate -- which estimates how many children women will have based on current patterns -- is down to 1.8, below the replacement level in developed countries of 2.1.
The United States seems to have almost caught up with most of the rest of the industrialized world’s low fertility rates. It used to have higher fertility for reasons like more teenage pregnancies, more unintended pregnancies and high fertility among Hispanic immigrants. But those trends have recently reversed, in part because of increased use of long-acting birth control methods like IUDs.
In the Morning Consult and Times survey, more than half of the 1,858 respondents -- a nationally representative sample of men and women ages 20 to 45 -- said they planned to have fewer children than their parents. About half were already parents. Of those who weren’t, 42 percent said they wanted children, 24 percent said they did not and 34 percent said they weren’t sure.
So, in the international scene, there are no high-fertility cultures that are "gender equal," at least as that term is defined among the experts that are respected by the Times. More children is linked to oppression, at the global level.
Is it possible that there are other points of view? Readers will, of course, never know, since it appears that those voices -- even female voices -- do not exist.
It is, of course, interesting to note the degree to which babies are now discussed strictly in lifestyle and economic terms. However, there are clearly moral questions lurking in the background. Read this passage, for example:
One of the biggest factors was personal: having no desire for children and wanting more leisure time, a pattern that has also shown up in social science research. A quarter of poll respondents who didn’t plan to have children said one reason was they didn’t think they’d be good parents.
Jessica Boer, 26, has a long list of things she’d rather spend time doing than raising children: being with her family and her fiancé; traveling; focusing on her job as a nurse; getting a master’s degree; playing with her cats.
“My parents got married right out of high school and had me and they were miserable,” said Ms. Boer, who lives in Portage, Mich.
OK, I will ask: What does it mean when young Americans say they believe that there is a good chance that they would not be "good parents"? Perhaps this fear is linked to issues such as divorce, infidelity and other moral concerns? Spot any religion ghosts here?
In conclusion, let me note a passage that I have quoted before from a Weekly Standard (yes, a culturally "conservative" magazine) article that ran with this headline: "America's One-Child Policy."
Once again, this is long. Read carefully:
... In a world where childbearing has no practical benefit, people have babies because they want to, either for self-fulfillment or as a moral imperative. "Moral imperative," of course, is a euphemism for "religious compulsion." There are stark differences in fertility between secular and religious people.
The best indicator of actual fertility is "aspirational fertility" -- the number of children men and women say they would like to have. Gallup has been asking Americans about their "ideal family size" since 1936. When they first asked the question, 64 percent of Americans said that three or more children were ideal; 34 percent said that zero, one, or two children were ideal. Today only 34 percent of Americans think that a family with three-or-more children is ideal.
But on this question there are two Americas today: a secular population that wants small families (or no family at all) and a religious population that wants larger families.
Religious affiliation is part of the story, but the real difference comes with church attendance. Among people who seldom or never go to church, 66 percent say that zero, one, or two children is the ideal family size, and only 25 percent view three-or-more children as ideal. Among those who go to church monthly, the three-or-more number edges up to 29 percent. But among those who attend church every week, 41 percent say three or more children is ideal, while only 47 percent think that a smaller family is preferable. When you meet couples with more than three children today, chances are they're making a cultural and theological statement.
So about a third of Americans indicate that families with three-or-more children are ideal. Compare that statistic with recent research into the number of modern Americans who are making a serious attempt to actively practice some form of traditional religious faith.
So why does is this Times piece constructed to steer around any religious and/or moral questions linked to this, literally, life-and-death topic?
Oh, and one more question: Might this topic provide a valid hook for a feature addressing the 50th anniversary, on July 25, of the Humanae Vitae encyclical by Pope Paul VI?