Reckless Breeders

The correlation of reckless breeding with defective and delinquent strains, has not, strangely enough, been subjected to close scientific scrutiny. This is a crying necessity of our day (Margaret Sanger).

Mrs. Sanger would classify me and my wife as reckless breeders—seven kids, and not a whiff of birth control. “Bring ’em on!” we said when we got married, and so God did—alleluia! And nary a defective nor delinquent strain in the lot. Scientific scrutiny be damned.

Margaret-Sanger-1916-620x320The funny thing is that reckless breeders are in short supply these days, and not because of scientific scrutiny, nor its nefarious twin, draconian social policy (thankfully a thing of the past). As a nation, we’re sinking demographically, but instead of rearranging deck chairs, we’ve struck up the band and we’re throwing a party! Yeah! No babies! Whooo-hooo!

A stark example of this is a recent Time Magazine cover story, “The Childfree Life.” Here’s the tagline: “The American birthrate is at a record low.” Indeed, it’s startlingly low—2.0 babies per woman at last count. Keep in mind that the replacement rate is 2.1, and the rate’s trajectory is down, not up. Bottom line: We’re going the way of Europe and Japan, where grey is all the rage.

Shrinking fertility rates and aging populations are important for a number of reasons, as William McGurn points out in his review of Jonathan Last’s What to Expect When No One’s Expecting. Among other things, fewer kids means fewer workers to make stuff and buy stuff, and fewer taxpayers as well. More and more retiring boomers are starting to collect government benefits, and there are fewer and fewer employed taxpayers to foot the bill. Our weak economy only exacerbates all this.

McGurn also mentions a weakening of our national defense and a curtailing of innovation as the balance of our population tilts in the direction of the aged. But these are mere temporal concerns. A bigger problem has to do with our vision of what marriage and sex is for in the first place.

But don’t I know? It’s for fun, of course!

Of course. But not just for fun.

Back in 1982, The Roches released their album Keep on Doing which included a song called “Sex is for Children.” The song is a collage of sounds and words that doesn’t reveal a whole lot about the title’s meaning. But, as song titles go, it’s definitely provocative and memorable. And simply true. Physiologically, anatomically, sex is indeed “for children.”

Regardless of how enjoyable it is (and enjoyment here is meant to include both tactile pleasures and the more abstract pleasures of mutual self-giving), sex is clearly oriented to the begetting of children. In fact, when Margaret Sanger and her allies coined the phrase “birth control,” they obviously took the biology for granted—i.e., they were selling more sex with less births.

This dual meaning of sex—pleasurable union and procreation—is something the Church has always taken into account and honored. It’s an idea at the very center of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae:

[The] fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life—and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman.

Yet, the Church goes much further than that, teaching us that kids really are the main point. Pope Pius XI puts it this way:

Thus amongst the blessings of marriage, the child holds the first place. As St. Augustine admirably deduces from the words of the holy Apostle Saint Paul to Timothy when he says: “The Apostle himself is therefore a witness that marriage is for the sake of generation: ‘I wish,’ he says, ‘young girls to marry.’ And, as if someone said to him, ‘Why?,’ he immediately adds: ‘To bear children, to be mothers of families’.”

Terribly backward by today’s standards, I know, but even Margaret Sanger seemed to admit that motherhood had its good points—even aside from merely perpetuating the species. She wrote that the “potential mother can then be shown that maternity…may be the most effective avenue to self-development and self-realization.”cheaper-by-the-dozen

But how? What is it about having kids that seems to be so vital to self-development and self-realization? I think Lauren Sandler’s Time article gives us some clues, like when she quotes New Yorker Jenna Johnson, who is partnered and happily childless: “My plans—professionally, daily, long-term, even just for vacation—are free from all the contingencies that come with children.”

Contingencies. That’s a nice way of putting it. For us parents in real-time, it’s more like “constant chaos,” where every day is a matter of survival, and coming home at night is similar to a controlled crash landing.

So why do we do it? Love. Love begets love. And, in this case, it’s not an abstract begetting, but rather a fully incarnate, enfleshed love—one that cries and laughs and poops. Being entrusted with that incarnate crying and laughing and pooping love changes us. It makes us better men and women, husbands and wives, friends, neighbors, workers, humans! Or at least it can. It should.

But it’s herculean, by all accounts—something that another childless woman featured in the Time article seems to grasp. Leah’s life with her husband is “insane already,” even without kids. She goes on: “I don’t feel we can do what we do and be great parents—and for me, the emphasis would be on being great parents.”

Exactly. Leah would be a great mom. I hope she gets the chance.


A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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  1. > “As a nation, we’re sinking demographically”

    What do you mean?
    In the U.S. there are lots more births than deaths:

    e.g. in 2011 in the USA there were

    3.95 million births, compared to

    2.51 million deaths


    • Thanks for your comment, John. First, a disclaimer: I’m no demographer, and I’m not sure how statisticians figure population stability. Still, the fact that our population is in steep decline seems to come up pretty regularly in the news.

      For example, just a year ago, the Huffington Post featured a story by Bonnie Kavoussi entitled “U.S. Birth Rate Not High Enough To Keep Population Stable”:

      Kavoussi includes this summary: “The U.S. birth rate now is 1.9 births per woman over her lifetime, when 2 births per woman is necessary to sustain the population on its own. Because of immigration, the population is still growing, but the birth rate has been plunging since the recession started in 2007 and fell below population-sustaining levels in 2010.”

      Here’s something similar from Slate last January:


      • Thanks Rick, yes many news items do give impression that U.S. population is declining. But despite forty years of a birth rate (TFR) fluctuating around 2.1 the USA has had persistent “natural increase” (births above deaths).

        Maybe a few decades in the future U.S. population will stop growing, but it’s not happening now. What is true now is that population is “ageing” – people are living longer, and the average age is rising, which worries economists and demographers.


  2. John, you sound much better equipped to wrangle the numbers than me, and I get the difference between an “ageing” population vs. one that is shrinking in absolute numbers. And you’re right that many of the population references I see are more precisely addressing the former rather than the latter – like an Economist article I came across yesterday about the falling crime rate that included this line: “Western societies are growing older, and most crimes are committed by young men” (

    But here’s an honest question: Even if the raw stats show increases every year (despite the low replacement rate, and including immigration), doesn’t the overall population’s aging character still spell demographic disaster? That seems to be the position of the Population Research Institute:


    • Thanks Rick, that’s a good question, and apologies for my slowness.
      I’d like to separate two aspects of population ageing:
      Temporarily, there’s a bulge of a big generation ageing, making age-structure diagrams top-heavy, but after a few decades, as people die, the age-structure will even out. So the transitional period is challenging.
      Permanently, when lifespan is longer, any fixed age-band like 0-15 or 16-65 is inevitably a smaller percentage of the total – because the upper end of the range of age is higher.
      Is it a disaster? One thing worrying economists is the “dependency ratio” i.e. people paying in versus people collecting pensions. The ratio is calculated using age 65 as the boundary. But that age was originally set for retirement in 19th century Germany, when average life expectancy was lower than 65.
      Adair Turner, former Chairman of the UK Pensions Commission, argues that problems of an ageing UK population can be helped by changes in tax and pension rules, and also by raising the retirement age so some of the added years of lifespan are shifted into working years. That is viable because “health at any given age is increasing rapidly” for example in the 1990s an average French woman of 75 was as fit as a woman aged 62 was in 1900 (from page 180 of my thesis at
      And what’s the alternative? To keep the “dependency ratio” where it is while life length is rising would cause the total population to grow faster (imagine trying to keep a pyramid of age structure the same shape while its height keeps rising), and that would have to keep going into the future. That wouldn’t be sustainable.


  3. Engaging and well written, thanks Rick!

    I seek myself to write on this topic (or more specifically on birth control and our perception of sexuality), and found this article very informative and helpful.

    Can you suggest any Vatican documents other than Humanae Vitae??



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