And no, this time I’m not talking about Ross Douthat or William Saletan. Today, is The Weekly Standard Jonathan Last who is trolling women about the tragedy of their barren wombs. In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Last claims that the root cause of nearly all of America’s problems, including “the fiscal cliff, the sequestration cliff and the entitlement cliff” (!), is our declining fertility rate. His basic argument is that low-fertility societies are less innovative, because they have aging populations and therefore pour too many resources into health care.
I agree that the U.S. spends far too much on health care; to me, that’s one of the strongest arguments for single payer. Last, however, is silent on this point. As for the argument that the U.S. is not innovative; that’s nonsense. Surveys regularly rank the U.S. economy as among the most innovative in the world.
What’s interesting is what Last doesn’t say. Going back at least to the days of Teddy Roosevelt ranting about “race suicide,” pro-natalist obsessives have generally tended to be racist cranks terrified about the white race’s inability, or unwillingness, to reproduce itself, but Last is too smart to go there. He doesn’t appear to be racist or anti-immigrant. Also, though he offers some policy solutions, he’s careful not to suggest policies that interfere with reproductive freedom, such as anti-abortion laws or restrictions on birth control access. So he almost sounds reasonable.
But then, when you start to look carefully at his argument about why we should be concerned about low birth rates, it falls apart. Correlation does not equal causation; there are places where the birth rate is high, such as sub-Saharan Africa and the Philippines, which are desperately poor, and others where it is low, like Germany, which are quite prosperous.
What’s he up to, then? Do a little digging, and it all starts to make sense. It turns out that Last is a full-fledged right-to-lifer in good standing — so much so that in a piece in the religious journal First Things he rather dickishly calls the pro-choice side “pro-abortion.”
This, then, is the key. It always is with these types who are so obsessed with other people’s wombs. They never have the best interests of women at heart. The best interests of a woman lie in choosing exactly when to have children and exactly how many children are right for her to have, given her unique circumstances. In general, the kinds of large families that the likes of Ross Douthat and Jonathan Last would like women to have are difficult to reconcile with gender equity. For instance, there is evidence that the more children a woman has, the more of a wage penalty she suffers, even if the time she spent out of the work force is held constant.
And of course, in real life, the time spent out of the work force is almost never held constant! In many families, it goes like this: a woman gets pregnant. She takes a leave of absence from her job, or possibly even quits her job and stays home for a few years. After all, she’s almost certainly making less money than her husband, so it makes sense that she’s the one who quits, right? If it’s a long leave or she leaves the work force entirely, she will inevitably lose ground in her career. And if she has several kids, she will lose even more ground. Meanwhile, her economically dependent status means she will also become a less-than-equal partner in the marriage. It’s inevitable that the person who controls the purse strings ultimately has the power in any relationship, even if he or she chooses to be a benevolent dictator about it.
My point here is not to cast judgment on any women’s lives. Only the individual woman can decide what is best for her, all things considered. Some women genuinely prefer being stay-at-home moms, and they have the privilege of making that choice. And certainly, there are some remarkable women who can successfully manage large families as well as thriving careers — I salute them! But gender norms about child care being what they are, and middle-class standards of child-rearing being increasingly demanding, it’s usually quite difficult for most women to maintain a career and also be a parent to more than one or two children.
So, to the extent that anti-choice men like Jonathan Last and Ross Douthat try to pressure women into having large families, gender equity is likely to suffer. Women will achieve less in the world, and they will become less-than-equal partners in the home. This is completely unacceptable, especially when their arguments about why we should be so deeply concerned about low birth rates are so pathetically weak.
Really, guys — if you want to turn back the clock to back alley abortions and 1950s-style patriarchy, why not ditch the unpersuasive rationale of “declining birthrates” and just come right out and say it? I still wouldn’t buy it, but having an honest conversation about these issues for once would be invigorating and refreshing.