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What is causing our fertility crisis? Catholic experts weigh in

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The record-low fertility rates in the United States and the decline in fertility globally are driven by both social and economic factors, according to Catholic panelists speaking at an event hosted by the Institute for Human Ecology (IHE).

According to provisional data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week, the 2023 American fertility rate fell to 54.4 births per 1,000 women, which is the lowest in recorded history. The total fertility rate, which estimates how many children the average woman will have over her lifetime, fell to just over 1.6 — well below the replacement rate of 2.1.

The panel, titled “The Population Bust,” took place at the Catholic University of America. The institute is affiliated with the university’s Department of Politics. The panel was moderated by Catholic New York Times columnist Ross Douthat.

How fertility began to trend downward

In 1800, the fertility rate was more than four times the current rate, standing strong at more than seven births for every woman over her lifetime.

The rate steadily decreased to just over three births for every woman in 1925, until taking a large dip to 2.06 during the Great Depression. Fertility rose again at the end of the Depression and the end of World War II with the baby boom, to more than 3.5 births for every woman by 1960 — then plummeted immediately thereafter.

Apart from a few small short-term bumps, the country’s fertility rate has never recovered from the post-1960 downward trajectory.

Catherine Pakaluk, an IHE scholar, mother of eight, and author of the recently published book “Hannah’s Children,” said the gradual decline since 1800 was primarily a result of industrialization. When the country was more agrarian, children were an economic necessity to help with work and to provide care for their parents as they aged. But industrialization and the social safety nets ended that incentive.

Before industrialization, Pakaluk noted, the mindset was, “You’re going to do this really hard thing because it’s the sort of thing you need to do.”

Yet fertility had mostly remained above the 2.1 replacement rate until the 1960s when there were significant shifts in the culture. In 1960, just before birth rates began to plummet again, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first birth control pill and the women’s liberation movement began to take hold of the country.

When the “contraceptive revolution” occurred, along with a rise in feminism, Pakaluk said many women still wanted to have children but began to prioritize professional goals instead.

“They also want to have jobs and careers,” Pakaluk added. “Literally, that’s the problem. They want to have two things that are in conflict. … Women’s large-scale entry into the paid workforce is the thing that’s in tension with having the children they want to have.”

Timothy Carney, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, father of eight, and author of the recently published book Family Unfriendly,” said the United States has become “a contraceptive society.” He lamented the social view that children are simply “your individual deliberate choice,” which he said emboldens the mindset that this “freed up everybody else from having to help out.”

“Our society is failing to make people want to have kids,” Carney said. “Our society is falling short in all these ways. … It is our culture that is family-unfriendly.”

Carney said that having children used to simply be a part of life, but now people postpone and agonize over the decision. He criticized “helicopter parenting” as one of the reasons people are afraid to have more children.

“Millennials were more helicoptered as kids, and so their view of what parenting is was much more daunting than [Generation] X, where it was ‘come home when the street lights turn on’ when we were little,” Carney said.

“It’s our culture’s values that are off,” Carney added. “And it’s all tied to the overparenting [and] the strange new mating and dating norms, which [are based on] a belief in hyper-individualism.”

Complexities in fixing these trends

For her recent book, Pakaluk interviewed women who have defied these trends and built large families with their husbands. The reasons that those women decided to have large families, she noted, were rooted in religious faith.

According to Pakaluk, these women believed that “children are blessings from God, expressions of God’s goodness and the purpose of my marriage.”

“Churches and religious people are actually holding the one thing that can make the biggest difference because it’s either true or it’s not true that children are blessings [and] that they’re always valuable,” Pakaluk said. “… If it’s true, it’s not propaganda to say it. … If it’s true and it’s not propaganda, people can begin to believe this.”

Pakaluk said the central assertion of Christianity is that “God became Man as a human infant and that reality is supposed to color the way we see the value of human infancy.” Although the women she spoke to have goals and responsibilities apart from their roles as mothers, she said the faith component ensures that they prioritize building a family first.

“To get more children, you have to find some way … to argue that this particular good — the ‘children’ good — is of greater value or more importance,” Pakaluk added.

Carney suggested that some of the cultural difficulties could be mitigated through economic incentives. He criticized the failure to pass a child tax credit and rebuked the mindset that society has no role in supporting families.

“People have less community support,” he said.

Still, Carney cited the importance of a resurgence in faith as a fundamental component of raising fertility rates.

“The secular story — the godless story — ends up being too sad to want to continue the human race,” Carney said.

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What is causing our fertility crisis? Catholic experts weigh in