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Why Have Children?

- Abstract

Over the past years, a new demographic crisis has emerged as a subject of intense debate: the most affluent, most advanced, freest societies of the world are not having enough children to sustain themselves. Recent books—including Phillip Longman’s The Empty Cradle (2004) and Ben J. Wattenberg’s Fewer (2004)—have described the potentially tragic consequences of this decline. Lamenting the collapse of modern birthrates, world leaders as diverse as Vladimir Putin and Pope Benedict XVI have advocated pro-natalist state policies. Popular magazines and newspapers that once worried about the horrors of a “population explosion”—mass starvation in developing countries, environmental catastrophe, the subjugation of women trapped by the excessive burdens of serial motherhood—today ask whether free societies mean to perpetuate themselves at all.

Right now, the answer, with a few exceptions, is no. The data Longman and Wattenberg present are compelling. Since the 1950’s, the total fertility rate (TFR) in Europe has fallen from 2.7 to 1.38—an astounding 34 percent below the replacement rate of 2.1, which is the average number of children per couple needed for a society to sustain itself. Japan’s fertility rate is 1.32, and its average age is already forty-two years and climbing. (The world average, by comparison, is in the mid-twenties.) A large number of nations, including Russia, Spain, Italy, South Korea, and the Czech Republic, have TFR’s between 1.0 and 1.3; some of these nations (most notably Russia) are already experiencing rapid population decline. Generations of children are growing up without brothers or sisters, and a sizable percentage of men and women in the most advanced nations will never have any children at all.

About the Author

Eric Cohen is the editor of the New Atlantis and director of the program in Bioethics and American Democracy at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.