As demographic anxiety goes global and populist, a roiling debate is forming around basic questions: Why do some people want children, while others do not? Why do some societies seem to be shrinking? Can a progressive, reproductive-freedom-embracing society survive over time? Or is it doomed to a slow, comfortable death?
It’s impossible to address these questions without taking a long view.
Read: A surprising reason to worry about low birthrates
The United States was among the first modern nations to see a steady, large-scale fertility decline. In 1800, the average American had seven kids. By 1900, that figure was 3.5, and President Theodore Roosevelt was excoriating his people for committing “race suicide”—a “sin for which the penalty is national death, race death; a sin for which there is no atonement.”
Roosevelt’s denunciations caused a sensation, not only because the president was discussing sex rather than, say, tariffs, but also because his diagnosis was so grim. A major civic debate broke out. In letters, newspapers, radio shows, and surveys, thousands of Americans looked to themselves and their communities, and tried to explain the desire for smaller families. Over the next few decades, they produced a highly plausible composite portrait of the popular birth-control movement, with birth control here meaning the practice of controlling births, rather than specific technologies used for that purpose.
Observers considered a thick tangle of overlapping social explanations, ranging from sprawling generalities to daily practicalities. At the practical end, for example, was housing discrimination against large families. Early 20th-century landlords had both the right and the inclination to turn away tenants based on the number and the unruliness of their children. Landlords posted signs prohibiting “dogs and children”; in 1904, stories circulated about a mother of five from Brooklyn who was turned away by 87 apartment houses, despite her husband’s steady job.
Somewhat less practical were a series of aspirational issues. Americans seemed to expect more for their children and themselves than did previous generations. More education, better health, less grueling work, more leisure. On top of that, many parents shared a growing sense that responsibility for their children’s success fell on them more than on the child.
And then there were economic considerations. Everyone agreed that children were expensive—even farmers, for whom a child was only truly useful for a short time, as a teenager, before he left home. Crucially, though, economic decisions about children were unlike economic decisions about lumber. Children’s costs and benefits were bound up in fundamental moral questions about self, society, transcendence, and cosmic time. Am I born in reproductive debt to my family or community? Is birth control basically selfish, serving irresponsible adults, or altruistic, serving vulnerable children? Am I part of a transcendent chain of being that stretches far into past and future, or the sovereign of my present?