Young Family (La Jeune famille) (1902–1903), Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Public Domain.

Why Feminism Must Be Pro-Natal—and Pro-Human

It is understandable that “pro-natalism” raises the hackles of some feminists. They associate choiceless childbearing with a dark past in which women had few or no rights. Although the world now faces the impending catastrophe of too few births, we should not forget the historical travails of women who could not determine the pattern of their own fertility, nor should we ignore the reality that many women in the world today continue to face this challenge, even if, mercifully, their number is declining.

The historical background of forced pregnancies and childbearing has had a formative influence on feminist attitudes. The challenge we face is to adapt ourselves to the changed circumstances of the world, in which most women can access contraception, and most countries have a fertility rate below replacement.

However we interpret feminism’s historical position on the question of children, there are several good reasons why we should see twenty-first century feminism as being perfectly congruent with a more positive approach to parenthood.

Why Feminists Should Be Pro-Parenthood

First, and most importantly, there is the simple expedient of listening to what women actually say they want. In the UK and the US, women have around three-quarters of a child less than they say they want. Indeed, women not getting what they want when it comes to having children is a global phenomenon. A 2017 study of the US and 18 European countries showed that, in every one of them, women were having fewer children than they wanted. Almost everywhere in this economically developed zone, the average desired number was between two and 2.5, but in all countries the actual number born was lower. In the case of Spain, it was almost a whole child lower.

The gap between those who said that they wished to be childless in their early twenties and those who actually ended up not having children was, in most cases, between 10 per cent and 20 per cent of the cohort. In Italy, for example, although only about 2 per cent of women in their early twenties said they did not want children, more than 20 per cent had not had them as they approached the end of their fertile years. Likewise, research from Iran shows that women in every age group are more likely to undershoot than to overshoot their fertility goals.

There is evidence that the desired fertility of younger cohorts is declining in some places—but so too is their actual fertility. So the gap between desire and reality remains and is likely to continue to do so. In other places, including the US, the desired number of children is not falling, but the actual number born per woman is falling, so the gap is in fact widening. For whatever reason, women’s desires in terms of their fertility are not being realised. The following, from a Guardian article, is typical: “I’m a 49-year-old woman. I work hard, own a home and live a fairly good life. My problem is that I can’t help but feel regretful that I never had children. I can’t quite believe this is how my life turned out. When I was younger I ached for my own child.”

Second, there is a correlation between patriarchy and small families rather than large ones. In countries like Korea and Japan, where women are given educational opportunities but are then denied the chance to progress in the workplace if they also have a family, they choose not to have a family. Similarly, where traditional attitudes to marriage and childbearing put a taboo on extramarital childbirth, fertility is generally lower than where attitudes are more relaxed.

The path to higher fertility rates in the developed world lies through greater female emancipation, and, in particular, through enhanced rights and opportunities for women to enjoy a career alongside motherhood.

Third, what is true with regard to social norms and the workplace is true of the home. In developed countries, evidence shows that where men do a greater share of the housework, fertility rates go up. As one review of the literature on the subject put it:

Recently, studies have documented a connection between gender equality in the domestic sphere and its impact on fertility. This strand of research shows that in families where women do the majority of the housework, the likelihood of progression to higher order births is rather low…

On the other hand, in households characterized by a more egalitarian division of housework where husbands increasingly share domestic responsibilities, fertility tends to increase.

The data are convincing at both the national and the household level. This is likely a reason why countries where men play a greater role in undertaking household chores, such as those in Scandinavia and northern Europe, experience a higher fertility rate than those where more traditional male roles predominate, such as in Italy and South Korea.

Fourth, for feminists to advance women’s interests, there need to be women. Once abortion becomes widespread and ultrasound scans are the norm, sex-selective abortions take place in societies where male children are valued more highly than females. We have already seen what this means in Korea, where there is a wide disparity between the numbers of men and women in certain age cohorts. But it is not just South Korea: it is estimated that in South Asia, 7,000 fewer girls are born than boys every day. Even apart from any feminist or wider ethical considerations, this gives rise to practical issues. For every 1,000 men in Punjab, there are only 900 women. Globally, sex-selective abortions may account for a shortfall of as many as 200 million girls. Such practices are now common among South Asian communities in the West as well.

As a result of sex-selective abortions, the world is simply less female than it would be if it was left up to nature alone. The way to reverse this is for those who reject sex-selective abortion to have more children.

Taking these disparate factors into account, we can see the contours of a feminism that reacts positively to birth, embraces not only the concept of choice, in theory, but also the choice to have children, in practice, and which calls for society to support women in bearing future generations. Such a feminism should put female autonomy and choice front and centre, but it should not assume that choices around childbearing necessarily mean less childbearing. This is a feminism that the world badly needs, and on which the human future depends.

My own small contribution was a response to a question posed to me when I was recently in Seoul. What, I was asked, should Koreans be doing to encourage a rise in their birth rate? “Should we be doing more to celebrate motherhood?” the journalist asked me. “No,” I replied, as a father who has done his share of nappy-changing for his children, and is now doing it for his grandchildren. “We should be doing more to celebrate parenthood.”

We All Have a Part to Play

In the final analysis, whatever the social context and norms, and whatever the social implications, having a child is a personal matter, and it is usually a personal choice. This means that it is up to every one of us who is potentially able to have a child to consider this, and weigh up the options.

But people of childbearing age are only a relatively small part of the population. Age alone rules out many adults in countries with the kind of population pyramids we see in much of the developed world. Some are too old to have children; some too young. Others cannot or, for their own reasons, do not wish to have children. But this does not mean there is nothing they can do.

Collectively, we shape the atmosphere and culture. We can all be kind to pregnant women, giving up our seats on the Underground or bus. We can all make way for someone pushing a pram. We can all help out when a colleague has a childcare crisis without resentfully reflecting on how someone else’s childbearing choices end up impinging on our own time. That child will be paying your pension and may be caring for you when you are old. We can make sure not to be the sort of landlord who says “no children,” as a survey found nearly a quarter offering property for rent in the UK do, making the lives of parents needing to rent particularly difficult. We can all speak up against the wave of gloomy anti-natalism that threatens to swamp the culture. Even if people do not or cannot have children themselves, they can be good and caring friends, neighbours, and family members, making the lives of parents torn between childcare and work that little bit easier.

We can all become advocates for pro-natalism in our own way. My son, for example, who does not necessarily share my outlook but is very fond of children and hopes to have some of his own before too long, enquired within months of joining the firm where he works about making the paternal leave more generous and more equal with maternal leave. There was a change in policy, and his preparedness to meet the head of the firm and discuss the matter with her may have made a difference.

In particular, the role of grandparents is essential. In the course of writing this book, I was fortunate enough to become a grandparent twice over, when both my daughters had babies within a few weeks of each other. The book would have been written much faster if I, along with my wife, had not been spending quite a lot of time supporting the new parents in their joyous but daunting role, from ferrying them to prenatal appointments to taking them to the hospital for the delivery, to cooking meals and offering babysitting services to allow them to get a few hours of precious sleep after interrupted nights. Our role as grandparents will evolve as our grandsons grow and are, we hope, joined by siblings. Thankfully, our own parents set us a sterling example of what a difference grandparents can make.

There is solid research supporting the hypothesis that the involvement of grandparents has an impact on the fertility intentions of women. One Israeli academic, trying to explain the country’s surprisingly high fertility, said to me: “This country runs on grandparents. The whole thing would be impossible without them.” The presence of grandmothers has also traditionally reduced infant mortality, as new mothers benefit from the wisdom, experience and help of their own mothers. That role now needs to become one of providing the incentives and potential not for lower mortality but for higher fertility, and it can be shared by grandfathers as well as grandmothers.

Then there is the special responsibility of men. We have already seen that the sharing of household chores, including childcare, is positively associated with higher fertility rates. Everyone from husbands and male partners to government ministers needs to bear in mind that, while women have the biological responsibility of bearing children, more women will be more likely to have more children if the childrearing responsibilities are more equally shared. Patriarchal attitudes in the home and in the workplace are inimical to childbearing in modern societies.

In a nutshell, modern societies are trying to balance two potentially contradictory things: on the one hand, the education of women and their full participation in the workforce and at every level in society; and on the other, the unchanging biological reality of birthing and all that it means. We are not going to compromise on women’s rights. Either we must reconcile these with biology, or we are doomed to demographic Armageddon.

To succeed, we need feminists and environmentalists on board, as well as more socially conservative types. The various national-conservative parties and right-wing populist factions around the world are fundamentally pro-natalist. But the left too needs to get in touch with its pro-natalist roots, which go all the way back to Marx’s opposition to Malthus. Even those who fundamentally hate the West for its sins of historical colonialism and current racism need to understand that long gone are the days when pro-natalism was a concern for whites only. Koreans and Japanese, Jamaicans and African Americans: all will disappear in due course if current fertility rates persist, with an incalculable loss to the richness of human cultural variety. It will be a huge step forward when a belief that we need more children spans the political spectrum.

The first step, as always, is to understand the data, both the current numbers and their historical context and direction of travel. The second step is to acknowledge we have a problem. The third is to figure out a solution.

I do not have all the answers, and the solutions to perennial low fertility will vary over time and in different places. What works in one country at one time will not work in another country, or in the same country at a later date. Bold experimentation will be required. But we must try.

Building a Pro-Human Culture

Every person we have ever loved or cared about, every genius whose work we have marvelled at, every great person whose actions and words have inspired us, every one of these, like us, has come into being only because of human procreation. Without humanity, the world would continue to spin on its axis, but there would be no art, no culture, no music, no politics, no great cities, nor any extraordinary scientific innovations. Some might prefer such a world, devoid of human influence, and devoid of humans.

For those of us who would not, it is incumbent upon us to resurrect a pro-natal culture, something that was once innate in humans but is now in desperate need of being promoted.

Humanity must look itself in the face and realise that it is staring into a demographic abyss. The natural, unconstrained, and uncontrolled reproduction that has marked almost all of human history has been upended by urbanisation, education, rising living standards, the mastering of technology for controlling fertility, and the allure and excitement of many alternative projects. This was at first the preserve of a small, wealthy global minority, but it has now spread to almost every country on the planet. Now we must invent ways of thinking and living that include freedom and opportunity but that place procreation at their heart.

How we will do that will be through a mix of policy and practice, advocacy, exhortation, role-modelling, cultural influence and goodness knows what else: this book by no means contains all the answers.

That we must do it is, I hope, now beyond question.

This essay is excerpted and adapted with permission. © No One Left: Why the World Needs More Children by Paul Morland (Forum 4 July, £20)