December 2012, Week 3


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Sat, 15 Dec 2012 01:44:01 -0500
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Go to Your Womb, Ross Douthat

Katha Pollitt
December 5, 2012
December 24-31, 2012 edition of The Nation

Ross Douthat, The New York Times's Catholic-
conservative columnist, is so obsessed with women's
fertility it's really too bad he can't get pregnant
himself and see firsthand what it's all about. Then he
might understand a bit more about what women are up
against in this world, and why he is wasting his time
fretting about hookups and birth control, inveighing
against abortion rights and urging women to have large
families for the greater glory of God and country.
"More Babies, Please" is his latest effort in this
vein, keyed to a recent Pew Research Center report that
finds that the birthrate fell rapidly between 2007 and
2011 and now stands at the lowest point since 1920,
when accurate record-keeping began. The big surprise is
that the drop was led by immigrant women, who have
historically had more kids than the native-born: while
for US-born women the birthrate declined by 6 percent,
for foreign-born women it was 14 percent and for
Mexican-born women a whopping 23 percent. There are a
lot of ways to read this drop: the recession makes
people cautious; more women are using better birth
control; the more seriously women take their education
and their jobs, the less likely they are to have kids
before they are good and ready. For college-educated
women, raising a child not only costs a fortune while
lowering a mother's income for life; standards of good
mothering have been raised so ridiculously high you
might as well commit to joining a Buddhist monastery.
As for low-income women, pushing them to have fewer
kids was one of the goals of welfare reform: maybe it

Douthat believes that our low birthrate means we risk
losing our "economic dynamism." Right: because high
birthrate places like sub-Saharan Africa, Gaza and the
Philippines are such engines of prosperity and
advancement, and low-fertility nations like Germany and
Japan are barely getting by. For Douthat, it's not just
that fewer kids mean fewer workers down the road to
support Social Security. It's that women having fewer
babies-even no babies!-is "a symptom of late-modern
exhaustion" and "decadence": "It's a spirit that
privileges the present over the future, chooses
stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists
over what might be. It embraces the comforts and
pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic
sacrifices that built our civilization in the first

Oh, honestly. What nonsense. The United States is one
of the most innovative countries in the world: we're so
future-oriented we can barely be bothered to read the
Times on paper anymore, or buy a book in an actual
bookstore-or buy a book, period. The supposedly
creative destruction of capitalism is what America's
all about. Granted, it's nice to hear raising children
frankly described as a sacrifice-although surely not
one as big as it was back in the days of astronomical
rates of death or injury in childbirth, when Theodore
Roosevelt was thundering against the "race suicide"
committed by white women limiting their fertility.
("Did I write you of my delight at meeting one Hiram
Tower, his wife and his seventeen children?" he wrote
to Henry Cabot Lodge.) Credit where due: prophets of
"demographic winter" usually warn against declining
numbers of white people, but Douthat is too savvy to
mention as a special concern the fact that white
American women have a fertility rate of 1.8, way down
there with the women of Old Europe.

Douthat is vaguely aware that it's not enough to
lecture women to lie back and think of George
Washington. He acknowledges that US government policy
does little to help family stability, and mentions
France and Sweden as countries where policies have
raised birthrates (slightly). Maybe, he suggests, we
could try some of that over here: "a more family-
friendly tax code, a push for more flexible work hours,
or an effort to reduce the cost of college."

Would you have an extra baby if you got a bigger tax
deduction for it? If your boss let you work ten hours a
day four days a week or one afternoon at home? If
college was a little less expensive? (And how is that
supposed to happen, I wonder, without massive
government subsidies? See above: "tax cuts.") I doubt
it. France and Sweden have massive, comprehensive,
well-thought-out programs to make motherhood less
onerous: generous parental leave (in Sweden the father
must take part of it), national healthcare that covers
birth control and abortion care, good schools,
excellent daycare and preschool, a panoply of family
subsidies and worker protections. Higher education is
basically free. For the working-class people Douthat
focuses on, life is just better. Single mothers-yes,
sluts-can manage well. Those countries acknowledge that
mothers work, and want to work, and that all children
deserve a decent upbringing. According to UNICEF, in
France the child poverty rate is 8.8 percent; in Sweden
it's 7.3 percent. In the United States, by contrast,
it's a staggering 23.1 percent.

You know where else support for working mothers and
children meant more kids? The Soviet Union and East
Germany, both now in severe population decline, thanks
to the wonders of capitalism. You know where the
birthrate is lowest? Patriarchal countries where having
a baby means you stay home forever: Italy, Spain,
Greece, Japan, Singapore and that jewel in the crown of
Roman Catholicism, Poland. How would you like to be a
Japanese or Polish or Italian housewife, Ross Douthat?
I thought not.

I'm not so sure why we want more people on our crowded,
overheated planet, where world population is projected
to increase by 2 billion before finally beginning to
fall. But if Douthat really thought through what it
means to have and raise a child these days, I'm sure he
could come up with a lot of great ways to help women
and families. The trouble is, he couldn't be a
Republican anymore. He'd be a socialist.


Katha Pollitt is well known for her wit and her keen
sense of both the ridiculous and the sublime. Her
"Subject to Debate" column, which debuted in 1995 and
which the Washington Post called "the best place to go
for original thinking on the left," appears every other
week in The Nation.


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