My sainted mother (1911-2003), a woman of old-timey Southern graces, was wont to smooth down the edges of her expostulations; e.g., “If it’s not one ‘d’ thing, it’s another!” With embedded “d” or not, I never have diverged much from that magisterial judgment on the human race’s inability to get straight all things needing to be got straight, to understand all things necessary to the flourishing of human pastimes and life.
Get a few things right—one even—and other “d” things go to the dogs. The standards of the 20th century, one found back then, were always running through even tightly closed fingers, like grains of sand. The word “standards” included, naturally, the common sense of the human race—a fabric of common, and seemingly eternal, assumptions and understandings.
Okay. Let’s get down to brass tacks.
The common sense of the human race has in most settings about which I know anything included the understanding that the human race is made to multiply—to be “fruitful,” as the ninth chapter of Genesis would have it; the divine mandate to Noah. Get out there and “replenish the earth.”
It. Was. What. You. Did. Into the world came humanity, biologically and emotionally equipped for the task. Do it!
Unless you are listening with thirsty ear to today’s social prophets and arbiters: those who say, don’t do it! Or, if you must, please know that I’m not doing it. Not this woman. Not this guy. It’s not “my thing” or “my bag,” as we used to hear back in the 1960s. What’s more, our numbers are swelling. We’re changing the culture. Those old assumptions about “breeding”? Hah! Wait a few decades and see how many layers of dust overlie them.
“Americans,” says Suzy Weiss in an arresting piece republished in the New York Post (from Common Sense, Bari Weiss’s newsletter on Substack) “are making fewer babies than we’ve made since we started keeping track in the 1930s.” This, before the pre-Christmas tidings that the U.S. population grew just 0.1 percent in our miserable Covid year of 2021—the lowest growth rate ever recorded by the Census Bureau, accompanying, not so incidentally, a 1.8 percent drop in life expectancy.
Such news likely puts spring in the step of one Rachel Diamond, who, according to Weiss, posts TikTok videos noting her political move away from the authoritarian culture that allowed—encouraged, probably—her father to spank, and thus traumatize, her. No kids for this lady! She has company. “Last year [i.e., 2020],” Weiss says, the number of deaths exceeded that of births in 25 states—up from five the year before. The marriage rate is at an all-time low, at 6.5 marriages per 1,000 people. Millennials are the first generation where a majority are unmarried (about 56 %). They are also more likely to live with their own parents, according to [the Pew Research Center], than previous generations were in their twenties and thirties.”
An existential psychologist—I am not sure what job niche this covers—tells Weiss that young clients are telling him that “humans are the problem.” That’s a big, if not exactly a new, one. I recall a Newsweek cover story in the ’80s, making the same point. I wrote a negative, generally well-received commentary on the anti-birth movement. Times have changed. What once was common sense seems to be regarded online and elsewhere as old-hat eccentricity. With birthrates in the U.S. and most other countries dropping, Elon Musk, always one for the big picture, recently told the Wall Street Journal’s annual CEO Council: “I think one of the biggest risks to civilization is the low birthrate and the rapidly declining birthrate. And yet, so many people, including smart people, think that there are too many people in the world and think that the population is growing out of control. It’s completely the opposite. Please look at the numbers—if people don’t have more children, civilization is going to crumble, mark my words.”
We’re back to Genesis, as Mr. Musk could have added for historical context: People—two-armed, two-legged, breathing, ocularly equipped, maybe most of all thinking—are the future of the race, as we’d “d” well better acknowledge! We do that—broadly. But why not so broadly and, yes, automatically, reflexively, unconsciously, as of yore?
My guess: We’re into Individualism, and not just here but in most advanced countries, of a kind beginning to unravel before our eyes the worst, most dangerous instincts of the Enlightenment. Individualism is me-ism. I know what’s right and good! Don’t confuse me with supernatural or historical claptrap. The feel of the time and the place is the feel of . . . I would not say liberty, which, in the classical sense, entails responsibility and the habit of looking around to see what others are doing or saying or thinking. The feel of time and place today is the feel of latitude without restraint, without hesitancy, without limits. Remember the ’60s catch phrase? (Maybe not, if gray hair doesn’t sully your cranium.) The phrase I mean is, “If it feels good, do it.” Don’t ask. Do it.
That human common sense of which I spoke at the beginning is no longer instrumental in the lives of the individually empowered. The instinct ought to be: There must be something to this birth stuff. Let’s see: I was born. My parents were born. My grandparents also. And so on, back further than anyone alive can see. Is there possibly a plan here? A system? A design? How do I fit in? Do I fit in? If not, why not?
That final query is a bit of a stopper, running as it does contrary to physical as well as historical evidence. To deny the necessity of birth is to step outside the world of reality. The human body is constituted (as are animal and avian bodies) for replication. One has only to look, touch. He who says otherwise is to be regarded with the suspicion due the man who (in C. S. Lewis’s phrase) says he is a poached egg. Human biology says: Here’s how we go on. When the old wears out, the new takes over, as with a tire, a shoe, a light bulb.
Thus far common sense—the sense that reproduction is key to any understanding of the human role in life—talks commandingly. Only radical preference can get in the way.
There are reasons to override and disregard not human liberty but human cantankerousness. I call anti-birth reasoning cantankerous. I call it, in fact, an instance of non-reasoning. Its practitioners are not using their noodles. If a squirrel or a blue jay knows reproduction to be an ineffaceable part of life, surely a Wellesley grad must share that knowledge.
But here we are: Me first; me always. That is a generalization, yes. But within its dark folds lie damaging implications. There is a human instinct. There is no particular need to examine its point of origin. The Old and New Testaments give evidence of its effects, when aroused. The more secularly inclined will offer their own accounts, and this is fine, so long as we all, upon examination of credible evidence, conclude that virtually all of us like to have our own way! The ’60s did not begin this progression. The ’60s expedited it. “If it feels good ” Etc., etc.
One thing that felt especially good to the denizens of those times was the possibility of personal empowerment. We all should remember personal empowerment. There was a lot of it going around in the Edenic Garden, under the sad, if likely unsurprised, glance of the Creator of All Things.
We moved from there, by stages, to here: restrained not by changes in our nature but by the authority exercised over that nature, and generally accepted, on the say-so of religious leaders, speaking in the name of the Edenic Garden’s creator and proprietor, a.k.a. God. There arose what the Wall Street Journal’s editorial writers (and maybe other sources as well) have named “guidelines and guardrails”—protections against venturing too far off the trail and incurring harm. However, the spirit of liberation, manifest in the post-World War II years, increasingly neglected the duty of guardrail maintenance, preferring to see ventures outside the rails as healthy and fruitful.
As with abortion. I do not mean this in any mean-minded, clenched-fist spirit. The desire to avoid giving birth cannot be charted across races and faces and times and fears and situations of one kind or another. The ideologizing of abortion—My body! My choice!—is the premise that rubbed away the ancient commitment to unborn life as beautiful and nourishing. “Children are life renewing itself,” says Melanie Wilkes to Scarlett O’Hara at a poignant moment in Gone with the Wind. Life as a thing larger and grander and, it can be hoped, nobler than the small bags into which we drop discrete personal wishes: important in themselves but less so, in the large picture, than the ongoing-ness of the human enterprise.
Roe v. Wade, in all its permissive, go-right-ahead panoply, proved the sledgehammer that knocked apart many of the inhibitions to Mellie Wilkes’ idea that renewal of life is an urgent matter outweighing personal choice (as with Mellie’s personal, and fatal, choice, in the face of her fragile condition, to bear a second child to Ashley).
And so, after a period of years, and of choices bearing shall we say family resemblances to Mellie’s, we arrive at something quite different: the socially approved judgment that, well, look, you can take this obligation thing just so far. This is after all the 21st century, not the 19th! Society’s general embrace of feminist ideals, predicated on the concept of power for the power derived sex, has wrung out the old assumptions and hung them on the line to dry. Paul’s admonition in Titus, for instance, to “the aged women” that they might “teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children . . .” Subordinationism, is what the modern age sees in such counsel, and it just won’t do! We’re into equality. We’re into selfexpression. No wonder Hannah Arendt could write, during the ’50s, that “[A]uthority has vanished from the modern world . . . most will agree that a constant, ever-widening and deepening crisis of authority has accompanied the development of the modern world in our century.” Self-expression in great and small things alike: It leads to that. The little anxieties crowd into kitchens and bedrooms, making once-automatic decisions, once-inevitable reflexes, less automatic, less inevitable.
Regarding the conception of children there arise dollar-and-cent questions: from the cost of car seats for the beloved brats to the usual parental forkovers for college degrees and wedding dresses. It can be daunting. Choices, even in our age of abundance—perhaps especially in our age of abundance—multiply exceedingly, often narrowing instead of expanding the framework of decision. If I . . . well, then; but if I don’t . . . I replenish life or I increase the world’s exposure to overpopulation.
The framework of decision formerly had a different look than it presently sports. There was understood to be an overall design for life, in line with the purposes of life’s Creator, hard as those purposes might prove on occasion to work. The Church had no monopoly on the interpretation of those purposes, but it was understood as trying hard, under the Creator’s authority, to shape its interpretation so as to undergird human flourishing. There had to be something in this Life business. It didn’t spring up on its own.
Very well: What sort of thing was in it? A challenging answer comes from the Episcopal ethicist and theologian Victor Lee Austin (The Living Church, October 17, 2011): “Children are not humanly optional; nor are they a project for the fulfillment of the couple; nor do they exist for the sake of their contribution to the good of society . . . The point of children is that there be more people who know and love God; and precisely in furtherance of those goals, God may give children to the married couple, the husband and wife.” He continues: “[C]hildren are not means to our happiness and fulfillment. We who are parents are for them; they are for God” [see Appendix A].
We could all put that in our pipes and smoke it if Elite Opinion still held with tobacco smoked in any receptacle whatever. “They are for God.” The wonder of such an assertion, in the age of Rachel Diamond, can be hard to appropriate. God slides uncomfortably into an age where it is smugly affirmed that people are the problem.
A new moral foundation for consideration of life issues would seem essential to the resolving of just such a problem as Elon Musk, apparently, feels he must address from the technological/capitalistic side of the room. Whose exertions to that end we mustn’t despise. What are the churches saying? No more than the churches have been saying about disputed moral questions since at least the middle of the last century. Fearful of “overstepping” their rights in a land of religious pluralism, and thus inviting criticism from within and without, the churches have resorted to clucking sounds over bad behavior associated with the assertion of personal causes and prerogatives. Like attempts such as I have described to show birth preference as aligned with the will of God: an obligation natural to the human condition, enriching human life.
How do you build a new moral foundation, surrounded and protected by wisdom and love? I suppose the first thing you do is assert the need for such a foundation: which need ought to exist, as I have implied, in the common sense of the race; the deep, deep understanding of what we’re doing around this ancient place, and how we ought to be doing it, and, most of all perhaps, why? The Supreme Court of the United States, however heavily stocked with “pro-life” jurists, will not, cannot, provide that base—even if the Court’s own determinations put the kibosh on Roe v. Wade. No court decision substitutes for a reorientation of human hope, human desire. A moral revolution could do the job: carried on by . . . who knows? The universities? The media? Our political tribes? The churches? Or maybe just the sovereign people, breaking with fashionable distortions of common sense and piety in the face of larger realities?
I concur with the New York Times’s Ross Douthat on the need—as he expressed it in Plough Quarterly (in an article reprinted by this journal, Fall 2021) for “a radical conversion of our hardened modern hearts.” It has been for way too long just one “d” thing after another. Time for the wheel to turn, the clock hand to advance.
William Murchison, a former syndicated columnist, is a senior editor of the Human Life Review. He will soon finish his book on moral restoration in our time.