Be Fruitful and Multiply…or how about Not?

The United Nations released a report this week that the world’s population could top 10 billion by the year 2100, raising shortages in food and water in many areas. The NYT gives a good summary. A major concern is Africa, as the population on that continent may triple by 2100 due to “womens lack of power in their relationships with men, traditions like early marriage and polygamy, a dearth of political leadership” and a lack of use of contraceptives.

(A very good history of Mormons and family planning is Melissa Proctor’s, Bodies, Babies, Birth Control, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 36, no. 3 (Fall 2003): 159-175, from which much of what follows is drawn.)

For Mormons, the idea of not making babies is not okay. Brigham Young suggested Mormons are to make as many mortal bodies as they can for the spirits who are waiting their turn on Earth (which raises the question of when exactly Heaven will be emptied of those spirits). To be extremely “fruitful and multiply,” early Mormons were polygamous. Young considered women who engaged in birth control to be “devilish.”

In America, birth control became a national topic in the early twentieth century. The Great Depression led to a declined birthrate, but by the 1940s, the Church took up the topic. One prominent Mormon wrote:

Since birth control roots in a species of selfishness, the spiritual life of the user of contraceptives is also weakened. Women seem to become more masculine in thought and action; men more callous and reserved; both husband and wife become more careless of each other.

Thus, even if a woman gave birth to six children, she was “selfish” if she refused to carry a seventh. Other leaders, such as Spencer Kimball, suggested in the 1960s that the only acceptable form of birth control is abstinence.

By the 1970s, Mormons began to question this, however, and small family sizes were permitted. I would suggest a big factor here is that the economics of the early 20th century were different than the later 20th century, whereby having a lot of kids contributed to a decrease in familial wealth as opposed to an increase.

By the 1990s, officially, marital sex no longer needed to have reproductive intent, and certain forms of birth control (such as condoms) were officially okayed, differentiating Mormonism’s family planning ideas from, say, Catholicism. But the idea of not having children at all is still unacceptable in Mormonism. The Proclamation on the Family (1995) states that

The first commandment that God gave to Adam and Eve pertained to their potential for parenthood…We declare that God’s commandment for His children to multiply and replenish the earth remains in force.

Now let’s think about this in terms of population growth.

In contexts that are experiencing population decline (or relatively slow growth), Mormonism’s natalist theology may stand out as providing a kind of inspiration. In America and Japan, for example, where there’s a fear of “national suicide” because men aren’t marrying, becoming fathers or “responsible adults,” and/or women are concentrating on careers and not raising any children, Mormonism glorifies “the family” and the continuation of the species through specific gender roles.

Now, the problems of gender essentialism aside, in a global context, Mormonism’s natalist theology seems short-sighted, irresponsible and anachronistic. “God’s commandment to be fruitful and multiply,” for me, conjures an ancient age when humanity bowed to the whims of the Earth, when infants were taken by plagues and sandstorms. Skip to present-day, the Earth suffers humanity. Daily, we are pushing other species into extinction. Humanity is selfish through its constant multiplication. Our population is not sustainable. How do Mormons juxtapose their beliefs with these realities?

40 thoughts on “Be Fruitful and Multiply…or how about Not?

  1. Thus, even if a woman gave birth to six children, she was selfish if she refused to carry a seventh.

    I was thinking about this exact point just yesterday — the idea that it’s somehow “selfish” to have fewer children. I remember being taught this point as a teenage Mormon (and I remember even at the time thinking that that is horribly wrong).

    The thing is that if you have more children, then you have less time and money for yourself. So some people conclude that therefore it must be selfish to have fewer kids (and selfless to have more). But that doesn’t follow at all. Not only does a big family mean that you have less time and money for yourself, but it also means that you have less time/money/energy to devote to each kid (plus — as you indicate — it means that you’re choosing to earmark a large portion of the world’s resources to your own DNA).

    In brief: if you choose to have many children then you need to be selflessly devoted to them in order to raise them right — but that doesn’t mean the decision to have the children in the first place was a selfless one; not by a long shot.

    This is an example of a more general fallacy: People often think “If doing X costs me a huge amount of effort and/or pain, then it must be noble and virtuous of me to do X.” Not so. It is very possible that by doing X, you’re not only costing yourself effort, but you’re also causing harm to others and not doing anyone a favor. That’s the trouble with commandments that aren’t based on evaluating the consequences of your actions.

  2. The strongest argument against natalist theologies may not be that they’re “short-sighted, irresponsible and anachronistic” but rather that they are, in fact, unnecessary. The same folks pushing abstinence-only programs in Africa are often the same folks who (in their home countries) are raising the alarm about demographic winters. As far as I can tell, we ought to be neutralizing that fear by pointing to the fertility J curve that happens in places where improved human development metrics are matched by pro-family public policy. To his credit, Quentin Cook, in the most recent General Conference, mentioned that Mormons ought to get behind family-friendly workplace policies. It was an important acknowledgment that policy matters. And in the Mormon context, admitting that policy matters at home (and not simply abroad) seems like a big admission. I suspect he’s also aware (even if he’d never admit it in a church context), that the data shows that “national suicide” doesn’t require a theological remedy. I also suspect that he’s aware that the Bush-era bonanza for Mormon-run NGOs operating at the UN and in Africa is over and it’s time to make a nod in the direction of a reality-based (as opposed to funding-based) approach to this issue. U.S. elections matter. Even for Mormons. And that seems like good news. Or maybe I’m just reading too much into how quiet the fringier Arizona-based, African-focused Mormon activists have been the past couple of years.

  3. Telling people not to breed is ultimately as intrusive and self righteous as demanding they multiply and replenish the Earth, Mars and half of Jupiter. Concerns over world population have been out there for decades, and great strides have been made in places like India and China where productivity and growth have increased relative to population, but economies and technology change too and the larger problem is inequality in distribution of wealth and resources. Those are things that can be fixed if there’s a will to do so, aprticularly among developed nations.

  4. I think I should point out – population problems in Pakistan and Africa are problems for…. well…. the populations of Pakistan and Africa. And therefore they are arguments for use of birth control, etc. in THOSE regions.

    It does not automatically translate into an argument for some sort of one-child policy in the United States and Europe.

    The problem is not limiting children. The problem is limiting children in households and situations where it simply isn’t sustainable. But that does not translate into an argument for limiting kids in situations where it IS sustainable.

  5. As far as I can tell, we ought to be neutralizing that fear by pointing to the fertility J curve that happens in places where improved human development metrics are matched by pro-family public policy.

    Can you clarify this point a little bit? (I’m afraid some comments may be talking past each other.) Do you mean that family-friendly things (like access to health care) tend to decrease fertility in impoverished areas, but increase it in the developed world…?

  6. Telling people not to breed is ultimately as intrusive and self righteous as demanding they multiply and replenish the Earth, Mars and half of Jupiter.

    It’s really not a question of “telling people not to breed”. When people have a high expectation that all of their children will survive to adulthood — and they have access to contraceptives — most people choose to have fewer children. Look at most of the developed world today: the birth rate is below the replacement rate all over, and that’s not the result of telling people not to have kids. And in poorer countries, things that increase the infant/childhood life expectancy (clean water, nutrition, health care, education), tend to decrease the birth rate.

    As for my comment @1, I’m just saying that people who don’t want kids (or only want a few kids) shouldn’t be taught that it’s their duty (and a great selfless act) to have a bunch of kids that they don’t want.

  7. As indisputable as the observation that a poor family should not be having tons of kids they can’t pay for is – I think it’s also fairly clear that our wider society is set up to favor the interests of the adults, at the EXPENSE of the kids.

    Kids these days are seen as merely another part of my own quest for personal fulfillment. That’s almost the sole calculus for having them these days.

  8. How does the contemporary idea of having children to fulfill me personally, differ from an earlier age where children were brought into the world to have more hands to work the farm?

  9. Um, one is necessary for survival, while the other is just about pansy self-actualization crap.

  10. I think there’s a frank zappa song where “be fruitful, multiply” is a lyric, which is what I thought of first.

    I think better access to contraceptives and better contraceptives will help all of this, particularly in places where consistent, safe access is not there. I fully support tte decision to not have children for a host of reasons, overpopulation is a good one of those.

    I agree wholeheartedly with chanson. And unhappy parents (simplistically) produce unhappy children, unless the children work hard to break the cycle.

  11. Is self actualization, as a psychological concept, pansy and crap, or only when people make decisions about their well being and wholeness in regard to the number of children they have that it becomes pansy and crap?

  12. So you seriously think that striving for psychological and spiritual completeness and wholeness is crap?

  13. In large part, yes.

    It’s very self-centered and socially worthless behavior a good deal of the time.

  14. @ Seth #7 – these days? In earlier times, children were nothing but a means to an end: more power, higher status. Having children in the time of Jesus up until the last couple centuries was entirely about an extension of the parent’s personal achievement. You had children because you got something out of it, not because you wanted someone to love and nurture to autonomous adulthood. Children have almost always been considered non-individuals, possessions of their parents to be used for their own gain. It’s only been in these days that laws and societal beliefs regarding child welfare, human dignity, and human rights prevent such abuses – for instance, the current movement to return to instinctive, gentle, attachment parenting rather than fear and punishment-based discipline intended to shape children into their parents’ idea of “the perfect child.”

    #4 – The fewer children people have in developed nations (such as the U.S.), where overpopulation doesn’t appear to be such a dire issue, the more resources (such as healthcare, education, sex education and contraceptives, infrastructure, etc.) from there can be afforded to assist those poorer nations you mentioned.

    @ Arthur – The point being made here is that telling people that it is immoral not to have children is wrong. Nobody is telling anybody “not to breed.” The point was that this doctrine of “everybody needs to have children” is reckless, and generally harmful to humanity. If people didn’t feel morally or socially obligated to reproduce, if people made reproductive choices based on their own natural inclinations, and had the resources to prevent pregnancy effectively when they wanted to, the population would probably be more balanced and sustainable worldwide.

  15. Arthur @ 3

    Great strides have been made in places like India and China where productivity and growth have increased relative to population

    Seth @ 4

    [T]hey are arguments for use of birth control, etc. in THOSE regions. … That does not translate into an argument for limiting kids in situations where it IS sustainable.

    Development does not equal sustainability. Developed countries use the resources of undeveloped countries.

    Places that have have a lower birth rate (such as America, Europe or Japan) have a problem of overconsumption, which is not sustainable in a global context. Even if the global population stabilized at, say, 7 billion people (the current number), if everyone were to consume as much as Americans do, we would still need three planet Earths.

    This is a very important point if we think about India and China. Yes, it’s true that India and China are getting a handle on their billion+ populations through development. But the more developed they become, the more resources they consume, the more they pollute the planet, etc. This is a problem when it comes to, say, trying to develop global warming policies, where the Indians and Chinese say, “Now, wait a second. You want us to curb our development before our population is as comfortable as yours? No way.” But the more important point is just the limited global resources. Trees aren’t growing back at the rate we use them, but Americans wouldn’t notice that, because we get a lot of our trees from elsewhere.

  16. I had kids because that’s what I do. That was always the assumption of my life. I didn’t expect it to make me happier personally necessarily. At least, not any more than I could have been without them.

    But at any rate, I never made the claim that there is some sort of utopian “good old days.”

    My assertion wasn’t primarily that people today are more selfish, or less caring of children than older societies. My assertion was that our modern society is weak. That it lacks the drive and will to succeed, thrive, continue, and force room for its own prosperity and agenda onto the world. It’s a pampered, directionless, weak society that will likely eventually collapse or wither away in favor of a culture and society that actually gives a damn – and which doesn’t take prosperity for granted.

    And Macha, do you really think first world adults are having less kids so they can send off more of their currency to troubled nations?

    And people accuse me of magical thinking…

  17. Another corollary here –

    It’s interesting that the cultures that have supposedly grown more “enlightened” consider it a mark of their enlightenment to choose the extinction and end of their population, and consequently their own system of ethics.

    As “enlightened” white Europe quietly digs it’s own demographic grave, more vibrant, hungry, and frankly more powerful cultures continue to reproduce and gain the ascendancy (eventually anyway).

    Funny how a quiet policy of nihilism became a mark of superiority in our culture.

  18. … and force room for its own prosperity and agenda onto the world.

    I don’t want to be part of a society that seeks this as a goal. If our modern society is lacking in this drive, I consider it a good thing.

    I never made the claim that there is some sort of utopian good old days.

    Your frequent use of “these days” implies otherwise.

  19. I understand that position Macha. It is shared by perhaps most Americans.

    Which is why my feeling is that this society has essentially run out of gas and is now coasting on momentum alone.

    If you don’t feel strongly enough about your own ideals to force them on others who don’t have them, then perhaps it’s time to admit that you simply don’t want the victory bad enough.

  20. the cultures that have supposedly grown more enlightened consider it a mark of their enlightenment to choose the extinction and end of their population, and consequently their own system of ethics.

    I’m certainly not arguing for a cessation of all reproduction. In advocating for mandatory reproduction, the LDS church is spelling the demise of humanity in destroying the planet through overconsumption.

    My argument is for balanced and responsible reproduction, and not telling everyone they ought to reproduce in order to prevent the death of our ethnic group – as if our values cannot be passed on without having babies.

    And Macha, do you really think first world adults are having less kids so they can send off more of their currency to troubled nations?

    The point is that your argument is lacking in imagination. They’re overpopulated, so how does that affect me? You can’t seem to see how our actions affect the rest of the world, and how we could do something to produce positive change. The fact is the the U.S. does use part of its budget for foreign aid. Perhaps people wouldn’t be so adamant to decrease that amount if they weren’t worried about how to take care of their 5 kids that the LDS church told them they had to have.

    Furthermore, your assumption that this idea of not reproducing will end in the destruction of our culture and values is again lacking in imagination, again, as if the only way to pass on our values is to have babies. You dismiss the concept outright, even though there are ways to prosper as a society without natural reproduction, for instance by considering adoption. There are obviously countless children and infants in these third world countries orphaned by war and disease and famine. Unless you have a problem with entrusting our cultural legacy to people who may have darker skin than us.

    There are many, many possibilities available to perpetuating this culture and our cultural values (and if our modern society is so weak and disgusting to you, why is it you’re so concerned with keeping it from becoming extinct?) without excessive reproduction. Because I see many possibilities, I see no reason to say that it is culturally irresponsible (or nihilistic) to choose not to procreate if one is so inclined.

  21. If you dont feel strongly enough about your own ideals to force them on others who dont have them, then perhaps its time to admit that you simply dont want the victory bad enough.

    Or I’m just aware that imperialism never works out very well for the imperialists or the conquered. And that conquest in whatever form, whether through violence or forcible indoctrination, is morally wrong. I never heard of Jesus holding anybody’s head under water until they declared him Lord and King. He preached. Some people followed. Some people didn’t. And he was okay with that.

  22. As enlightened white Europe quietly digs its own demographic grave, more vibrant, hungry, and frankly more powerful cultures continue to reproduce and gain the ascendancy (eventually anyway).

    Hmm… this was exactly Hitler’s fear for Germany. That others (in his case, Jews) who had “direction” and “hunger for power,” and a “strong culture” would take over things, unless the Germans wanted “victory” enough. For Europe today, the fear is directed toward Muslims. White America is fearful of those south of the border. And the way to combat this is how? Reproduce like rabbits to ensure the spirits in Heaven get into the “right” bodies? Go to war to give one’s culture “direction?”

    I agree with Macha, Seth, that your argument is “lacking imagination.” I would actually put it another way, but I don’t want to start a fire.

  23. @ Alan – great, now “We Didn’t Start the Fire” will be stuck in my head all day!

    Also, I just want to call Godwin’s Law. Still, good point.

  24. Lol, Macha. I see that, according to Godwin’s Law, whoever mentions the Nazis automatically loses whatever debate was in progress. Darn it. I guess I’m out for this round.

  25. @ Seth #9 I wanted to hit the like button on this one…but this isn’t facebook.
    How quickly does a search for meaning, which has raising kids as part of the equation, turn to a wish to go back to pre- childless days?

    People have kids because i we are evolutionarily programmed for it. (he he)

  26. Macha, I wouldn’t say that imperialism never works.

    If you look at the span of human history, it “worked” a lot longer than 20th century style democracy has. And with a lot less bloodshed than we’ve seen since 1901 for everyone concerned.

    As for your accusations of being unimaginative – most of that is due to not reading what I said carefully in the first place (for one thing – I never said that reproduction was the ONLY way to pass on our values), so I see no reason to respond to it.

    And weak and decadent societies sometimes do manage to leave a legacy for the future. The ancient Greeks for example – though you should be aware that it was a matter of luck that a lot of their best work survived at all.

    As for Jesus not imposing his message – that’s true enough. JESUS himself didn’t do that.

    But a look at the history of South America will quickly demonstrate that his FOLLOWERS didn’t have any such scruples. I kind of wonder how successful Christianity would have been without the sword….

    Look at Central Asia, where Christianity was massively successful (at about the time of the fabled King Arthur and his knights of the round table, the city of Baghdad alone had more Christians than the entire British Isles), and then got wiped out by faster growing Islam – leaving nothing but a few isolated persecuted ethnic minorities in Iran and elsewhere to show for it.

    Call me a cynic, but I think if you have a treasured set of ideas or ideals, and you aren’t willing to die for them, or kill for them if need be, then they can’t be all that big a deal after all.

    America used to have this killer instinct, and will to win. But we don’t seem to have it anymore.

  27. I think if you have a treasured set of ideas or ideals, and you arent willing to die for them, or kill for them if need be, then they cant be all that big a deal after all.

    Unless your ideals and values are things like peace, non-violence, basic human rights, and pretty much everything listed in the First Amendment to the Constitution.

    I never said that reproduction was the ONLY way to pass on our values

    Your presumed connection between controlled reproduction in the West discussed here and the extinction of Western values implies otherwise.

    JESUS himself didnt do that.

    So who is the example for Christians, Jesus or his followers? You’re implying that the ends justify the means, that ensuring the spread of Christianity takes priority over the fact that violence is contradictory to what Jesus himself taught.

  28. Macha, let’s first get one thing clear here –

    My approval or disapproval has little to do with this. I’m just talking about people, civilizations, and ideas that win. And those that don’t.

  29. War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.

    John Stuart Mill

  30. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”

    Jesus

  31. From the first one:

    Where women have the option to work and raise children, they frequently do so. Where they cannot as easily (Germany for instance, where a substantial cohort of women remain childless and attached to the workforce), women are simply forced to choose.

    Instead of Mormonism’s natalist theology being thought of as “unnecessary” (as you suggest @2), I could see LDS leaders using the J-curve to argue they’ve been right on the dot all along. They could say that women have a “natural” instinct to mother; men a “natural” instinct to father, and that the J-curve proves that people want to make babies in the “best of times” (America’s wealth) and the “worst of times” (Africa’s poverty). The Church is “necessary” because it’s relevant to our “natures” across the development board.

    When it comes to demographic winters, they could say that certain aspects of development such as women in the workforce are “destabilizing,” but throw enough wealth at it, and people still want to make babies and families. I actually think the J-curve gives LDS leaders fodder, perhaps in all the wrong places. It allows them to continue to justify the past (such as their stance against the ERA), while make sense of the present (the present being that Mormon women are in the workforce by the droves).

  32. Places that have have a lower birth rate (such as America, Europe or Japan) have a problem of overconsumption, which is not sustainable in a global context. Even if the global population stabilized at, say, 7 billion people (the current number), if everyone were to consume as much as Americans do, we would still need three planet Earths.

    Yes, this is a very important point to keep in mind — one I was thinking of mentioning.

    Chino — thanks for the links. Also, the new OECD study mentioned over at The Exponent is also quite relevant.

    The take-home message is this: the more opportunities women have to make their own life decisions, the more they gravitate towards having two kids (not zero, not seventeen…). This is good news because it means that reproductive coercion isn’t a necessary (or even helpful) part of a long-term sustainability policy.

    In the developing world, women often have fewer reproductive choices — due partly to lack of access to education and health care, and partly to economic dependence on male relatives (who then get to make the reproductive choices, and choose to have more kids). Also, where there’s a high rate of infant/child mortality, people tend to have more kids because they don’t want to see all of their kids die. This leads to having more kids than the women would have chosen to have — if they are reasonably empowered and can expect to see their children live to adulthood.

    On the other end of the spectrum, in the developed world, most women need to have a job to afford to raise a child. Policies that make women have to choose (baby or job) push a lot of women into choosing to have one child or zero — when they might have chosen one, two, or three if that were a realistic option.

    It allows them to continue to justify the past (such as their stance against the ERA)

    Aha, but you’re falling into the old assumption that “keep mom from working” => encouraging motherhood. The new OECD study again shows that the reality is the opposite. Policies that help mom return to work (especially child care and child health care) are the reality-based way to encourage motherhood in the developed world.

    A very interesting case in point was highlighted in the OECD study: the comparison between Italy and France (two countries that have a lot of cultural similarities and exchange). The French are reproducing at almost the replacement rate, whereas the Italians have one of the lowest birth rates in the developed world. In France, moms have guaranteed maternity leave, guaranteed pre-natal and well-baby care, subsidized day care, and — most important of all IMHO — three years of high-quality public kindergarten starting from age 3.

    I had my two babies in France, and I can tell you that it is a huge deal to have these advantages when you’re a young family deciding whether you can afford to have (another) kid!

    As far as Italy is concerned, I don’t know what programs the do or don’t offer families. However, by coincidence, I was in Italy when this new study came out, and I picked up an Italian newspaper where it was reported. Basically the Italian article said that they (the Italians) probably need to get serious about adopting some more mom-friendly policies.

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