Woe unto Them That Are with Child

by Johnny Townsend

If you were a Jewish couple in 1938 Berlin, would you choose to bring a child into the world?

Groups like Conceivable Future and Birthstrike are among several that have formed recently as more and more young people watching weather reports every day face a question most people in the U.S. have not had to ask themselves before. It’s a touchy subject for couples who chose to have children before they fully understood the seriousness of the climate crisis or for those who want to be parents anyway.

Many Christian religions forbid contraception. It was common in my hometown of New Orleans to ask a new acquaintance with six or seven siblings, “I take it you’re Catholic?” When my Mormon aunt and uncle lived in South Carolina and people would comment on their large family (three children at the time), they’d smile and say, “We’re practically newlyweds. We’re just getting started.”

Mormons have a particular theology that adds reproductive pressure on couples. They believe they were assigned a quota in the “Pre-existence” committing them to producing a minimum number of bodies for spirits waiting for their chance to come to Earth.

While working as a Mormon missionary in Rome, I became good friends with an Italian sister missionary, Nicla. We wrote regularly after we returned home, and when I came back to Italy to study in Florence, she caught the train from southern Puglia to spend some time with me. A month later, we were engaged.

In Mormon culture, engagements often last only a few weeks, at most a few months. Ours lasted three years. Part of the issue was my decision to wait until I’d graduated college before marrying. Another was to wait until I’d finally managed to stop being gay.

I eventually realized the latter was never going to happen. While it was a moderate loss for me to realize I’d never have any children, it was emotionally devastating for Nicla. We managed to remain friends for the next few decades until her death from breast cancer. She regularly worried she wouldn’t be able to marry in time to have children of her own. I remember once quoting Matthew 24:19. “Woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days!”

While not the comforting message I’d hoped it would be, I think it’s a message every Mormon alive today must consider.

June of 2019 was the hottest June ever recorded by humans. Every day, higher record highs are recorded around the planet. It’s hardly even relevant anymore to mention “breaking records,” as the new records stand for such a short time. Who knew that temperature readings were only going to have fifteen minutes of fame?

If you knew your child would face Huntington disease or another serious genetic disorder, would you willingly bring that child into the world?

Whatever our religious beliefs, we all have a genetic imperative to reproduce. It’s difficult to choose childlessness no matter what extenuating circumstances might suggest it’s the better decision.

But wouldn’t we be performing a greater service to mankind, to the children already here who face a devastating future, if we devoted the time, energy, and carbon emissions necessary to raise children into addressing the climate crisis instead? If such a decision led to a precipitous decline in human population to a mere one billion, we could always encourage people to start procreating again.

Nicla married in the temple after her childbearing capacity was over and enjoyed an intimate, loving relationship the last years of her life. She died with the comforting belief that when she was resurrected during the Millennium, she’d have an opportunity to bear children then.

Some Mormon politicians, like Senator Mike Lee, claim that the solution to global warming is to have more kids. But that’s like saying Paradise, California is blessedly immune from wildfires for the foreseeable future.

The doctrine of many religions allows for the choice of childlessness, or at least the choice of limiting the number of babies we bring into the world. Perhaps a more righteous and caring decision is to work as hard as we can to make life conceivable for all those impatient spirits still waiting for their turn on Earth.

Or at least postpone childbearing until Jesus takes care of it himself.