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?