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Family Planning on a Big Scale

mom and babyby Mark Penninga (First published in Reformed Perspective Magazine, November 2008)

In 1969 Prime Minister Trudeau legitimized his bill that decriminalized homosexuality and abortion with his infamous words “The state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation.” Only one generation has passed and our governments are already beginning to realize that the state does have an interest in what happens in the bedrooms of the nation.

Our country, along with most Western nations, is beginning to see the effects of our societal and individual choices. One of these effects is that the birthrate in the West is falling rapidly, to the point that we are no longer having enough children to replace us. The consequences of this are staggering.

The numbers tell the story

For a population to stay stable in our part of the world, every woman must have an average of 2.1 children to replace herself, her husband, and those children who die before being old enough to reproduce. Canada’s birthrate is about 1.5 children per woman. In other words, if it weren’t for immigration, our population would be rapidly shrinking, and a much higher percentage of the population would be elderly and unable to contribute to the economy (or pay taxes).

This isn’t causing immediate problems for Canada because there is no shortage of people from other nations who want to move here and enjoy our freedoms and privileges. But what happens when birthrates around the world begin to drop? According to the documentary Demographic Winter “Worldwide, birthrates have been halved in the past 50 years. There are now 59 nations, with 44 per cent of the world’s population, with below-replacement fertility. Some time in this century, the world’s population will begin to decline. At a certain point, the decline will become rapid. We may even reach population freefall in our lifetimes.”

Many readers are most familiar with what is happening in Europe, where every county has a birthrate below replacement level. According to UN statistics, Italy’s rate is 1.2 and Spain is at 1.1. With numbers that low, their entire population can almost be halved within a lifetime, immigration aside. What about Holland? Although the Dutch have a reputation for big families, they aren’t much better off than Canada, with a birthrate of 1.72. Australia is only a hair higher at 1.75.

What is going on?

What is causing the population meltdown in the West?

A root cause is individualism. Individualism has almost always been a problem in democratic countries and in Canada its effects on marriage and the family really took hold around the time of the Sexual Revolution of the 60s. Our Supreme Court and Parliament have gone along with this mantra of choice and autonomy, and the idea of a common good has gone out the window. Now a generation has passed and we can see a number of ways this ethic of individualism is impacting the birthrate:

–          People today are waiting longer to get married. Careers and education are becoming more of a priority, family less so.

–          Even couples who are married are waiting longer to have children. The average age of women giving birth for the first time in Canada is 28 years old. Once again, the priority seems to be getting established, having a higher standard of living, and a career.

–          Contraceptives are not just about family planning, they are also changing society. The birth control pill was introduced to Canada in 1961 – the same year that the birthrate began to fall. Sadly abortion is also being used as a form of birth control and the nearly 100,000 abortions per year in Canada alone are a big reason why our birthrate is so low.

Add to all of this the increasing disregard for the traditional family unit and the objectification of sex and the result is a rapid decrease in the number of babies being born.

Consequences of a low birthrate:

Not every country has such a low birthrate. A country like Afghanistan’s birthrate is 7.48! Saudi Arabia’s is 4.09 and Iraq’s is 4.83. As Mark Steyn made clear in his book America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It, there are obvious demographical consequences to this imbalance. Muslim nations have high birthrates and are growing much faster than Western secular nations. So when secular countries such as Holland and France need immigrants to grow, they inevitably bring in more Muslims which results in serious clashes. The “tolerant” West suddenly is exposed as not being so tolerant after all.

Countries like Canada provide government pensions for seniors. How is it possible to maintain this when the number of seniors skyrockets and the number of taxpayers decreases significantly? And it is not only pensions that will be affected. Our healthcare system is already strained – just imagine the effects of an increase in seniors and a decrease in healthcare providers. Many other aspects of the welfare state rely on younger people to keep the economy going. How can an economy be maintained with fewer workers? And with all of the new pressure on the economy, who will look after the growing number of seniors? Will euthanasia become a convenient way to address this problem?

A financial solution?

Some countries are a little ahead of Canada and have clued into the danger of a plummeting birthrate. Russia is one example. With a birthrate of only 1.33 the country is on its way to losing 40 million citizens by the middle of the century, according to a BBC news story. In an effort to slow this down, the Russian government is offering $9,000 to families for every child they have after their first child. Apparently this is equal to about two years of income for an average worker in Russia.

A similar approach has already been tried in Quebec. This province is interesting in that it wants to preserve its heritage and nationality but has also embraced secularism and the sexual revolution. Consequently the birthrate in Quebec plummeted. In the 1980s it was the lowest in Canada and one of the lowest in the world. But that has changed. The birthrate increased recently and is now above the national average (which is still low). What is responsible for this? In January 2006, the Quebec government began to increase the benefits for parents. According to the Montreal Gazette, a new parental leave program provides 75 per cent of a parent’s salary for up to the first 32 weeks after a child is born. It is unknown just how much effect the new financial incentive has had on the increase in births. But it does seem to emulate a similar situation that Quebec previously faced. In 1988 the Quebec government gave a baby bonus for each child born, that increased significantly for families with more than one child. How successful was this? According to REAL Women of Canada, studies appear to confirm that these financial incentives marginally increased the number of children born.

Even if money does convince some parents to have children, it is clear that money alone is not the solution. As mentioned earlier, the falling birthrate is a symptom of a changing worldview in the West. Secularism and individualism have a much stronger grip on many people than a relatively small amount of money. Cash will disappear quickly, but a child is a life-long responsibility.

The role of Reformed families          

It is striking that the very first command that humanity received from God was to “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1:28). Malachi 2:15 also spells this out: “Has not the LORD made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring.” God wants us, as the human race, to have children and populate the world. It is encouraging to see that the Reformed church in Canada has grown leaps and bounds, largely internally. One has only to look at the huge family reunions that happen every summer.

But it doesn’t take an expert for us to observe that the birthrate is also falling within the church. As a former pastor of mine would say, “When it rains in the world, it drips in the church.” Although it used to be common for families to have many children, the numbers seem to be dropping (even though they are still larger than typical Canadian families). Part of this is due to changing circumstances. We are no longer first or second generation immigrants. Many more young people in the church pursue postsecondary education, which often delays marriage and children. Real estate prices are high in the cities which makes owning a large home more difficult. And many more women are working, making it more difficult to have more children.

But perhaps it is our attitudes that have changed along with the circumstances. A house for a family with six children today is a whole lot bigger than 50 years ago. Expenses are higher today, but these expenses include luxuries that would have never been considered by previous generations. Although it used to be the norm that children helped work for the family, the standard today seems to be that our teens have an incredible amount of disposable income which is used for clothes, cell phones, movies, and cars. And there is much more pressure for mothers to have a part-time or full-time job to contribute to the family income.

It is not the purpose of this article to point fingers. But these statistics and observations should make us pause and think about how we are contributing to the current demographic situation. God will bless each family with or without children as He determines. But He also gives us a responsibility to make wise choices when we are able. We like to think of ourselves as exceptions to the norm. But our individual choices ultimately shape our society.

It is not a Biblical command to have big families. But it is important that we evaluate our motives for choosing to start and stop having children. After all, our children are God’s children. Few contributions are more valuable to society than raising God-fearing children in our communities, our churches, and our world.

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