Family policy in the United States, defined as broadly or narrowly as one likes, is a fucking mess. On human development measures, American children score at or near the bottom among the children of First World countries. Not coincidentally, the United States is the the only country in its socioeconomic class that has never found the political will to implement a single-payer health system and flat out the only country in the world to maintain a baroque, capricious, and lawless private health insurance system as its national standard, a system in which insurers and hospitals have trapped a majority of the country’s clinicians. For a country with one of the noisiest pro-life movements in the world and some of the most strident natalist politics in the developed world, refusing to backstop its citizens’ healthcare costs so that parents are not exposed to financial catastrophe when they or their children get sick is a fairly whopping huge omission. For these pro-life and natalist politics not only to coexist with the truly insane government-sanctioned corruption of the American private health insurance system but often to be advanced by the very same political leaders is beyond bizarre. There’s no coherent explanation for these politics that doesn’t involve the malign intent of the leaders advancing them. Bill Frist, the cardiac surgeon, hospital chain executive, US Senator, and noted teleconference neurologist for the terminally vegetative Terri Schiavo, makes no sense as a reasonable person of goodwill, but he makes perfect sense as a robber baron and a moral busybody, proving to all C. S. Lewis acolytes that there’s no need to choose between the two callings when one can fulfill both in successive careers.
Bill Frist is not trained or boarded as a neurologist and he did not perform a good-faith examination of Terri Schiavo before publicly pronouncing her viable. The lesson of this case is disturbing. Concern-trolling the slowly dying victims of massive, incapacitating brain damage in an ostentatious public breach of medical ethics did not get Bill Frist censured by Republican Party officials or expelled from the party or its caucuses or even widely criticized by other Republicans in their capacity as individual leaders. His breach of medical ethics turned him into a pro-life celebrity and a party darling.
This all happened in one of the two major political parties of the United States. Intemperate elements on the European left often complain that UKIP and List Fortuyn are lunatic parties. The modern GOP is another matter entirely. On the European right wing, it’s closer to Golden Dawn than to the Front National. Shy of explicitly advocating the reinstitution of slavery or the disenfranchisement of women, there is practically nothing so maliciously and immorally reactionary that a Republican politician will get ostracized by the party for promoting it. In an extreme case, such as Todd Akin’s kooky comments about female reproductive physiology and rape, the party’s deans will beg the offending twit to commit honorable electoral seppuku and cede the limelight to saner parts of the coalition, but there’s never a consensus among active Republican Party members to make clear that, no, that crackpot absolutely does not speak for us in any fashion, and it is our goal to cut all ties with him because he’s an insane misogynist. Todd Akin, Kris Kobach, Todd Kincannon, Rick Perry, and Ken Cuccinelli are all members in good standing of the main American conservative party. Of course, it’s extremely charitable to refer to much of what these asshats promote as conservatism. They’re reactionary authoritarian wackjobs, and any party willingly harboring them is pathological. So is any country that keeps electing such a party to majorities or pluralities at all levels of government.
Somehow, though, these social controls are working fairly well. One of the greatest testaments to their success is the American birthrate, which remains one of the highest in the First World. It’s fallen dramatically since the Baby Boom, and even the Echo Boom didn’t do much to reverse the fall, but the United States is in hale demographic health compared to Japan, Russia, or much of Europe. Oddly, the natalist propaganda efforts of the Soviet Union, whose propaganda efforts were some of the most concerted and totalitarian in world history, were less effective at shoring up Soviet birthrates than their ad hoc public-private counterpart in the United States, a much less aggressive program operating in a much more intellectually pluralistic society, has been in getting Americans to have more children. Vladimir Putin’s post-Soviet natalist propaganda looks successful at first blush, but its implementation coincided with a nearly unprecedented improvement in the Russian economy. It might be said, then, that Russian family planning is reality-based, while American family planning is faith-based, and maybe something you’d rather not examine too closely if national self-esteem is your thing.
As these programs go, the American one works, but it comes at a cost. It’s grievously aggravating the socioeconomic bifurcation of American society. If this newfound openness to parenthood were spread evenly across the socioeconomic spectrum or concentrated towards the top, it would have a procivic equalizing effect, maybe quite a strong one. Instead, it’s concentrated towards the bottom of the spectrum. The bourgeois and the wealthy are continuing to delay family formation, but the poor are not. Politically, this means that the affluent, who consistently have higher voter turnout than the poor, care less and less about anything having to do with family policy, if they aren’t actively hostile towards it because they see early family formation as low-class impulsiveness. If the affluent themselves were routinely raising children of their own by their early twenties, their attitude towards the parenting efforts of the poor might be sympathetic. Not being parents until their early or mid-thirties, they’re more likely to regard poorer women who have children at sixteen or twenty to be hood rat skanks who couldn’t keep their legs shut. Children’s policy in the United States has historically been very inequitable, with wealthier and whiter voters balking at spending anything on the education of poorer and browner children even as they demand top dollar from the public purse for their own special snowflakes. The wealthy staying deliberately barren while the poor carry unintended pregnancies to term makes these existing policy prejudices even worse.
There’s something about the last twenty or thirty years of pro-life motherhood veneration that looks like it may be predatory, ulterior, and extremely unethical. I say this even though it’s a clear improvement over the wanton slut-shaming that preceded it, which was coarse and unfair to the women it smeared. It’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on in this fertility worship movement, but it appears to involve significant hypocrisy about decisions that threaten to cost prospective mothers huge amounts of money at a time in their lives when they’re likely to be indigent. The leaders rarely appear to come from poor backgrounds; the ones I’ve personally known came mostly from solidly middle-class or upper-middle-class homes. The finances of their followers, meanwhile, generally appear to be somewhere between shaky and parlous. There is little overlap between the financial health of the leaders and that of the followers, and this is in a movement where the financial costs of what’s at stake are so huge (often calculated at six figures per child by the age of eighteen) that the affluent have absolutely no fucking business telling the poor to disregard the financial stakes and carry their pregnancies to term. The affluent have precious little business telling the poor how to spend or not spend their money in the normal course of affairs, but where childrearing is involved, it becomes an absolute, nonnegotiable duty of noblesse oblige to refrain from guilting the poor into making what may be a financially ruinous family planning decision in deference to a selectively enforced sexual and reproductive morality, and the affluent leaders of the movement know it. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t go to such lengths to delay and limit their own reproduction.
One of the most disturbing bourgeois offenders in the pro-life movement who’s on my radar right now is an old college buddy. She’s thirty, married, and several years into a stable career as an internist. From time to time she posts guilt-trippy things on Facebook about abortion; a recent one concerned a teenage couple whose baby survived an abortion procedure and how relieved mom is to be raising this kid rather than regretting a bad choice and mourning the child she killed.
It’s a poignant situation, one that shouldn’t be wished on one’s worst enemies, but it also has a lede that isn’t so much buried as completely purged, 1984-style, from the narrative. This old friend of mine has no children of her own, and I’m pretty sure, based on various comments that she’s made over the years, that it’s largely by choice. Only in the last couple of years have I had any impression that it might well be a fertility problem, and to this day I have no real evidence for this possibility. In college she made a fair bit of noise about natural family planning. After college, her comments about NFP became more cryptic but still decipherable enough to those who know the lingo. The only reason I have to faintly suspect fertility problems in the last couple of years is a long stretch without sex-themed comments in her Facebook feed.
This is like Kremlinology, only more so. But it’s relevant. She’s affluent and childless. The women she’s encouraging to carry unwanted pregnancies to term are likely to be poor or indigent and, after their deliveries, saddled with childrearing responsibilities. She’s guilting poorer women into taking on responsibilities that she herself appears to be avoiding and has definitely not so far taken on. Even if she’s pregnant right now, she waited halfway through her childbearing years to do something that she’s encouraging other women to do completely by accident at the age of fifteen. Incidentally, she still seems to harbor a weird psychosexual crush on the priesthood, the institution and the men staffing it alike, that she blatantly showed in college. Her deal seems to be not entirely reality-based, except for the crucial detail of keeping her own ass out of “trouble” through scrupulous monitoring of her own menstrual cycle.
Again, I don’t know for a fact that this is what she’s doing, but it seems to be the case, and it would be sadly in character. It’s a smaller iteration of the same damn fractal that keeps Bougie preternaturally barren while the poors keep having unintended pregnancies. Sexual practices don’t explain very much of the discrepancy, although various conservative elements bray extensively to the contrary. NFP is statistically and culturally marginal, even within the Catholic Church, and frankly this is a good thing because NFP is stone nuts. Outside the NFP crowd and a few comparably repressed anti-sex movements on the Protestant right, the prevalence of sexual activity doesn’t vary a whole lot across the socioeconomic spectrum or the religious spectrum. The repressed and the misfits aren’t getting much action, but everyone else is.
What does vary a lot is the prevalence of contraceptive use. As a rule of thumb, the upper classes use it and the lower classes don’t. A similar thing is true of NFP: it’s too risky for people who truly consider it imprudent to start a family at the moment, and the lower classes are too used to unintended pregnancies to give a thought to periodic abstinence. Or maybe they just like sex a whole lot, in which case the imprudence wouldn’t be respectable but the social adjustment would be.
It’s almost too simple to be true. The rich have access to multiple lines of family planning and know how to use them effectively; the poor are ignorant and shut out. But it is true. Growing up in an affluent environment and then attending a college with an affluent student body and a student health center whose nurses asked female students if they were there to get the pill when they were actually there for respiratory infections, I’ve seen these things happen. Residential colleges, aside from the disingenuously religious ones, aggressively ply their students, especially their female students, with various contraceptives. Notwithstanding the problems with contraceptives, there’s a very simple solution available to anyone who objects: if you don’t like them, don’t use them. It’s kind of like me and PBR. The truth is that the colleges don’t want their students getting pregnant, and the students themselves don’t want to get pregnant. If this sounds like a waste of prime childbearing years, there are ways to encourage a more relaxed approach to early childbearing among undergraduates, but you can bet the sperm bank that these do not include berating coeds for being on the pill or trying to interfere with contraceptive services at student health centers on some crackpot in loco parentis justification. The sex will abide, as well it should. If anything, not enough college students are sexually active. Maybe more of them should let their sexual activity be fruitful, but that’s a rich argument coming from affluent married people who still don’t have children at the age of thirty.
There are some good demographic outcomes from the poor having children early, but it’s crucial to be process-oriented in a situation like this, and the process in question, hypocritically encouraging the poor to engage in childbearing by Russian roulette, is grossly inequitable. Allowing such a process to entrench itself and proliferate inevitably coarsens and corrupts a society. A decent society simply does not tolerate such a process, regardless of the outcome. There are Americans who would like to sell their country’s soul in exchange for demographic stability. The alternatives are scary, but it’s an awfully high price.
And it’s a needless price. Remember, Bougie isn’t having kids, and it’s not because of weird afflictions of the reproductive system that only affect the affluent. There are popular stories in circulation about collapsing sperm counts, but LOLMFAO. They’re irrelevant rubbish. So are the moral panics over permanent infertility due to oral contraceptive use, stories that are promoted by people who do not understand statistical distributions, negative feedbacks, and variations in women’s natural fertility even in a rough abstract sense. It’s easy enough for Bougie to have babies. Even if the dinkies decided to start breeding in earnest at the age of 35 the birthrate would jump over the replacement level.
Here’s an example of the alternative. On my way to Denver the other week, I talked to a conductor who is married with four children, ages two to ten. This is a guy with a stable, well-paid job and a wife who may well work but in any event is a veteran (commissioned officer, if I remember correctly), so she probably has her shit together. This conductor definitely has his shit together, and he’s unusually well-read and well-spoken. He said that on second thought, three, not four, is the perfect size for a brood and he’d send the fourth one back, but of course this was in jest. Or maybe #4 is a total brat.
This guy sounds like a man who is called to fatherhood. He has four kids, and despite not having met them I’m sure he’s raising them damn well. And yet another passenger who was talking with us said that she was alarmed by his having had so many kids at a time when the world population is so high. This is in spite of the birthrate in quite a few countries, not all of them First World, having fallen below the replacement rate. The conductor having and his wife having four kids doesn’t make the United States demographically stable; multiplied by seventy million it probably would, but in fact it’s multiplied by more like five or ten million.
This antinatalist woman later told me that maybe she and her boyfriend should have spent the 1970’s having a family instead of living for the moment. So what really informs her criticism of this conductor? Is it the ethics of reproduction in an age of scarcity? Is it resentment? Envy? Regret projected as moral alarm?
Someone has to have the babies, and the conductor’s wife had four of them, which is four that you or your wife don’t have to have in order to keep the journey that we call life on the rails. Who else should be raising the next generation? This conductor is based in Reno, which is also home to a thriving population of tweakers, dirtbags, and the generally down-and-out. Should they be the ones raising large families when they can barely look after their own affairs?
I hear a similar, but nastier, complaint from hippies about Mormon breeders. One phrasing I’ve heard from an aging childless hippie is that “they have too many fucking kids.” Never mind that their broods of five or more, averaged out into the American population at large, still results in a country with maybe not enough fucking kids. This asshole says that he wouldn’t vote for Mitt Romney because he can’t stand seeing him go on camera with his five sons because “nobody does that anymore. In our parents’ generation people did that, but doing that today is different.” This is nonsense and one of the most ridiculously wrongheaded reasons to vote against Mitt Romney. Are his sons total assholes? Were Mitt and Ann bad parents? My godparents have five kids, all of them excellently well adjusted the last I saw them, and I’ll gladly tell a dipshit to shut the fuck up if he says that my godparents had too many fucking kids. Appealing to the barren crowd is total garbage. This same hippie has a tacit beef with the Catholic Church over various things generally having to do with childbearing and sex, and he knows that I’m Catholic, although I make an effort not to talk to him about it, so maybe the comments about Mormons are a passive-aggressive dig at me. It’s just as well, since if he goes aggressive-aggressive on me over Catholic stuff, even if I’m in partial agreement with him, it will be an unpleasant experience for him, one likely involving legal threats of the shut-up-now-or-be-enjoined variety.
Mormonism is weird; I’m not contesting that, just as I’m not gung-ho about fucked up First World Problems that are repackaged by sexually repressed Catholics as moral imperatives. But subscribing to a weird-ass religion and being a bad parent are two totally different things, and the Mormons have excellent family values. They know how to raise large numbers of kids pretty damn well. Is it the end of the world that maybe they’re raised to disagree with your political and religious beliefs? Theirs are weird, but how intellectually bankrupt are yours that you despair of the possibility of winning over people who were raised in an eccentric church that teaches about a honeybee named Deseret and harbors an exceptionally dense population of multilevel marketing shysters and pyramid schemers?
It seems much more becoming to give thanks for children, including other people’s children. And there are ways to do so without telling girls who are pregnant and scared that an abortion will turn them into baby-murdering sluts. What isn’t clear is whether the United States is mature and morally grounded enough for the task.