Last year, French President Emmanuel Macron, speaking at a Gates Foundation event in New York, suggested that no well-educated woman would have a large family. “Present me the woman who decided, being perfectly educated, to have seven, eight or nine children,” he said.
Catherine Pakaluk, a professor at The Catholic University of America with degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University, responded by posting a picture of six of her eight children. It ignited a Twitter storm. Other smart women around the world with large families followed suit.
There is this element of truth in President Macron’s comment: First World countries do have lower fertility rates. In the United States, the rate has been cut in half twice over the past two centuries, from seven or eight children in 1800, to 3.5 in 1900, to 1.7 today. More babies made economic sense when children worked in a family business and supported aging parents.
Today, people, and women in particular, have more job opportunities. Social Security and Medicare take care of old people. And the pill makes it possible to limit family size to whatever the desired number might be.
The thing is, our incentives are now badly misaligned. Social Security and Medicare depend on a large number of young workers to support retirees. But because it doesn’t matter whose children provide the support, people are tempted to become free riders — let someone else have the children who will pay for the welfare state. Children are a public good.
This makes the answer to President Macron’s question even more interesting. Why would educated women go to the trouble of bearing and raising the children who will support other people’s retirement? This is a question that professor Pakaluk, an economist, has undertaken to explore. She is doing a study that interviews mothers with large families and asks them about their motives.
She won’t finish her work for another year or so. But her contretemps with President Macron has got me wondering about the issue.
It is widely known that there is a strong correlation between fertility and faith. Most educated women who have large families are seriously committed to some religious tradition: Judaism or Islam, Catholicism, evangelical Protestantism, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That correlation suggests some possible lines of inquiry.
One is that such women are more likely to follow religious injunctions about reproduction. Genesis 1:28 tells Adam and Eve and their offspring to be fruitful and multiply. Traditional Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism encourage procreation, too. Many, perhaps most, traditional faiths condemn the practice of abortion. Some of them, most notably Catholicism, ban the practice of artificial contraception.
But I find it hard to accept that well-educated women, particularly in Western cultures, would resolve to have large families simply because their faith directed them to. That would give new meaning to the scholastic notion of marital duties. However seriously they might consider the obligations their faith imposed, I would be surprised if such women didn’t also find that their approach to family planning left them happy and fulfilled.
And although women who have large families provide us all with a public good, the sense of fulfillment can’t be just the satisfaction one derives from making a civic contribution, like serving in the armed forces or in public office. If it were, the phenomenon would not be limited to religious women.
I think the virtue that inspires such mothers is not obedience or even generosity, but hope. They see a future for themselves and their children, filled with the happiness that God has promised. If that’s your view of what life has in store, why not share it?
John Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Catholic University’s website is www.cua.edu.
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