Fertility as a policy concern has gained traction over the past few years. Tucker Carlson fearmongers about declining fertility among white Americans and being replaced by immigrants. Influential figures like Elon Musk, who believes that “population collapse is the biggest danger civilization faces by far”, have brought the topic further into the mainstream. Liberal and center-left thinkers are concerned that declining fertility may have long-term consequences for economic growth and dynamism.
While declining fertility rates concern many, others argue that this emphasis on fertility is based on racist “great replacement” theories and attempts to control women’s reproductive rights. Indeed, across the globe, the rhetoric of pro-natalism, as well as the practice of its policies, often do involve xenophobia, racism, misogyny, and broader illiberalism. Viktor Orban, the Prime Minister of Hungary, has been heralded on the right for his pro-natalist policies, and indeed was recently a headline speaker at the American Right’s largest conference, CPAC. If Orban is any indication for the flavor of pro-natalism American policymakers are likely to emulate, however, one should be deeply concerned. Orban pushes pro-natalist policies in an attempt to ward off the “replacement” of the Hungarian people by migrants, while punishing LGBTQ+ people for not contributing to the birth rate. This coincides with Hungary’s increasingly hostile environment to abortion providers and women seeking abortion care.
In light of the influence figures like Orban are having on American conservatives, as well as increasing restrictions on reproductive rights following the Dobbs decision, many liberals may be understandably suspicious of attempts to influence fertility rates. The conversation surrounding it is often dripping with subtle xenophobia, racism, and sexism. Additionally, for more libertarian liberals, the state attempting to influence such a private decision feels antithetical to the values of liberalism. Despite these concerns, however, liberals have many reasons to care about declining fertility rates and should propose liberal alternatives that respect individual rights and liberties.
The goals of illiberal pro-natalism are superficially similar to general pro-natalist politics. However, their actual goals are not to generally increase population growth or make it easier for couples to create families. They are not interested in “economic dynamism”, but rather the “preservation of the white race”. They are only interested in promoting a narrow idea of the family: white, Christian, heterosexual, “traditional.” They believe that the gains women made through feminism are dangerous, and they seek to restrict the rights of women to promote their vision of the “good life”.
Illiberal pro-natalism is also actively in favor of illiberal methods for achieving these goals. Orban’s pro-family policies are exemplary of what illiberal pro-natalists will do to achieve their ends. Since Orban’s rise to power, a slew of anti-LGBTQ and eugenicists policies have been enacted. In parallel to the American Right’s attempts to ban the discussion of LGBTQ identity in schools, Hungary has also banned sex educators from discussing LGBTQ identity to minors and have cracked down on popular media that includes LGBTQ people. Additionally, Hungary banned same-sex marriage in 2012, banned same-sex adoption, barred transgender people from pursuing legal gender identification changes, and has defined marriage as exclusively between one man and one woman.
But illiberal policies designed to enforce a rigid view of the family are not far from home. Eugenics in the United States is not ancient history. It was a powerful force on both the Right and Left of the political spectrum. The practice of eugenics led to the forced sterilization of “undesirable” people—primarily poor Black and Brown people and the disabled—and forced sterilizations campaigns would continue well into the 70s. Even today, “compulsory sterilization” is still practiced in a coercive context against prisoners. The recent Dobbs v. Jackson Supreme Court decision, followed by ten states enacting outright bans on abortion, demonstrates how live these policies remain here.
Should liberals still care?
The illiberalism injected into much of the pro-natalist discourse may, understandably, make many liberals uneasy. However, liberals should not abandon pro-natalism. Population growth is a necessary component of an economically and socially dynamic society. Economic growth will slow as the population continues to age and fewer people are able to participate in the workforce. Additionally, young people bring much needed innovation and vitality to the economy, introducing radical ideas that propel the world forward.
Beyond these material concerns, liberals should care because liberal societies being able to reproduce themselves is important for the continuation of the liberal project. If we take liberalism seriously, we should want bright, vibrant societies full of individuals who contribute to and benefit from the liberal system. This is the true testament to the power of liberalism’s ability to sustain human flourishing.
Many liberals may object to these points, insisting that it is not the state’s role to influence private decisions about fertility. Instead, the primary focus should be on protecting bodily autonomy. These ideas, however, are not necessarily incompatible. In fact, liberals should care about fertility as a preference satisfaction concern. The fertility gap—the gap between the number of children parents want to have and the number of children they actually have—has been growing since 1971. This is not a religious or moral concern, the way that many on the religious right fret about, but it is instead a concern about individuals being able to pursue fulfilling lives on their own terms.
Others may argue that concerns about fertility can be easily solved through increased immigration. However, as beneficial as immigration may be, it is unlikely to be sufficient for meeting the goals of pro-natalism. At a practical level, it is not necessarily true that immigration will inherently increase the birth rate or create sustainable population growth. As Lyman Stone points out, the fertility rate for immigrants is also falling. Immigration may temporarily increase birth rates or population growth, but it is unlikely to be a true substitute for having more children.
These points suggest that a liberal pro-natalism is not only possible, but necessary for the continuation of the liberal project. Liberal pro-natalism is also categorically different than illiberal pro-natalism. It does not require crackdowns on minorities or the stripping of bodily autonomy from women and transgender people. It is aimed at impersonal, liberal concerns, not racist Great Replacement fears. And as I will argue, it can be pursued through liberal policies, not illiberal ones.
A liberal society can still promote increased fertility through liberal means and rhetoric—without attempts to restrict personal and bodily autonomy. Policies targeted at lowering cost-of-living investments in improving maternity care and alternatives to pregnancy and the strengthening of stable, liberal institutions can all play a major role in increasing fertility rates.
Cost of living
The aforementioned fertility gap is growing and could potentially be addressed through cost of living reforms. A 2018 Morning Consult poll found that four of the five top reasons people choose to have less kids were financial. In particular, they cited concerns about the economy, personal financial instability, the costs of childcare, and being unable to financially support an additional child. For pro-natalists, this is an opportunity to promote policies that improve the cost-of-living for everyday Americans without infringing on individual liberties or incurring incredibly large price tags.
As analysis from the Niskanen Center makes clear, addressing cost-of-living concerns can be incredibly cost-effective for policymakers. Much of the reform needed on these issues is supply-side. While this may involve some level of subsidies, many of the drivers of higher costs of living are regulatory in nature. Abolishing exclusionary zoning, increasing competition in the healthcare sector, reducing educational requirements for medical providers, and eliminating restrictive regulations on informal and home-based childcare are only some of the examples here.
Any of these individual reforms is unlikely to have an outsized effect on fertility. However, a general policy program of reducing cost of living, while creating an economy of abundance, creates a more hospitable economic environment for child rearing. These regulatory reforms can also be supplemented by universal payments, such as the Romney Child Tax Credit (CTC) plan. Taken together, these policies can be an important component of liberal pro-natalism.
Improving the conditions of pregnancy
The discourse around fertility often downplays how dangerous and tumultuous pregnancy can be for many individuals. The 2018 maternal mortality rate in the US was 17.4 maternal deaths per 100,000 births, placing the US 55th internationally for maternal mortality, just behind Russia. This is higher than any other wealthy industrialized nation. This has been particularly disastrous for Black women, who are four times as likely to die as white women.
Setting aside the tragedy of maternal mortality in the US, even in the best case pregnancies often involve immense amounts of discomfort, complications, and pain. Pregnancy is non-trivial, and it has high costs for those that undertake it. For those who struggle with fertility issues, pregnancy may also be deeply traumatic, leading to miscarriages and arduous years in fertility clinics.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to remain this way. Even for traditional pregnancies, lowering the maternal mortality rate will not require massive R&D investments. Instead, it will require more mundane improvements in maternal care. This includes improving access to non-hospital options for childbirth through licensing reforms, increased training for prenatal care, and improving access to care in underserved areas. Additionally, the racial gap will require policymakers and hospital management to take health equity into consideration with culturally competent approaches.
Advancements in medical technologies have also already improved the safety of pregnancies, and advancements continue to be made. Despite the Right’s discomfort with alternative forms of fertility, the reality is that these technologies make family formation much more inclusive and accessible. IVF has been tremendously successful in improving outcomes for families, and more futuristic technologies like artificial wombs can make family formation possible without the riskiness of pregnancy.
Strong liberal institutions
Pessimism about the future is also shifting fertility rates downwards. The aforementioned Morning Consult poll found that considerable portions of parents are having fewer children for political and social reasons. 37% cited global instability, 36% cited domestic politics, and 33% cited climate change as a reason for having fewer children than they would otherwise want. More recent work has suggested that climate change in particular is discouraging couples from having children.
This concern about politics and climate change indicate a general distrust in America’s ability to solve problems. This follows from broad dissatisfaction with our major political and cultural institutions, including elected officials, media, and business leaders. One pathway for increasing America’s fertility rates may be to reform and strengthen our political institutions. Events like January 6th, followed by politicians who gaslight the American people about what actually happened, are not an environment that encourages people to build families.
Proposals to strengthen our democracy and institutions are diverse, but there are reforms on the table that can make a difference. Congress, for example, could abolish the filibuster. This has already been discussed by many prominent Democratic congressional members, including Elizabeth Warren. Ending the filibuster would make legislating easier, demonstrating to the American people that governance is possible. Other reforms could include strengthening voting rights, which has been proposed in past Democratic legislation. Protecting voting rights can increase trust in the voting system, ensuring that every American’s voice is heard at the polls. Finally, anti-gerrymandering reforms could further strengthen American political institutions. Rather than allowing dominant state parties to control elections, allowing bipartisan commissions to draw redistricting maps would protect American elections from partisan meddling and ensure American voters believe their votes count. All of these reforms would go a long way in protecting and strengthening American political institutions, which would combat the political anxieties facing many American families.
As fertility becomes a more salient political issue in the United States, it is necessary for liberals to develop an approach that respects individual liberties while meeting the needs of families who find child rearing difficult under current circumstances. Thankfully, a large policy toolbox exists for addressing these concerns, including improvements to our economy, investments in improved maternal care, and strengthened liberal-democratic institutions. We can promote enduring and flourishing liberal societies without falling into racist “great replacement” panics or engaging in gross violations of reproductive rights, freedom of movement, and freedom of gender and sexual expression.
Featured Image is kids painting, by Patrick Fitzgerald