It’s Okay to Be “Selfish” Sometimes: The Effect of Cultural Trends on Birth Rate

The number of births per year in the United States is at a record low. Last year the fertility rate fell to 60.2 births per 1,000 women aged 15-44, a 3 percent decrease from 2016. This decline mirrors a growing trend of Americans choosing to not have children.

While many humanists concerned about human population and its strain on the environment may welcome this news, conservative Christians are raising alarm. In 2015 Pope Francis went on the record calling couples without children “selfish,” and recently, in response to a New York Times article analyzing the low fertility rate among young people, the Christian Post published an op-ed with similar sentiments.

In the Christian Post article, authors John Stonestreet and Roberto Rivera assert that the women interviewed in the New York Times article are not making responsible and well-thought out decisions about parenthood. They are instead merely influenced by a greater cultural shift in the United States (unique from other largely secular Western European countries) that values greed above all else. The piece especially admonishes Christians for being swept up by a new American culture that “worships self, pursues freedom from restraint and consequences as the good life, and ultimately separates the pleasures of sex from the context of marriage and procreation.”

Stonestreet and Rivera are right about one thing—the culture of the United States is changing.

The number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation increases every year. But even within faiths like Christianity, believers increasingly separate themselves from the Bible or interpret it in different ways. For example, 36 percent of Christians believe that the Bible should not be interpreted literally, while 18 percent view it as a book written not by God, but by men. And less than half of Christians believe reading the Bible is an essential part of being Christian.

Regardless, Americans are realizing that the Bible is antiquated. In earlier centuries, around half of all children died before reaching the age of ten, and only one-third reached adulthood. But with access to adequate healthcare, high child mortality rates are no longer a major concern for many Americans. Although the United States is failing to keep up with economically similar countries’ declining infant mortality rates due to a higher rate of poverty and lack of access to preventative care, death rates for children between the ages of five and fourteen decreased significantly between 1955 and 2015 alone. In a time and country where it is almost certain children will survive into adulthood, it’s no longer necessary for families in the United States to have a large number of children in order to ensure that some of their offspring will survive.

A large contributing factor to the decline in overall births per year is the drastic decline in teen pregnancy rates, which Stonestreet and Rivera do not account for. The teen birth rate fell 39 percent between 1991 and 2009, and is now at a record low for all race groups. Data shows a decline in the percentage of sexually active teenagers coupled with an upward trend of the use of contraception during first-time sex, of which Stonestreet and Rivera likely oppose.

Although the New York Times extensively covered the importance of the economy in family planning decisions, Stonestreet and Rivera appear not to take it seriously, They assert that couples should have children regardless of their economic situation. This “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality, coupled with “if you just work harder and sacrifice more you will be able to provide,” is reminiscent of an older generation that is far removed from present-day socio-economic structures.

A study by the Equality of Opportunity Project (EOP) found that children are now more likely to earn less than their parents and have more student loan debt. Additionally, salaries are not growing in proportion to the cost of living. Employers discriminate against mothers (a growing workforce) and men were found to earn 6 percent more when they have a child, while women earn 4 percent less for every one of their children.

In the face of a struggling economy, Americans are realizing that there are other ways to live meaningful lives. We’re experiencing a fundamental shift in how individuals perceive their place in the world. A poll from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that around 90 percent of participants believe that they don’t need a child in order to be truly happy. Motherhood is no longer the only option for women. We now have the choice to dedicate more energy to our careers or other interests, and young adults are making informed decisions based on what’s best for their particular situations.

Since the writing of the Bible, the meaning of family has changed. According to the CDC, the percentages of those who agree with statements regarding the acceptability of sex before marriage, having children without being married, and the right for same-sex couples to marry and adopt increases with each year. Family is no longer synonymous with a married man and woman.

But Stonestreet and Rivera don’t see these cultural shifts as positive. Sadly, their conception of a family with children is fundamentally based on control. They want to return to a time when they could live comfortably in their bigotry and when it was believed that God supported it. When women (and girls) could not abort if they needed to, and when same-sex couples were forced to hide. But just because one’s bigotry gets in the way of understanding basic rights and freedoms doesn’t mean that we are living in a country that lacks selflessness.

Family units should be based not on bigotry and control but trust, love, and mutual support. In acknowledging families as being held up by these pillars, humanists reject the idea that there must be a single rubric for a fulfilling life and an obligatory role of a family beyond supporting those within it. If this is what it means to be “selfish,” I hope we can all be a little bit more so.