Thursday, May 16, 2024

It’s Thursday, May 16, 2024.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The World is Reaching a Catastrophic Fertility Rate: The Huge Demographic Changes Taking Place Before Our Eyes Worldwide

There are a lot of issues going on in the world right now. There are many issues of concern. There are events that will have long-term consequence, but there are even deeper issues that sometimes just absolutely demand our attention. One of those is the fall in the human birth rate, and that is such a significant issue that, quite frankly, other issues pale in significance. The Wall Street Journal recently ran a front-page news article with the headline, “Suddenly There Aren’t Enough Babies. The Whole World Is Alarmed.” But that alarm should have sounded long ago, and Americans and others should have been paying a lot of attention to this because we are talking about something that threatens the very existence of human civilization.

Now, I don’t want to exaggerate. That is not a short-term crisis, but it is a long-term problem, and we are looking at a reduction in the number of babies being born to healthy people. We’re talking about a fall in the birth rate that can only be described as catastrophic. Now, as you look at this, you recognize that one of the symptoms of the modern age has been the attempted mastery over all parts of life, including perhaps even, especially, our sex and reproductive lives, which is one of the reasons why, before the modern age, there was really not much of a question about birth rate.

The birth rate was a pretty steady constant in society because there was no artificial birth control. Furthermore, in the pre-modern age, families needed as many babies as possible in order to have a successful generational transfer in order to run the farm. In order to have the business, it was considered also very central to the Christian worldview. But this wasn’t something that was only found in Christian-influenced societies. Every society, every winning society, every lasting society has found its way to a very healthy birth rate, or by definition, it has ceased to exist.

So again, I want to come back to the fact that for most of human history, there was no philosophical debate about the birth rate. The birth rate was simply what happened, and it happened as families and couples had the motivation to maximize the number of children. I am very honored to show people something from my library, which is a Bible several hundred years old, and it was published by the German nobility. It is a version of Luther’s Bible, and it has the woodcuts of the German nobility who paid for this edition of the Bible in the front. There are some really touching woodcuts. This is from the German aristocracy, the German nobility who paid for the Bible. It was a very expensive production. For example, you have these German noblemen, and they are standing with their wives and with their children.

Doing some research, I discovered that one of these noblemen had more children in the picture than was historically accurate. That is because, for the sake of this Bible and deeply infused by a love for all of his children, he put the living and the dead together in the picture. That is to say, all of his children are lined up, even though, at that point, several of them were dead. That was a big problem, of course, in the pre-modern age. The death rate for children, the period of life expectancy was so short. There were no antibiotics, there were no emergency rooms, and frankly, famine, pestilence, and plague were quite common. But it was also simply considered organic to the Christian worldview that couples would have children to the glory of God. They would raise them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. They understood this to be not just a family responsibility but a civic responsibility. As I say, every successful society, regardless of its location, regardless of its specific worldview, it has found its way to that understanding, or it has simply disappeared.

Now this front-page report, the big report that appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal just this week, makes that point. Quite frankly, the point is, all of current global civilizations are endangered by a falling birth rate. How many of them? Just about all of them. Greg Ip and Janet Adamy are the reporters in the article, and they begin with this simple statement, “The world is at a startling demographic milestone. Sometime soon the global fertility rate will drop below the point needed to keep population constant. It may already have happened.” As a matter of fact, we’re pretty sure that it did happen. A part of the newsworthiness of this report is that an update on the demographic situation has simply underlined the fact that the fall in the birth rate has been more precipitous than even had been forecast. So we are looking at some nations that, quite frankly, are in a current demographic crisis.

Now, I know there are many people listening to this who say, “Big deal, people have the right to decide how many children they’re going to have.” And quite frankly, the idea that children are a lifestyle choice is baked into so much of the worldview of our contemporary society, and as we’re going to see that as a part of the problem. But this is creating massive crises, and these crises loom before now virtually every major country. So let me just tell you how the crises work.

Number one right now, take the example of Japan. In Japan, the birth rate has fallen so precipitously that they are looking at robots in nursing homes. They simply don’t have any choice. They’re looking at robot companions for so many aged people because there simply are not enough human companions to do the job. You’re looking at families that are now facing an absolute crisis. You have the phenomenon in Asia known as broken branches. Part of this is because of China’s one-child-only policy under the communist regime.

But even where there is no communist regime and there was no national policy, you have so many people who are growing up as single children, and quite frankly, they are also, in many cases, maladapted to marry and to understand how to have children and to do so in any reasonable frame of time. So this demographic crisis comes down to the fact that Japan is not going to be able, even in the short-term future, to have enough workers to make the society work. But frankly, it’s a double problem. Frankly, this is one that Christians need to understand. We’re talking about lengthening the lifespan. That means lengthening the period after work and after the most important period of paying taxes.

Thus, you’re going to have an enormous number of old people and an insufficient number of young people entering the workforce. You say, “Maybe I’ll just be, say, lucky enough to ride this out.” Good luck with that because the demographic crisis is coming so quickly. If you’re hearing me talk, it’s probably going to catch up with you. For instance, in the United States, we are looking at an absolute crisis for Social Security, just to take one program, by the middle of the next decade, and by a crisis, I mean an absolute crisis. The crisis is going to be, there are far too many people who are drawing down, and there are far too few who are going to be going into the workplace. By the way, you add artificial intelligence to this, and who knows how many jobs are going to be lost?

But the fact is that right now, the bigger problem is finding the people for the jobs. This is going to be a more accelerated process with every passing year. If you’re in higher education, you know that a demographic cliff, that’s what it’s called, is coming before the end of this decade. So if you’re the president of a university, and let’s just say it doesn’t matter what kind of university, you could be liberal, conservative, public, private, let’s just say you’re a university, guess what? Universities need a lot of 18-year-olds in the incoming class. The number of 18-year-olds has dropped rather remarkably, and it is going to drop further. So that’s to say that if you have something like a 20% drop in 18-year-olds, you’re going to have a 20% drop in enrollment. For many institutions, that’s absolutely catastrophic, but demography is not a short-term problem. So this is where we need to recognize that missing people are missing for their entire lifespan.

So they’re missing when you’re looking at preschool, they’re going to be missing, and by the way, you also have major media this week talking about the fact that major urban public school systems are going to end up with a lot of empty schools. What in the world are they going to do with those? Because the number of children is simply dropping so fast, and you look at the fact that in the economy, again, a person who is missing from the economy is missing all the way through. So that person’s missing in a classroom as a kindergartener. That person’s missing as a college freshman on a college campus. That person’s missing in terms of the job force. That person’s missing in terms of paying into taxes and paying into Social Security. That person is missing as a companion to someone else. That person is missing as a brother or sister. That person is missing.

Just imagine the implications of this for the future of the Christian Church, Christian missions, the Christian ministry, and Christian families. Of course, Christians are a subset of all this, and frankly, a subset that, the more conservative you get, is more likely to be on the higher end of the birth rate. That, we should know, for very good worldview reasons as well. But the fact is, we are part of a larger society, and this demographic crisis is going to be a very real crisis. You’re looking at demographers now pretty much figuring that the total world population is going to start shrinking within four decades.

Now, think about something else here for a moment. This is where we have to understand, worldview implications come with real-life consequences. So let’s just think about, for example, your retirement plan. Let’s just talk about your investments for a moment. Every one of those investments is tilted towards anticipated growth in the economy. Growth in the economy means you’ve got to have more customers, you got to sell more whatever you’re selling. That’s the only way growth happens. It’s going to happen by more transactions, not less. It’s going to happen by more people being in the economy, not fewer people. All the energy in the economy is going towards growth. If there is no growth, you can pretty much figure what’s going to happen to your retirement plan. You’re going to retire in a fraction of what you have anticipated. Again, our entire system is based upon economic growth. If we enter a period of economic retraction, let’s just say we’ll call that a great depression, but it’s going to come with even more catastrophic consequences than we had imagined. This is not something that happened to us. This is something we will have done to ourselves.

An economist specializing in demographics at the University of Pennsylvania, Jesús Fernández-Villaverde, said, “The demographic winter is coming.” Hear that winter? The demographic winter is coming. We are really talking about a very threatening reality. Now, where’s the birth rate right now in the United States? It is anticipated that it is somewhere around 1.6. Now, all you have to hear is 1.6, and you understand that’s short of something like the 2.2 or 2.4, which is just the replacement rate. By the way, all kinds of things go into that, some of which are worth our thinking about sometime.

For example, as you look at the birth rate, that say 1.6% includes a slightly greater number of boys than girls, but by the time you reach a certain point in the demographic time frame that is reversed, there are more surviving females than are surviving males. Part of that is due, quite frankly, to male behavior, but it’s also due to other physical considerations. But the fact is that you have to have an adequate number of babies to have an adequate number of boys and an adequate number of girls to make sure you have an adequate number of husbands and an adequate number of wives having an adequate number of babies, say, two decades thereafter. If you don’t, you’re in big trouble.

Now, another part of the birth rate problem in the United States has to do with the decline of marriage, the decline of marriage in terms of people just getting married, and also the shorter period of fertile adulthood that is now represented by marriage on the average. That is to say that if you have a couple who starts having babies in their 20s, they’re likely to be able to have several babies. If they start having babies in their thirties, much less even later, which is not all that unusual these days because people are marrying so far later and they’re setting economic expectations, which quite frankly, if applied in the past at comparative levels, would’ve been none of us exist because no one would’ve been able to afford babies. Almost every one of us was born to people who could have made the argument they couldn’t afford us.

Back in about 2017, the United Nations had issued a report indicating its alarm about the falling birth rate. That’s when, globally, it was 2.5. They estimated that it was likely to fall over the next 20 years. But quite frankly, they just undershot that fall by a very significant amount. By the way, they’re also unable to catch up with it. That’s because this demographic problem is emerging so fast, and frankly, in so many places because there are many people who thought this is going to be something that’s isolated to certain countries. For example, countries like South Korea, countries like Japan, countries like China, of course, with that one-child-only policy for so many decades, horrifyingly enough, the demographic consequences are pretty easy to see.

But what’s really unexpected is that this is now also showing up in places like Spain and Italy, and let’s just say you’re talking about Mediterranean, European culture as a part of historic Christendom and Western civilization, heavily influenced by Catholicism, but the same patterns, although not yet at the same rate, but the same pattern of decline is showing up there too. Here in the United States, again, showing up faster than even had been forecast. By the way, there were people who thought that the birth rate, which kicked up to about 1.62 during the pandemic, might be at least correcting somewhat in the United States. But it turns out that was what’s been described as “a short-lived pandemic baby boomlet,” which has now not only ended but been reversed.

Okay. Something else for us to recognize is that, as I said, this comes with the modern age, and it comes first of all with industrialization. That was called the first demographic transition. The first demographic transition was people moving from the farm into cities, and by definition, you needed fewer children to work the farm if you don’t live on a farm anymore. But the second demographic transition was possible in a way, the first wasn’t simply because they had a birth control, and now, of course, all kinds of ways of not having children. This would include artificial birth control. This would include permanent sterilization. It would, of course, horrifyingly enough, also include abortion, which is increasingly acknowledged as basically something as used as a form of birth control. Again, this is a horror added to the already dark picture here, but we are talking about an incredible number of millions of abortions since abortion was legalized in the United States in 1973, and as we’re going to see in just a moment, there’s been an increase in abortions in the United States even after the Dobbs decision, reversing Roe. Again, surprisingly enough, horrifyingly enough.

Part II

Secularization, Lifestyle Choices, and Complexities of Modernity: The Devastating Causes of the Falling Birth Rates Worldwide

But as we’re thinking about the birth rate, it really is important that we step back and recognize that lifestyle issues are a huge part of this. The complexity of modern society is a part of this, and the secularization of the society is a big part of this. Another part of it is that far too many Christians have bought into a frankly secular understanding of the question of children rather than really thinking through these things biblically. Remember this, that the charge that was given to Adam and to Eve was to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth.

Now, far too many Christians have bought into the idea that we did that, but we didn’t do that. As a matter of fact, when you have a reversal on the birth rate, it brings absolute human devastation, and we’re looking at that. We are looking at the fact that if you have children right now, they are going to face an economic reality that’s being marked by scarcity. That includes, first of all, scarcity of peers, a scarcity of workers, a scarcity of those who could be paying into the system. This also leads to all kinds of incentives, where you have, frankly, so many older people who are going to be very certain that their benefits aren’t cut.

As you look at something like Social Security, the only way to avoid massive cuts and benefits is to basically borrow from the future bills that are going to have to be paid at some point. This also leads to the perverse incentives of modern politics. Let’s just state the fact that we have, right now, two expected candidates for the office of President of the United States, and both of them are the oldest ever to do what they’re doing now. Just to state the obvious, they have no particular personal interest in making certain that Social Security is solved at 20 years from now. You can extend that through Congress and through politics at large, where the political motivations are not to address the issue rather than to address the issue. All the political rewards are to ignore the problem rather than to deal with the problem.

But we can also say, with sympathy to Congress, Congress doesn’t have much to do with producing babies. That comes down to citizens. Frankly, it comes down to couples. Of course, if you’re in a society that is also confused about what marriages and absolutely corrupt about what sex is about, and if you see children as a lifestyle choice and as a consumer good, then guess what? You are going to be a society that is going to look at a demographic cliff, and honestly, as a society, you’re going to deserve it. So we’ll be looking further at this, but the most important thing we can say is that the Christian worldview is the opposite of the worldview that has produced this problem. And one of the tragedies is that there are far too many Christians who, frankly, are thinking in secular terms here rather than thinking in biblical terms. It’s one thing for the world to be confused about this. It’s quite a different thing for Christians to be confused about this.

Part III

Our Society Has an Increasing Death Impulse: Even After Statewide Abortion Bans, the Abortion Rate Keeps Creeping Up

But next, I do want to talk about this latest report on abortion in the United States because the headline itself, this one from NPR, National Public Radio, “Despite State Bans, Abortions Nationwide Are Up, Driven by Telehealth.” Okay, I can do this pretty fast. We are looking at the fact that even after the Dobbs decision in 2022, many people said, “The abortion rate’s going to go down because you’re going to have more states in which abortion is going to be restricted.” It’s true. Thankfully, there are more states where abortion is restricted, but telehealth is the big game here, medication abortion, which comes delivered by telehealth, mostly by pills. So this just tells you what the death impulse is really like in our society. The abortion impulse is so strong that even as you have abortion clinics increasingly shutting down, you have people who are using telehealth, and actually leading unexpectedly to an increase in the net number of abortions.

So according to the Society of Family Planning’s WeCount Project, the report tells us that in 2023, there were, on average, 86,000 abortions per month, says NPR, compared to 2022, where it was about 82,000 abortions per month. Now just figure that out. That’s looking at something like 1 million abortions a year, and the increase to 86,000 from 82,000 is 4,000 a month. But add that up, that’s about 50,000 a year. 

We’re talking about the death toll of abortion just going up and up and up and up, and we are talking about a society that is now increasingly using pills as a human pesticide. That’s the reality.

Part IV

Residency Students Look to States Without Abortion Bans? What Does It Say of the Medical Community That is So Committed to the Culture of Death?

But before we leave this issue today, I also want to go to a big story. The Washington Post covered it. The New York Times covered it. Most major media covered it. NPR covered it, and it has to do with the fact that medical residencies are now decreasing in states that have taken actions that are pro-life to restrict abortion. So you have, for example, this Washington Post headline, “Abortion bans are repelling the nation’s future doctors.” This has to do mostly with residencies, and this is where medical school graduates are applying to do residencies in certain specializations. According to this report, especially as you get closer to, say, OB-GYN, you’re looking at a falloff, we are told, in the number of young doctors who want to do residencies where there is a limitation upon abortion.

Now, it’s unclear exactly what’s going on here, but it is clear that this is being driven by an agenda, and that agenda is pro-abortion. But I want to point out something else, and this really shows up in very few of these news articles, and I, at least, want to give credit to The Hill, published in Washington, D.C. for an acknowledgement I was looking for in other articles, not finding it, but I did find it at The Hill. Listen to this, “In the most recent application cycle, applications to OB-GYN residency programs in states with the most restrictive abortion bans decreased by 6.7%.” Then listen to the sentence, “While most OB-GYNs in the United States do not provide, most abortions are performed by an OB-GYN.”

Now, there’s something really big embedded in that statement. Again, I was looking for it and others news coverage, it wasn’t there. I want to make clear it wasn’t there on purpose because you are talking about residencies in OB-GYN, most particularly, and the big story here we’re being told is that you have doctors who are saying, “I’m not going to be adequately trained if I do that residency in a state that restricts abortion.” And yet, here’s the big moral point. Most OB-GYNs want nothing to do with abortion. That tells you something about the reality of abortion. It tells you something big about the morality of abortion.

You have very few young doctors who go into an OB-GYN residency intending to be abortion doctors. They don’t want it because, let’s just say, that’s not the most credible form of medicine to go into. Over the course of the development of the medical profession, it was actually seen as something that was on the dark side because, after all, it is on the dark side. So it wasn’t something that you had parents who were bragging about the fact that their son or daughter got a medical degree and is now an abortionist, is now an abortion doctor. That’s one of the reasons why it’s camouflaged in so many different ways. So I don’t know exactly what to make of this report other than to say it tells us something and something not good about so many of these young doctors not wanting to do OB-GYN residencies, but other residencies and other specializations as well in states that are seen here as being more restrictive on abortion.

There are some who are arguing this is about the legal complexities, not so much about the moral questions, but in any event, it’s a big moral development, and I think we all need to recognize it, and one that should concern us all. But it also is not dealing straightforwardly with the fact that there are very few young doctors who say, “You know what? I really want to stake my medical reputation on being an expert abortionist.” 

But in a fallen world, there are plenty who do see the opportunity. It’s also very interesting to see how it’s being packaged because we often talk about how moral change is driven by the redefinition of the professions. In medicine, we can see that happening right before our eyes right here in this news development where there are people who are saying it is not economically right to prepare a doctor for specialization unless they’re trained in everything, including abortion.

That has been routine, we’re now told, in many, say, urban medical centers and many residencies, and yet it’s not routine in some places. Evidently, that’s now showing up in the demographics of where young doctors are signing up for residencies. It’s going to be interesting to track this over time, and, of course, there will be other developments as well. But sadly enough, I think we are likely to see the medical profession and the sub-professional bodies of those specializations moving towards making this more and more routine, even in one sense, required, in order to maintain professional status. That is one of the ways that moral revolutions take place and cultures are transformed. A secret to that is the fact that within these professions, by the logic of professionalism, only those who are credentialed already inside the professions have the right to say what those professional qualifications and expectations should be.

It’s a very dark picture, and we are looking at some very dark issues here, beginning with the birth rate and then moving to abortion and recognizing as Christians, that’s not an accidental linkage. Once again, we have to end by saying our challenge is even bigger than we knew, but it’s the challenge to which we’re called. 

Thanks for listening to The Briefing. 

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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