Millard County, UT. There sure seem to be a lot of men who just can’t stop talking about fertility. Gotta have more babies, Ross Douthat tells us. You want Social Security? Medicare? Then get busy, cries Lyman Stone. We’ll never out compete China if we don’t get the buns in the oven, Matthew Yglesias urges, and Michael Brendan Doughtery warns that civilization itself hangs in the balance! You can almost hear them chanting “Make boomsa for the motherland!” outside your bedroom door.
These pleas for greater fertility are, of course, exceedingly irritating to feminists. After all, it’s women who bear the children. From a feminist perspective, the fertility kings with their charts and graphs are just hard evidence that the patriarchy is still alive and well. What more proof of patriarchy do you need than a bunch of men who seem obsessed about what women are doing with their bodies, and even worse, who tell women what they should be doing with their bodies?
Unfortunately for feminists, their analysis is wrong. These fertility kings are not nearly obsessed enough with fertility. For all their investigations of how everything from the price of car seats to the disappearance of babysitters hampers fertility, they seem unaware of the fundamental fertility issues women—and therefore all of us—face in this country. Even in recent thoughtful pieces on the spiritual or emotional aspects of fertility, the plight of women remains unaddressed. Here is a brief sampling of issues the fertility kings overlook.
The United States is a global leader in hysterectomies. Opinions differ about how to treat various conditions of the womb, but it’s clear that our instinct is just to cut uteri out regardless of other options. Besides the long-term physiological impact of removing an essential organ, a woman without a uterus is a woman unable to procreate. This should be a front-and-center issue in any discussion on fertility, but it doesn’t even get a passing mention.
We have astronomically high C-section rates across the country: almost a third of American babies are born via major abdominal surgery. While some C-sections are medically necessary, most are the result of a culture that provides expectant mothers with no more prenatal care than a bottle of vitamins and a bunch of ultrasounds and ignores the need to prepare for the physical intensity of labor. We rely instead on drugs and instruments, which run a fair chance of derailing the natural unfolding of the birth process and dumping the woman on a cold, stainless steel bench to watch as she is rendered a passive vessel that is sliced open and whose precious contents are snatched out and held up before being whisked out of sight while she is stitched back together.
The surgical ordeal alone is enough to dampen a woman’s enthusiasm for having more children. To add insult to injury, from that day on, she is a marked woman. If she gets pregnant again, her hands will be tied in many places by the doctors and hospitals who will insist that her only option is to deliver under the knife again. Every subsequent C-section compounds the likelihood that the next pregnancy really will be life and death, and understandably, some women forgo more children. Surgical birth has made a big family a risky—not to mention expensive—choice.
Even for those women who manage to escape the surgeon’s scalpel, giving birth is a minefield. Our society thinks that all a woman needs to know to give birth is a knowledge of when to ask for the epidural. The result of this collective ignorance is that once a woman steps over the threshold in most hospitals, she loses her autonomous character as a living, feeling human being and instead becomes a piece of meat, to be poked, prodded, monitored, starved, strapped down, drugged up, cut, and even sexually violated as the medical staff deem necessary to extract a baby and proudly plop it onto her chest. Many women accept this abuse as the price of a healthy baby. They even embrace it and compete for goriest birth story at baby showers. It should be no surprise that younger women learn to be terrified of birth. Some of them would rather have hysterectomies than babies.
Other women are unable to internalize the oppression. As they transition to life after birth, they find their already broken sleep plagued by dreams of the real-life nightmare they endured at the hospital. When they dare give voice to their turmoil and unrest, they find little sympathy. After all, giving birth isn’t supposed to be a day at the spa. Without finding a supportive community to help them heal, it’s hard to contemplate returning to hell to bring home another angel.
Tragically, some women never make it home. Something goes wrong during birth or in the very vulnerable days just after, and father finds himself overwhelmed with the double burden of caring for a hungry infant while planning a funeral. Maternal mortality in the United States has been climbing for years. The cruel loss of these mothers should be a national outrage, yet our culture shrugs it off as the price of bearing children instead of being galvanized into action to ensure that every woman has nutrient-dense food, real knowledge of childbirth, and an enduring community in good times and bad. Other cultures prepare their daughters for motherhood by giving them a special diet six months before they get married; we give our daughters eating disorders, industrial food, and hormone-disrupting drugs.
Then there’s the question of what happens when a woman returns home. Who is waiting there to whisk her off to bed and pamper her, to make her nourishing soups and draw restorative baths and do the laundry and entertain the other children who are adjusting to the fact that they’ve been displaced as rulers of the universe? Who is there to provide comic relief for the latest diaper disaster and troubleshoot when baby seems sick and mama is so worn out she can’t think straight about what to do? These days, no one is there because in most places, the sisterhood has vanished. And these days, not even mama is home with baby if she has a job she can’t afford to quit or take unpaid leave from or has such a demanding career that she can’t stay away. Is it any wonder that postpartum depression has become such a scourge or that women can’t go off their anxiety or depression meds to have another child?
We can’t forget the millions of women who long for a child who never comes. Nowadays, the infertility industry takes advantage of these women’s dreams and persuades them to take out second mortgages, swallow handfuls of pills, and take a deep breath before they jab themselves with chemicals to force their bodies into producing eggs to be surgically retrieved, fertilized, and then implanted, all on a wing and a prayer that these heroic endeavors will result in a cherub to snuggle. If Fate does smile on their herculean efforts, then the trick is to stay pregnant. Many women end up living at the hospital for weeks or months in a desperate attempt to keep baby inside just a little longer, and then, once the baby comes, they move into the NICU. The whole ordeal is a huge burden, not just because of the demands of these tiny babies, but because of the emotional roller coaster and the tidal wave of medical bills that starts to hit. How many kids can you afford at that rate?
The events surrounding conception and birth should be sources of great joy and power in a woman’s life. Instead, they are all too often sources of stress on every level. No wonder so many women are no longer able to embrace childbearing. The fertility kings should be mortified that they can write so much and so often about fertility without ever mentioning its actual dynamics. It makes them vulnerable to the feminist criticism that they just see women as “wombs on legs.”
To the credit of the fertility kings, they understand that their charts and graphs show that something is deeply wrong. Our society lives in the eternal present—no gratitude for the past and no hope for the future. Although the silence of the fertility kings on childbearing reveals their ignorance, they have grasped that women are being cheated and that our society is out of balance. Feminists, on other hand, are so utterly convinced they know what’s best for women that they see falling fertility rates as evidence that women are finally throwing off the yoke of patriarchy. They are too committed to hyper-individualism and technological substitutes for biology to listen to women’s cries as they valiantly try to carry on the time-honored rhythms of life in a very hostile world. It is the fertility kings who are sounding the alarm, urgently lecturing us that, in the words of Jonathan Last, “the root cause of most of our problems is our declining fertility rate.”
Yet human fertility is not the root of our problems. It is but one symptom of a deeper, more elemental problem. We must recognize the pivotal importance of soil fertility as the foundation of all life, without which there can be no human flourishing. Our language itself reflects the ancient connection between humans and the earth. The word humus nowadays is used to describe that rich, dark quality of fertile soil so sought after by gardeners and farmers, but the word originally comes from Latin and means earth. We use the same root in the word human—from the earth—and we read the same connection in Genesis: “from dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.”
The alchemists of the Middle Ages were on a fool’s errand thinking they could turn lead into gold, but we’re even bigger fools, thinking that sickly or dead soil can produce robust human beings without the crutch of medical intervention. A culture that takes care of soil fertility takes care of human fertility. Our culture takes care of neither. We have become inhuman. We are no longer of the earth. And we have no interest in the natural cycling of life, as our plummeting fertility rates clearly show. As Wendell Berry has observed, in our modern world, we think we are free from worry about fertility: “The pharmacist or the doctor will look after the fertility of the body, and the farming experts and agribusinessmen will look after the fertility of the earth. This is to short-circuit human culture at its source.”
This is not to say that nourishing the soil will directly solve the issue of doctors who no longer have the skills to deliver breech babies by means other than surgery. Soil fertility alone will not bring back the sisterhood. But soil fertility is upstream of those issues, and it directly affects a woman’s ability to conceive in the sanctity of her own bedroom or to successfully carry that pregnancy to term. It directly influences a woman’s capacity to bring a child into this world without being reduced to an immobilized object in a baby-extracting factory. And it directly encourages our faith that the children we bring into this world will have a future.
The fertility kings have good instincts. They understand that falling fertility is a red flag. But the remedy lies not in more charts and graphs or more pleas to prepare for the next mass-casualty war. Women’s mighty struggle to push forward in the great circle of life calls for changes far more fundamental than compiling better data sets, introducing more technological wizardry, or instituting more family-friendly government and corporate policies. It calls for a renewal of the ties that bind every living thing to every other living thing. It demands that we strip ourselves of our modernist arrogance and repent of our foolish notion that we have no need to work within the limits of Creation. In short, it requires humility—to become literally of the earth.