by Theresa Notare
July 11, 2008
Francis Bacon once said, "Nature to be commanded must be obeyed." Even in the human quest to understand and control the natural world, we must respect the "laws" of nature. There are boundaries to human action that we violate at our peril. We can anticipate and "control for" some consequences of our actions, but the unforeseen consequences often prove the most damaging.
I was reminded of Bacon's quote when reading Russell Shorto's "No Babies?" in the New York Times (June 29). The article reviewed Europe's desperate demographic situation where "lowest-low fertility," dangerously below population replacement level, threatens Europe's existence. Simply put, the number of retirees receiving government pensions in Europe will soon outnumber Europeans in the work force. An upside-down age distribution, explained Carl Haub of the Population Reference Bureau, poses a monumental problem because "you can't have a country where everybody lives in a nursing home."
Population implosion is an unforeseen consequence of humanity's manipulation of nature through sterilization, contraception, and abortion. The idea that couples should have very few or no children has ramifications reaching far beyond each married couple. The future of individual nations and continents will be affected. Indeed, humanity itself will change. Imagine the economic and social pressure for denying life-saving medical care to the elderly and even for promoting assisted suicide and euthanasia in such a society.
The Catholic Church has always been a strong champion of the good of procreation, because of our core belief that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God. Thus children should never be viewed as a footnote in life, but as essential participants in the cycle of life.
Teaching about the procreative ability in 1968, Pope Paul VI wrote: "We must accept that there are certain limits, beyond which it is wrong to go, to the power of man over his own body and its natural functions," because "reverence" is "due to the whole human organism and its natural functions" (Humanae Vitae, no. 17). In other words, human fertility, its nature and role in human relationships, is much more complex than may first appear. We can't change our fertility without repercussions elsewhere.
"No Babies?" explains that "nobody foresaw that the fertility rate would go so low." Nor did demographers foresee an even more dangerous trend – that "childlessness" would emerge as an "ideal lifestyle." Scholars offer different theories to account for this trend, but many agree that once a large middle class emerged, with many people living more prosperous lives, a "revolution of rising expectations" for a certain quality of life occurred. Modern married couples are concerned with the "quality" of their own lives, and that of their existing children (if any). This is not bad in itself, but when "quality" means forgoing children in order to have more material goods and leisure pursuits, all of society is affected.
Theresa Notare, MA, is the Assistant Director of the Natural Family Planning Program of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. The official English translation of Humanae vitae can be found at: www.vatican.va/holy_father/paul_vi/encyclicals.