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Why Are Conservative Men Obsessed With Your Being Pregnant?

In their latest intrusion on women's bodies and rights, conservatives are wringing their hands over American's declining birthrate.

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On the substance of things, lots of baby is being thrown out with the bathwater here. For one thing, as the demographer Philip Cohen  points out, those middle-class, educated women, the ones whose selfishness everyone is either implicitly or explicitly blaming for all this, are still having most of the babies. “Women with the least education did have more kids than their share of the population,” Cohen recently pointed out. “But there were twice as many children born to women who were college graduates.” And overall, more educated women are having more babies, while less educated women — who may be gaining better access to family planning — are having fewer.

Meanwhile, the economist Nancy Folbre  writes at the Times, “I know of no historical evidence that either the productivity or the creativity of a society is determined by the age structure of its population. The interaction between demographic and economic change is so much more complex than the simplistic doomsday scenario implies.” She does say that an aging population with lower (but stabilized) fertility raises concerns about the long-term viability of how our retirement programs work, but that’s an issue of program design and priority, not certain civilizational destruction.

So why the hysteria? I’d argue that it serves several retrograde political functions, besides its marketability as a counterintuitive rebuttal to the “Population Bomb” fears of old. We are in a moment of partial Republican self-examination, in which certain party reformers are facing the fact that there just aren’t enough white voters to keep them in power — a demographic problem! (While there have been some serious conversations about family-friendly policies started by feminists, including Stephanie Coontz in the Times  last weekend, it’s currently edgy among Republicans to support tax breaks for working families they once proposed.) And every conversation about how allegedly unsustainable Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are, for one reason or another, mainstreams the pressure to radically cut its benefits or reshape it to the whims of the market.

Finally, we are fresh off an election season in which many politicians who celebrated women’s reproductive freedom and vowed to protect or enhance it were declared winners, and others who tried to attack it or equivocate about its importance lost. (Sandra Fluke didn’t even try to testify about birth control for the purpose of voluntary, non-procreative sex, but she became a vessel for all of the crude fantasies of the salivating right about liberal women having reckless, consequence-free sex.)  What better way to reclaim the narrative, to change the subject from the inconvenient autonomy of women, than to claim that all of this contracepting is bringing on the decline of America for all?

 

Irin Carmon is a staff writer for Salon. Follow her on Twitter at @irincarmon or email her at icarmon@salon.com.