Right-Wing Groups Use Decline of White Birthrates to Stoke Fear of Homosexuality, Feminism and Abortion

If you’ve been following the debate over population growth, you’re probably familiar with the argument that it is economically unfeasible for the earth to sustain an unlimited population. You might subscribe to that argument, or you might believe that it isn’t so much a problem of population growth but rather of the inequitable worldwide distribution of resources. Or you might see the two as interrelated.

In recent years, a new wrinkle has been introduced into the debate; a concept called “demographic winter.”   

Unlike the term “nuclear winter,” “demographic winter” is relatively new and lesser known. Demographer Philip Longman, a researcher at the New America Foundation, says, "The ongoing global decline in human birthrates is the single most powerful force affecting the fate of nations and the future of society in the 21st century."   

Declining birth rates -- and aging populations -- is a phenomenon that is of concern to countries around the globe. Conservatives have taken to using “demographic winter” as a catchphrase for turning the discussion into another battle in the culture war. For many on the Right, demographic winter describes a future of economic catastrophes, the decline of Western Civilization, and the destruction of the “natural” family. Embedded within the concept is an argument for a return to adherence to “natural law,” which one conservative writer pointed out “reflects the will of Him whom the Founders referred to obliquely in the Declaration of Independence as ‘Nature’s God.’”  

For many conservatives, demographic winter -- or “birth dearth” as it is sometimes called -- is the ultimate culture war battle, rooted in the rise of feminism, legalized abortion, the acceptance of homosexuality, illegal immigration, and the growth of minority populations. All of this is supposedly the result of a multi-decade campaign by liberals to undermine “natural law” and the “natural” family.

According to Devin Burghart, vice president of the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights, an organization that has long tracked and exposed right-wing movements, "Demographic winter is a relatively new phrase that describes the old alarmist ‘birth dearth’ concept -- the idea that we're facing declining birthrates which is supposed to portend all sorts of cataclysmic events.” 

“One particular strand of dearthers,” Burghart told AlterNet, “led by folks like Pat Buchanan, focus particularly on the supposed danger of declining birthrates among white people in the United States and Europe, which they argue is leading us toward the impending demise of Western Civilization. Buchanan details the argument in his 2002 book, Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil our Country and Civilization. The concept melds nativism and Islamophobia together with the Christian Right's infatuation with procreation and heterosexuality.”

Burghart also pointed out that “The dearthers also often clash with environmentalists and population control advocates, like Paul and Ann Ehrlich, who've been arguing for decades that population growth is one of our biggest potential problems.”  

Rachel Tabachnick, an independent researcher who specializes in End Times narratives, told AlterNet that in the context of her work, she’s found that the conceit “is sometimes used to attack gays, feminists, birth control, etc., because of the role they play in reducing birth rates. Some use it in arguments claiming that Islam will take over Europe and other parts of the globe because Muslims are reproducing faster than Christians.”

Another strand in the demographic winter debate was outlined by Stephen Baskerville, a political scientist at Patrick Henry College, a conservative evangelical Christian institute, and the author of Taken Into Custody: The War Against Fathers, Marriage, and the Family. In a February 2009 article titled, “The Dangerous Rise of Sexual Politics,” published in The Family in America, a journal of the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society, Baskerville maintained that “women’s liberation, the boldest social experiment ever undertaken in the Western democracies,” is responsible for “a massive restructuring of the social order [and] demographic trends that threaten the very survival of Western civilization….”

‘The Roots of Demographic Winter’

Last week, the Family Research Council, a Washington, D.C.-based Christian conservative lobbying group, is sponsoring a presentation titled “The Roots of Demographic Winter and the Global Economic Crisis.” The promotional materials for the event point out that “Demographic Winter didn’t happen in a vacuum. Bad ideas and misguided policies have led to rapidly declining birthrates worldwide.”

The featured speaker is former syndicated columnist and Boston Herald editorial writer, Don Feder, who is president of Jews Against Anti-Christian Defamation as well as the communications director for the World Congress of Families. The World Congress of Families is made up of a formidable collection of Religious Right organizations (local and international) brought together by the Howard Center to celebrate and fight for the “natural” family (which according to the WCF Web site is the “union of a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage”). 

In January 2009, Feder spoke about demographic winter while addressing (PDF) the 36th annual March for Life Rose Dinner, an affair which closes out the annual March for Life festivities in Washington, D.C. LifeSiteNews.com’s John-Henry Westen reported that Feder “suggested that the demographic problem of worldwide declining birthrates ‘could result in the greatest crisis humanity will confront in this century’ as ‘all over the world, children are disappearing.’" 

"In the Western world, birthrates are falling and populations are aging," said Feder. "The consequences for your children and grandchildren could well be catastrophic." Feder noted, "In 30 years, worldwide, birthrates have fallen by more than 50 percent. In 1979, the average woman on this planet had 6 children. Today, the average is 2.9 children, and falling." He explained the situation noting, "demographers tell us that with a birthrate of 1.3, everything else being equal, a nation will lose half of its population every 45 years." 

"Demographic Winter is the terminal stage in the suicide of the West -- the culmination of a century of evil ideas and poisonous policies,'" which includes abortion, contraception, delayed marriage, and a culture that devalues children.  

I wasn’t familiar with the concept of demographic winter until a few weeks ago when I was researching the Ruth Institute, a San Marcos, California-based organization, which, according to its Web site, is dedicated to “promot[ing] lifelong married love to college students by creating an intellectual and social climate favorable to marriage.” The Ruth Institute is a project of Maggie Gallagher’s highly controversial group, the National Organization for Marriage, one of the most significant organizations leading the charge against same-sex matrimony. 

In a document titled “Ruth Institute – Strategic Plan 2010-2013,” a statement affirms that the Institute “aims to work hand-in-hand with other organizations in the marriage movement to: Decrease the divorce rate; Increase the marriage rate; Decrease the cohabitation rate; Increase the number of children who grow up with both married parents; Reduce the lag time between the age of sexual initiation and the age of first marriage; Maintain at least a replacement-level birth rate, so that the devastation of a European-style ‘demographic winter’ is avoided.”

While most of the Institute’s goals are pretty straightforward, the last one, avoiding a “European-style demographic winter," was new to me. Rob Boston, a senior policy analyst with Americans for Separation of Church and State, remembered seeing Don Feder “giving a short talk on the subject” at the 2008 Values Voter Summit. Boston recalled that “Feder was upset because birthrates in some European nations have fallen below replacement levels, and while he never made an explicitly race-based argument, the clear implication seemed to be that the only way these countries would be able to keep a stable population and workforce would be through immigration – hence more non-whites, and this would not be a good thing.”

Boston told AlterNet that Feder “did not explicitly connect these dots [nor did he] espouse racism directly, and [he] tended to portray falling birthrates as a worldwide problem. But anyone who follows population trends knows that third-world birthrates remain high, and obviously the world’s population is far from being in decline. The implication seemed clear to me: Birthrates are up in the ‘wrong’ places (poor, mostly minority countries) and down in the ‘right’ ones (affluent, mostly white countries). I found his talk to be distasteful and xenophobic.”  

In 2008, Feder wrote a piece about the Family First Foundation-produced documentary called Demographic Winter: The Decline of the Human Family, in which Feder pointed out that the film was “the first to explore the most overlooked crisis of our times: the rapid, worldwide decline in birth rates.”     

On July 1, the producers of Demographic Winter, will be releasing a sequel called Demographic Bomb: Demography Is Destiny. According to Barry McLerran, the executive director of Family First Foundation and a producer of both documentaries, the new film “explores the history of the modern population-control movement -- how it persuaded the public that there are too many people in the world, and how these fallacies became institutionalized." The documentary “shows what happens when countries comprising 80 percent of the world's economy have plummeting numbers of workers, consumers and innovators -- leading to falling consumer spending, and too few workers to support the elderly," McLerran said. 

Rachel Tabachnick has found that “Conspiracy theorists, including those in the Religious Right, are claiming that liberals are using abortion, birth control, etc. to intentionally reduce the population of the earth by several billion people.”   

Like Rob Boston, Tabachnick was careful to point out that the debate about so-called birth dearth and overpopulation are serious ones, and that not all of those engaged in the debate, or who use such terms as demographic winter should be viewed as racists, homophobes or anti-immigrant.  

Nevertheless, Tabachnick pointed out, “The claims of the ‘dearthers’ are strikingly reminiscent of the last century when there was also a wave of hysteria about the decline of Western civilization. For instance, Oswald Spengler's book Decline of the West, originally published in German in 1918 about the twilight of Western civilization, was popular in the 1920s and greatly admired by Nazi theorists. (Late in his life, and before he died in 1936, Spengler rejected Nazism.)”  

In 2008, in a piece about the film Demographic Winter, LifeSiteNews.com’s John Jalsevac pointed out “that the only and most obvious solution to the demographic winter facing the world is to strengthen the place of the family in society.” Strengthening families may indeed be a desirable prescription for dealing with demographic winter. It is however, the constriction of the definition of family by such organizations as the Ruth Institute and the Howard Center's World Congress of Families, that may be slowing down the efforts to combat the cataclysms they are trying to avoid.   


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