I’ve never been to the Dakotas, either North or South. My grandmother’s, Margaret Sanger’s, uncle, William E. Purcell, moved to North Dakota from New Jersey, practiced law and eventually represented the state in the U.S. Senate from 1910 to 1911. He didn’t care much for my grandmother’s cause. Neither do his political descendants in South Dakota, which recently passed a law criminalizing abortion.
Why, of all the states champing at the bit to criminalize abortion, did South Dakota take the lead?
Before we get to that, let’s review the bidding. Most of you have already read ad nauseam about the reactionary South Dakotan legislature under the thumb of religious fanatics (true), the effect of the law (buy oil and airline stocks—people will be traveling even more than they do now for abortions), the law being a frontal assault on Roe v. Wade (true), the likelihood of the Supreme Court hearing the case and what Justices Roberts and Alito will do (who knows), and what the law really means in practice (it will deter some abortions, but will serve to make the rest illegal, later, more expensive and more dangerous).
South Dakota’s law is the most stringent abortion law ever attempted since Roe was decided in 1973. Abortion is to be illegal except to save the life of the mother, but maybe not even permissible then. SD State Senator Bill Napoli, was quoted explaining the circumstances under which he’d be willing to grant an abortion: “A real-life description to me would be a rape victim, brutally raped, savaged. The girl was a virgin. She was religious. She planned on saving her virginity until she was married. She was brutalized and raped, sodomized as bad as you can possibly make it, and is impregnated. I mean, that girl could be so messed up, physically and psychologically, that carrying that child could very well threaten her life.” So, other than the “Sodomized Religious Virgin Exception,” abortion is now illegal in South Dakota, until enjoined by a Federal Court, which is sure to happen.
The reaction on the pro-choice side has ranged from calls for boycotts and girlcotts of South Dakota (yes), to calls for a referendum on the South Dakota ballot this fall overturning the law (most South Dakotans oppose the law), to calls for more debate and discussion of the “moral issues” involved (pulleaze!). But before we do all this, especially before we launch a referendum campaign or engage in more “moral” debates, let’s take a step back and ask ourselves, what was South Dakota trying to do here?
Were they trying to enforce their version of a religious/moral code? Make Christianity state law? Demean women? Keep women barefoot and pregnant? Bring back patriarchy?
My answer is, all of the above. But the motivation behind all this becomes clear only when we look at the demographic/societal context.
You probably haven’t read much about what the law will mean for the childbearing rate in South Dakota, because no one has focused on it. That, in my view, is what this law is all about: increasing the childbearing rate, especially the white childbearing rate.
Let’s look at the demographic context here. The population explosion worldwide is slowing down. There are still very high birth rates in much of the Third World, most of Africa, much of the Mideast, some in South Asia. The bigger news is that many countries in these regions are nearing or are below replacement birth rate for their population (the replacement rate is 2.1 children per woman). In Mexico, for instance, the birth rate has fallen from about 6.0 in the 1960’s to about 2.5 now. This pattern is repeated throughout the Third World, even if some countries like Kenya have birthrates of about 6.
The bigger demographic news comes out of Europe, Old and New (for definitions of the demographic terms I am using go to the CDC website—but you can get the gist without knowing the technical definitions). The birth rate in Europe as a whole is well below the replacement rate. The EU average is now 1.5. France at 1.94 is second only to Ireland.Germany is at 1.37. Eastern Europe, Italy and Spain are even lower.
And what do the governments of these countries with falling or soon-to-be-falling populations worry about? Grandeur? Military might? Perpetuating their culture? Yes, but mainly funding their pension systems. They fear that there won’t be enough young workers to pay the social security for the elderly. And given their current pension/retirement schemes, they are right. So, a nation has three choices: revise their pension schemes by delaying retirement and reducing benefits, import young people, i.e. immigration, or increase the native birth rate. Europe is trying to accomplish the last to try to forestall the implementing the first two alternatives. Just in the last month there have been new proposals in Germany, France Britain, and Russia, just to name a few countries, to address the birth rate problem. Defining the birth rate “problem” is not easy, nor is solving it. If women and men don’t want to have children, then it is nigh impossible for a society to lure them or force them to do so. Germany is looking at expanding its cash payments and tax breaks for additional births, more paid leave for women, mandating more time off for men to parent their children, and more subsidized child care.
What no government has figured out his how to make childbearing not a penalty for a woman’s career and her career earnings. In England it has been estimated that delaying childbearing from age 24 to age 28 will reduce the lifetime earnings loss by about $700,000. Women have figured this out all around the world, and the demographic consequence is that when you delay childbearing, the likelihood is that you will have fewer children. So women make the tradeoff, more earnings, better career opportunities and fewer children.
Is the United States immune from all this? Not a chance! Are we heading to a European demography? Yes.
What was the first thing President Bush did after the 2004 election? The very next day, when he claimed victory after Kerry conceded Ohio, Bush said his first priority was to fix Social Security. Why? Because it was going to go broke when the Baby Boomers started retiring, and there would not be enough young workers to pay into the system. Note that the President saw the need to address this even with the high immigration rates that we have in this country. Was there an anti-immigrant constituency within the Republican Party that he needed to assuage? You bet! He saw the political tradeoff—reduce social security benefits in order to reduce immigration.
But what of adopting Europe’s strategy of increasing the childbearing rate? Is the US undergoing a baby bust like Old and New Europe? Not quite. Yet.
The US population will hit 300 million this fall. We are still growing. There were a near high of 4.1 million births in 2004 (the last year for which there are figures—births were higher in 1990.). So what is the birth rate problem?
Let’s look at the fine print. The US birth rate is 14.0, or a rate halfway between France and Ireland, the two highest in Europe. The white birth rate is 11.7. What makes up the difference? The Hispanic birth rate of 22.9. This difference becomes clearer when you look at the total fertility rate. For the US as a whole it is 2.05, or slightly below the replacement rate. For whites it is 1.85 and for Hispanics it is 2.82. Hispanics are having and want to have one more child per family than whites do. Hispanics recently replaced Blacks as the largest ethnic/racial group in the country. The birth rate of the US white population is significantly below the replacement rate. There are estimates that by 2050, whites will be in a minority in the country.
These numbers are part of a long pattern in the US. The white birth rate in 1910 was 29.2. It is now 11.7. The white fertility rate has fallen from 123.8 in 1910 by over one-half to 58.5 (it was 65.3 in just 2000). The US crude birth rate is still falling, it fell 17% from 1990 to 2002; the US general fertility rate fell 9% in the same period, and the total fertility rate fell 3%. Margaret Sanger, take a bow!
So, what about South Dakota? Where does it fit in demographically?
It has a birth rate of 14.4 (in 2003), slightly above the US rate and a fertility rate of 70.8, also slightly above the US rate. That said, its population grew from 2000 to 2004 by 2.1%, less than the US growth rate of 4.3%. From 1990 to 2000, it grew by 8.5%, less than the US rate of 13.1%. South Dakota is losing the population race, but it is still growing, for now. South Dakota is one of 13 states at or above replacement rate.
BUT, there were fewer births in South Dakota in 2002 than 1990, 10,698 versus 10,999. The white births dropped from 9,076 to 8,376. Thus the white births dropped 700 while the total dropped only 300. The white birth rate dropped from 14.3 to 12.5. The only birthrate to rise was the Hispanic (the Indian and Black rates also fell). The state is 89% non-Hispanic white, one of the whitest states in the union (the US is 69% non-Hispanic white). Native Americans make up 8.3%, with Blacks, Asians and a growing number of Hispanics making up the balance.
The economic picture is mixed. South Dakota has a low household income compared to the rest of the country ($35,282 median household income versus a US median of $41,994). South Dakota has just 10 persons per square mile—the US has 80. South Dakota has undergone a massive population shift. The Great Plains there, and in other neighboring states, have become a dust bowl. Of the 67 counties in South Dakota for which there are records (4 have no records) 46 of them, or two-thirds, lost population from 1960 to 1990 (more recent figures were not available but I suspect the number is even higher now). The median age in South Dakota is 37, as opposed to 35 for the US. Just 10% of the workforce is in agriculture or similar pursuits. Education, health and social services and retail trade are bigger employers than agriculture. The family farm is dying.
The Census Bureau predicts that South Dakota’s population will grow, slowly, for fifteen more years until 2020 (from 754,000 to 802,000) and then begin declining. The US will still be growing.
So, South Dakota is: a white bastion, soon to go the way of the rest of the country demographically, relatively poor, relatively old, and with lots of space for newcomers. There are two solutions, just as in Europe (South Dakota doesn’t need any more than other states to worry about funding pensions at the state level): it can import people or grow them at home—immigration or increase the childbearing rate. And in the current context, immigration means Hispanics and Asians.
Have we seen this issue before?
Yes, in the early 19th century. Immigration patterns began to change in the 1830’s and 1840’s, shifting from England and Germany, to Ireland (it would shift later in the century to Southern and Eastern Europe). The Irish may have spoken the same (almost) language, but they were Catholic (my grandmother’s parents included). This was perceived by the Protestant elites as a challenge to their hegemony. The Protestants wanted to preserve their Puritan, Anglo-Saxon culture, the Protestant religion and their political power. As a result the Know-Nothing Party was founded. They wanted to preserve the heretofore American, male-dominated, Anglo-Saxon Protestant society. Their platform called for limits on immigration, office holding be restricted to native-born Americans, and a 21-year waiting period being imposed before an immigrant could vote. Their platform contained temperance elements as well as religious bigotry. They sought to limit the sale of liquor, to restrict public-school teaching to Protestants, and to have the Protestant version of the Bible read daily in classrooms.
A part of this nativist, puritanical vision there was a concern among Protestants about being outnumbered by the new Catholic immigrants. They noticed that Catholic women had large numbers of children, while the number being had by native Protestant women was declining. Since no new birth control methods had been introduced, the Know-Nothings concluded that their Protestant wives were making use of abortion as a method of birth control. They were right. Protestant women were making disproportionate use of abortion to limit their childbearing.
So, the Know-Nothing Party lent their support to measures seeking to criminalize abortion and birth control. They did so not because they thought birth control and abortion were immoral, or dangerous.
No, they did so to prevent their wives from using them!
The male Protestants wanted to increase the Protestant birth rate. They needed to take back control of childbearing from their wives.
They failed. The genie was out of the bottle. Birth control and abortion went underground. Women continued to use them. The birth rate in the US went from about 8 children per woman in 1800 to 4 children per woman in 1900, even though birth control and abortion had been criminalized.
Well, you might say, haven’t we learned something from history? Isn’t this just religious fanaticism on display in South Dakota and not some outworn ethnic battle? The language used in South Dakota may be religious or moral, but the underlying demographic/cultural instincts are still there.
Take the recent article in Foreign Policy by Philip Longman of the New America Foundation, “The Return of Patriarchy”.
Longman tries to make the case that patriarchy is good for society since it insures population growth. Patriarchy makes women concentrate on being mothers, raising more and healthier children, thereby contributing, as only women can do, to the future wellbeing of society. There are also in his article statements like “population becomes power”. He calls for dismantling the social security system and handing its functions back to the family, which will then need more children to support it. He concludes that patriarchal families will inherit the earth, since they will “by a process similar to the survival of the fittest, be adapted to a new environment in which no one can rely on government to replace the family, and in which a patriarchal God commands family members to suppress their individualism and submit to father.” In other words, patriarchy is the red state, God-fearing peoples way to inherit the earth.
Patriarchy is back in South Dakota. Some lawmakers there talked fondly of the day of the shotgun marriage. No abortions to get you “off the hook”. Marry young, have lots of kids. Settle the Plains. Keep out those immigrants. Keep South Dakota South Dakota.
How do I know this? Check the section on penalties. A doctor performing an abortion gets five years in the slammer. By the way, abortion is defined as murder and committing other murders in South Dakota will get you the death penalty. And what is the penalty, you might ask, for women who get the abortion, who are equally guilty with the doc? Nothing. Nada. Zilch. No time in the pen. Nope, the folks running the South Dakota patriarchal reproductive system can’t put women of reproductive age in the chair or in prison. Then they can’t reproduce! We need them in the game, as George H. W. Bush said of his granddaughter, in the game making babies.
As someone who has never set foot in South Dakota, may I make a few suggestions? First, patriarchal pro-natalism won’t work when your strategy involves criminalizing normal behavior. Second, your state is in the dumper. The people are old, the young are leaving, and there is no opportunity. And it’s not the weather, folks. I would suggest, rather than criminalizing abortion, which we know from history won’t work, why not try encouraging childbearing and family formation in some inventive ways, if that is your state’s goal. Figure out how to eliminate the economic childbearing penalty for women. Create opportunity that enables women to be workers and mothers without penalizing either role. Get the men totally involved. States are supposed to be social laboratories in our Federal system. So, South Dakota, I say go for it. Try something new, not something old like you just did. You are turning into a wasteland. Criminalizing reproductive freedom will only compound the damage to your state and to women. I remember those days when we didn’t have reproductive freedom. Believe me, you don’t want to go back there.