The End of Babies?
By Alexander Sanger
In its November 17, 2019 edition, The New York Times published a two-page Opinion Essay by Anna Louie Sussman entitled, “The End of Babies”. The gist is that Modern Capitalism is inimical to reproduction: economic, social and environmental factors, and moral ones too, are hostile to having babies. The article compares capitalism and its effects in low-fertility Denmark and China. Late Capitalism, she argues, “has become hostile to reproduction”. The system in such countries, where basic needs are met and there is seemingly limitless freedom, may make children an afterthought or an unwelcome intrusion in a life that offers rewards of a different kind – career, hobbies, holidays. Women often defer childbearing or finally realize they actually want children at an age where they are forced to turn to assisted reproduction.
The story did not look at fertility rates in non-capitalist countries, like Russia or North Korea, where fertility is equally low, or lower.
Nor did the word “biology” appear. There are two paragraphs on men and male attitudes and behaviors, including that one in five men in Denmark and the U.S. will not become a parent. The rest deals with the female experience, including her own, and female advocates for reproductive justice.
I went back to Ms. Sussman’s article when Dr. Sarah E. Hill’s book, How the Pill Changes Everything, arrived on my desk last week. The book examines declining birthrates but from a biological angle. The word, “biology” appears throughout. As do the words “men” and “males”.
The default position, indeed, the primary focus of our work at International Planned Parenthood, is rightly on women and girls, and providing them sexual and reproductive health services and advocacy for reproductive justice. We are a proudly feminist organization. Yet, as my grandmother said 75 years ago when IPPF was founded in Bombay, India, “We won’t get anywhere without the men.” Women, who want children by means other than assisted reproduction, won’t get anywhere without the men either. As Ms. Sussman noted, “Reproduction is the ultimate nod to interdependence. We depend on at least two people to make us possible.”
So, with all the focus in her article on the social, economic, educational, urbanization etc. factors and their effects on female fertility, might human biology and men have something to do with the declining birthrate? Might our Darwinian mating system, which has evolved since the time any life appeared on the planet, not be working? If not, why not? The answer might lie in changes to our biology, not just in the changes in the socio-economic system, or systems. Dr. Hill focuses on this and raises the issue of whether the Pill’s mere existence affects fertility in ways beyond its obvious contraceptive effects.
I wrote in Beyond Choice: Reproductive Freedom in the 21st Century of hormonal contraception’s effect on the Major Histocompatibility Complex. There is evidence, I wrote, about the interference of the Pill with the normal mechanism of sexual selection as reflected in MHC preference. This preference leads males and females to choose mates with differing MHCs, thus leading to a better chance of a successful pregnancy and of their offspring having a better genetic quality and chance of survival. Hormonal contraception, I wrote, appears to interfere with a female’s mating preferences by leading them to choose males with a similar, not dissimilar, MHCs. This can lead to difficulties in getting and keeping pregnant and in healthy progeny. Furthermore, hormonal contraception also interferes with a male’s mating preferences. Males avoid mating with females who are on hormonal contraception, whether they consciously know it or not. Thus, the Pill interferes with natural mate choice and hence successful reproduction by both males and females. I wrote that more study was needed, but that women and men needed to be aware of these possible unintended consequences of hormonal contraception.
Dr. Hill brings this research up to date, which confirms what I wrote 15 years ago. Dr. Hill states that hormonal contraception affects … ta da…a woman’s hormones and that, in turn, affects everything, including their mate choices, the chances of a successful long-term relationship and the chances of becoming pregnant and having healthy offspring. Women seem to prefer different types of men when on and off the Pill. A woman’s natural hormones, unaffected by the Pill, may guide women to men who have healthy compatible genes. Hormonal contraception, however, may guide women to men who have less compatible genes, thereby making it more difficult to get pregnant and have healthy children. Dr. Hill warns, correctly, that the science has not proved this conclusively and that any conclusions are speculative.
Ms. Sussman does state in her article that, “Chemicals and pollutants seep into our bodies, disrupting our endocrine systems,” but she is not referring to hormonal contraception and its effects on mate choice. She also does not mention the multiple studies surrounding declining sperm count in males and reduced sperm quality.
Dr. Hill points out that the Pill has also been seen to reduce the sex drive of some women. Certainly, celibacy was not one of the intended consequences of this method of contraception. But also, the Pill may make men less interested in having sex with women on the Pill and thus less likely to be chosen as a mate. The Pill appears to reduce the boost in attractiveness that comes with a pre-ovulatory estrogen surge. Hence, the mating system is at risk of being thrown out of whack.
Dr. Hill argues that the pill, by changing women’s biology, has the ability to have cascading effects on everyone and everything a woman encounters, including potential male mates. And when you multiply this type of an effect by the many millions of women around the world on hormonal contraception, the pill changes the world. (At IPPF, hormonal contraception constitutes about 45% of the methods we distribute: Injectables at 11%, Oral Contraceptives at 11% and Implants at 23%. In addition, some IUDs we distribute contain hormones.)
There is no doubt that the mating system is more than biological. With women achieving more, thanks to contraception, men are achieving relatively less. Men, as an economic matter, are thus less attractive as mates. The mating market is thus bifurcated into two markets – the dating-sex market and the marriage market. The Pill enables the former and has a depressing effect on the latter. In the U.S., for the first time in history, single women out number married women. Hence more single motherhood (and sometimes fatherhood), delayed motherhood and assisted reproduction. The fertility rate of single women is about half that of married women, hence the low overall fertility rate, and, in some countries, a declining population. How much do biology and the hormonal effects of the Pill on women and men contribute to this quandary and this outcome? As Dr. Hill says, this is still undetermined but not outside the realm of biological possibility.
Reproduction is too often seen by commentators as a rational lifestyle choice affected only by socio-economic factors. It is far, far more that. The Unknown Unknowns, to borrow a phrase, are staggering.