TR's Worry Over Plummeting Birthrates Is as Relevant as Ever

"If the failure (to increase the race) is due to the deliberate and willful fault, then it is not merely a misfortune, it is one of those crimes of ease and self-indulgence, of shrinking from pain and effort and risk, which in the long run Nature punishes more heavily than any other."

—Theodore Roosevelt, "The Man in the Arena" speech, April 23, 1910

At the dawn of the 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt was worried. He had consulted all the U.S. Census reports from 1890 on and knew the family was in trouble.

Birthrates were falling, the well-educated producing the least offspring of all, prompting him to write in a 1917 Metropolitan Magazine debate with birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, "The most pitiful showing is made by the graduates of the women’s colleges," who then averaged 0.86 children per graduate — a rate that, not surprisingly, is even more "pitiful" today.

The trend toward lower birthrates began in the 19th century, coinciding with the Industrial Revolution, introduction of new, cheaper forms of birth control, and, the broad acceptance and utilization of abortion, by which one out of every five to six pregnancies was terminated mid-century. Thus, while in 1800 each family averaged over seven children, that number was fewer than four at century’s end. The accelerated anti-natalist drive of the twentieth century brought an even greater fertility implosion, such that by century’s close, birthrates were fluctuating between 2.0 and 2.1 children per woman. Even the much vaunted 1950s "Baby Boom" averaged little over 3.5 births per woman — a birthrate that, according to the Census Bureau’s mid-decade estimates issued this week, only Mexican immigrant women are now achieving.

But more than worry, Theodore Roosevelt set out to do something — employing the "bully pulpit" during his presidency to declare that every healthy, married woman should, as an act of patriotism, have at least four children. He later joined forces with the advocates of Mother’s Day — first suggested by Julia Ward Howe, author of "Battle Hymn of the Republic," in 1872, and finally recognized as a national holiday in 1914 by Woodrow Wilson.

But, not even TR, whose father, Theodore Sr., always counseled him to "get action," could sway the culture toward a more generous embrace of life.

This from a man of whom David McCullough said: "The country just embraced the whole idea of Theodore Roosevelt in the White House. He puts the presidency back in business as it had not been since Lincoln, and he gives it vitality, he gives it strength, and he gives the country a sense that it’s a good thing to have a good man who wants to do good things in that office." That is, unless the good thing he wanted was to infuse America with a culture of life. That ran into an impossibly strong current of thought that Sanger — who more than anyone knew the power of a well-communicated, transforming idea — had tapped into.

Sanger’s own life experience was a motivating factor in her unstinting advocacy of birth control. In 1899, she had witnessed her mother, Anne Higgins, die of consumption at age 50, after having given birth to 11 living children. Seeing this experience repeated time and again in poor neighborhoods, Sanger worked energetically to help women artificially control their reproductive capacity and limit childbearing, opening her first birth control clinic in Brooklyn in 1916. (This, in spite of the fact that her mother’s greatest joy in a life of grinding poverty — given her husband Michael’s fondness for liquor and talk and resulting inability to provide adequately for the family — was precisely her children.)

The irony of Sanger’s birth control triumph is that the percentage of Americans who now, as "America the Beautiful" exhorts, "confirm thy soul in self control" in respecting the sexual power for its distinctive, obvious childbearing purpose and in using it only to strengthen the marital bond is likely less than the President’s popularity.

This, in spite of the fact, that much social good results from increased procreation — the current case in point being Social Security’s shortfall, which the recently issued 2006 annual report on Social Security projects to be $57 billion less in 75 years based on government statisticians’ revised assumption of 2.0 births per woman — up from 1.95.

Sanger swayed American culture because it was ripe for her message. Likewise, we now have a culture, it seems apparent, that is more than ripe for a course correction of its own — provided, of course, we want to survive.