Since 2008 Europe has been seeing a downward trend in birth rate, raising alarm bells in various fields, not least among economists. My home country, Malta, has the lowest birth rate in Europe on record (1.13 per woman), followed by Spain (1.19) and Italy (1.25). These are all well below the fertility replacement rate (2.1). But is this really cause of alarm, when the world population is actually growing, albeit admittedly at a much slower rate than before?
Given that the onus (or blame?) with regard to birth rate is often placed on women (e.g. “birth rate is decreasing because women choose to delay or forgo motherhood in order to have a career”), and considering how populist political parties and governments often capitalise on this rhetoric, analysing the arguments surrounding birth rate from the vantage point of Christian ethics might offer some helpful insights.
Therefore, in this post I examine two contrasting approaches to birth rate. First, I consider the anti-natalist stance, followed by the pro-natalist position, following up each stance with a brief ethical reflection. I then move on to proposing an alternative argument beyond the two stances based on the social virtue of hope.
The Anti-natalist Stance
On this side of the argument there is the extreme view that population growth must be harnessed for two main reasons: first, there will soon not be enough food for the ever-growing demand; second, the growing population negatively impacts the environment. This is the position championed by Paul R. Ehrlich, among others. This argument has its origin in the thought of the 18th century British philosopher Thomas Malthus. What eventually came to be known as the Malthusian Growth Model states that animal populations, including humans, will grow exponentially so long as there is enough food. When food becomes scarce, famines, disease, wars and other calamities result.
It must be recalled here that Pope Francis rejects this stance by judging it as a kind of “ideological colonisation.” In his in-flight press conference on his way from his Apostolic Journey to Sri Lanka and the Philippines on 19 January 2015, Pope Francis had given neo-Malthusianism as an example of ideological colonisation. Speaking of Humanae vitae, Francis insisted that the ultimate goal of Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical was not to address “only” those problems of daily married life “for which he then told confessors to be merciful and understand the situation and forgive, to be understanding and merciful”. Rather, what Paul VI was doing “was watching the universal Neo-Malthusianism that was in progress… which seeks to control humanity by [controlling] its powers.” Incidentally, the Pontifical Birth Control Commission that John XXIII had set up was in fact occasioned by the UN World Population Conference held in 1965.
In Laudato si’ Pope Francis makes another important reference to the argument of limiting world population because of lack of scarcity of resources. He laments the fact that,
Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate…To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption.
Here, I see Francis implicitly invoking the principle of the “universal destination of material goods” to which John Paul II dedicated his fourth chapter of Centesimus annus.
The Pro-natalist Stance
On the other end of the spectrum is the pro-natalist stance. Proponents here are concerned with the decreasing birth rate for a number of reasons, especially economic ones. A low birth rate implies that the work force will not be able to catch up with the demands of the population, especially when it comes to essential services such as health care vis-à-vis the ageing population. This also means that a larger number of ageing people, and people who are living longer, will have to depend on a disproportionately smaller welfare fund.
Those who embrace this view propose such measures as incentives by the state for women to have more children, tax breaks for those having two or more children and other so-called “family-friendly measures.”
Meanwhile, countries such as Malta are making up for this decreased workforce through migration. Several agencies have been set up with the aim of attracting foreigners to do work which the local population is reluctant to do. The most recent census has shown that over 20% of the Maltese population is composed of foreign nationalities, the highest being from the Philippines, and the second highest from India, most of whom work in the healthcare sector.
Despite not being the focus of this post, the ethical implications of this kind of work cannot be overlooked. It would suffice to mention here the great risk of abuse of migrant workers which is not unheard of, as well as the injustices related to the push and pull factors of the sending and host countries respectively, leaving such persons with little choice other than to undertake such jobs.
When the reality of low birth rate and the solutions that are typically proposed are viewed through the lens of intersectionality, a number of important ethical issues emerge. I will highlight three difficulties with the solutions that are offered, which are largely technocratic ones before moving on to discuss the social virtue of hope.
First, the reality of migration is itself a thorny issue. Migrants who settle in countries with low birth rates must have the freedom to do so. Yet, nobody must feel compelled to leave their home countries and families. The Justice and Peace Commission of the Archdiocese of Malta has recently published a press release calling out the injustices that such workers face when they are paying National Insurance from their wage, which goes to fund the welfare but they themselves are unable to benefit from their own contributions.
Second, the family-friendly measures supposedly meant to alleviate the economic burden from families having two or more children are not real solutions for a number of reasons. Although the economic aspect is important for couples when they are planning their families, it does not necessary follow that decreasing income tax for families of certain sizes or helping such families obtain their first house. Moreover, more affluent families are not more likely to have more children; actually the opposite is often true.
Third, while some couples are free to choose to have just one child or none at all, for other couples, choice is restricted and they cannot do otherwise for a number of reasons. These include physical or mental health issues, and social and economic factors which are not necessarily addressed by technocratic solutions. These might offer some relief for a short while but they are not long-lasting because they do not address the underlying problem.
A Proposal Based on Hope
In his speech at a conference on natality, held last 11-12 May in Rome, Pope Francis pointed out that a low birth rate reflects a society that has lost hope in the future. He encouraged those present to retrieve the virtue of hope with these words:
Hope is not an illusion or an emotion that you feel… it is a concrete virtue, an attitude of life. It is related to concrete choices. Hope is nourished by a commitment to the good on the part of all, it grows when we feel that we are participating and involved in giving a meaning to our life and that of others. To nourish hope is, therefore, a social action, [it is] intellectual, artistic, and political in the highest sense of the word; it puts one’s own abilities and resources to the service of the common good, it is to sow hope. Hope generates change and improves the future.
The issue of low birth rate, therefore, cannot be addressed only through strategies designed at reaching certain determined birth rates by a predetermined time. Rather, a comprehensive approach of instilling and cultivating hope is needed.
The relationship between hope and birth in the Christian tradition is well known. French moral theologian Alain Thomasset draws up parallels between the new life Christ has won for us through his passion death and resurrection, and every human birth. He takes a cue from the Lukean “Kingdom of God Parables,” where we read about a man who tends his garden where the mustard seed grows into a large tree and the woman who mixes some yeast with a batch of flour. The one who is missing from this household is the child, who grows first in the womb of the mother, and then in the love and care of the parents. “The child,” for Thomasset, “is the image of the Kingdom to come.” He reminds us that “the birth of a child is the classic image of the hope of Israel in the coming of the Messiah (Is 7:14) [‘Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanu-el’].”
This leads us to acknowledge that rather than focusing simply on how to increase birth rate, the emphasis must be on another telos, i.e. on bringing about the Kingdom of God by engaging in social practices social of hope. This implies a more comprehensive approach, instead of one based only on figures and projections.
Despite hope being a theological virtue, and therefore an infused one, nonetheless, grace is added over other means that give access to divine reality. Thomasset lists a number of practices that lead to hope including, among others: “meditating the Scriptures, participating in the Eucharist, working with the poor, reflecting on the presence of God in our lives.”
Lest one thinks that hope is a virtue only for Christians to be cultivated and lived in private, Thomasset reminds us that there is also a social dimension to hope. On a personal level, this is done through the practices listed above; but on a communitarian level this is done through what Thomasset calls “structures of hope.” A good example of such structures are institutions and organisations that take on the responsibility of education, because educators, while being “carriers of tradition… are also bearers of a promise and of hope.”
Broadening our perspective about birth rates from a narrow concern on environmental and economic sustainability to creating structures of hope will bring to reality the “new heavens and new earth,” where the whole of creation will find its fullness when it is finally recapitulated in Christ.
 See Eurostat, ‘How Many Children Were Born in the EU in 2021?’, 9 March 2023, https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/en/web/products-eurostat-news/w/DDN-20230309-1; and Arnas Lasys, ‘Malta’s Low Fertility Rate, a Demographic Timebomb?’, BusinessNow.mt, 10 April 2023, https://18.104.22.168/maltas-low-fertility-rate-a-demographic-timebomb/.
 For an excellent overview of arguments surrounding natality see Jennifer Banks, ‘Reckoning With Birth’, Commonweal Magazine, 12 May 2023, https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/natality-mortality-banks-arendt-children-india-feminism.
 Pope Francis went on to say, “This doesn’t mean that a Christian should have a succession of children. I met a woman some months ago in a parish who was pregnant with her eighth child, after having seven caesarean births. Do you want to leave seven orphans? This tempting God. We speak about responsible parenthood.” Francis, ‘Sri Lanka – Philippines: In-Flight Press Conference of His Holiness Pope Francis from the Philippines to Rome’, 19 May 2015, https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2015/january/documents/papa-francesco_20150119_srilanka-filippine-conferenza-stampa.html.
 Francis, ‘Encyclical on the Care of Our Common Home, Laudato Si’’, 24 May 2015, 50, http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html.
 See Cristina L. H. Traina, ‘Facing Forward: Feminist Analysis of Care and Agency on a Global Scale’, in Distant Markets, Distant Harms: Economic Complicity and Christian Ethics, ed. Daniel K. Finn (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 173–201.
 ‘Our Country’s Economic “Success” Should Never Be Obtained at the Expense of Workers’, Justice and Peace Commission (blog), 29 April 2023, https://jp.church.mt/our-countrys-economic-success-should-never-be-obtained-at-the-expense-of-workers/.
 Francis, ‘To the Participants of the Third Edition of the “Stati Generali Della Natalità”’, 12 May 2023, https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/it/speeches/2023/may/documents/20230512-statigenerali-natalita.html.
 Alain Y. Thomasset, Un’etica teologica delle virtù sociali: giustizia, solidarietà, compassione, ospitalità, speranza, Biblioteca di teologia contemporanea (Brescia: Queriniana, 2021), 244.
 Thomasset, 254–55.
 Thomasset, 261–64.
 Thomasset, 263.