Eyes Wide Shut When it Comes to Procreation

            We hate to start the new year on a negative note … but you know we’re going to do it anyway. How many would-be parents think about the personal suffering of those with physical or mental illness, ongoing wars, racial injustices, and human unkindness, not to mention our brutal treatment of animals?

            Mark O’Connell, in his article in the August 3, 2014 New York Times Magazine, has mulled over it all.  “What A Raw Deal for the Poor Little Guy,” delves into what children face simply by being born, and his own parental angst about a world that is doing badly.

            O’Connell takes the reader on a journey from the time he was about 10 years old when his father took him to a nursing home to visit a female friend.  In the bed next to the friend another “impossibly ancient and decrepit” woman, agitated with the indignity of old age, said, “look at what’s happened to me.” Her voice was pleading and the young O’Connell was shaken, enough so to upset the applecart of his innocence.

Samuel Beckett

Writer Samuel Beckett. Photo – Wikimedia Commons

           O’Connell first read Samuel Beckett in college, “with his sense that to be born at all was a form of damnation.” In Waiting For Godot, the Pozzo character reminds the reader that “the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.”

            O’Connell went on to read the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who stated without apology that “The world is just a hell and in it human beings are the tortured souls on the one hand, and the devils on the other.”  Schopenhauer also posed a bold question: If procreation was not accompanied by pleasure, but rationally deliberate, wouldn’t people feel so sorry for the upcoming generation and that they would spare children the “burden of existence”?

Aarthur Schopenhauer

18th Century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Photo – Wikimedia Commons

            In spite of his philosophical acumen, O’Connell’s wife had a son in March of 2013. While he sat in the hospital with her and the baby, he read the Irish Times. He was horrified by the news: “massacres, rapes, recurrent outbursts of savage recreational violence, a world built on a seemingly unshakable foundation of economic cruelty and injustice, the continuing project of environmental destruction … What a world. What a species. What a raw deal for the poor little guy.” No kidding.

            Kudos to Mark O’Connell. He went into fatherhood with eyes wide open, while he continues to struggle with his simultaneous love for his progeny and his own pessimism about “the world we chose to bring him into.” He thought twice about the pitfalls of life, and the state of the world before making a child.  Given his wisdom, we choose to believe that he is likely to have just one.

When Parents Age, Who Supports Whom?

Last Sunday evening we had dinner with another childfree couple. The four of us got into a discussion about various parents who are acquaintances of ours who, over the years, have challenged our choice to not procreate. From time to time the question, “Who will care for you in your old age?” had come up.

          All four of us had more or less the same response. It goes something like this: “How do you know that you won’t need your elderly parents’ financial help? And how do you know that you will survive until old age, or that you will outlive your parents? How can any parent know that their adult children won’t be living far away and thereby be unable to care for them?”

          In fact, we (the authors) know adults who want nothing to do with their parents.

          We deal with many of these issues in Chapter 9, “Caring for an Aging Population,” of our book Enough of Us.

          In a study by Merrill Lynch in conjunction with Age Wave, which describes itself as a  “thought leader on population aging and its profound business, social, financial, healthcare, workforce, and cultural implications,” came up with some illuminating, if not startling, revelations about roles older parents may play in their adult children’s lives.

          For example, “Sixty-two percent of people age 50 and older have provided financial assistance to family members during the last five years. However, the vast majority have never budgeted or prepared for providing such support.” We wish the study had stats for retired parents.

          More than 55 percent of people in the study believe that a member of their family is the “Family Bank” because that person is the one most likely to be tapped for financial assistance. The upshot is, the more financially responsible people are, the more money they have, the more approachable their personalities, the more likely they are to be viewed as the Family Bank.

Grandparents

Grandparent. Photo – Wikimedia Commons by Steve Evans

         Heaven help the prudent, good-hearted soul who has relatives with few qualms about extending their palms. And get a load of this: Half of folks over age 50 who have not yet retired say they would make sacrifices that could negatively affect their retirement in order to help family members, including retiring later and returning to work after retirement. We wonder if that could mean money lost to adult children might have otherwise enabled older folks to pay for long-term care insurance, assisted living, or retirement village expenses.

          As one focus group member who participated in the study put it, “I thought I would be supplementing my grandchildren’s college funds. It turns out I was the college fund.” But more than a third of those who parted with their hard-earned savings in order to help family did not even know what the money would be used for.

          So while many older pre-retirees and retirees were being supportive of family members, they were undermining their own capacity for remaining independent and self-reliant.

          For younger generations, the anxieties about a long life center on exhausting financial resources. But for older Americans, just as important is the fear of becoming a burden to their families. It seems that the irony occurs at the nexus of being the Family Bank and of becoming a burden when that burden is due to a paucity of financial resources.

          The greatest “burden” fears are:

  • Having family members physically take care of me;
  • Taking my family away from their own lives to care for me;
  • Needing money from family to help pay bills;
  • Being responsible for stress and worry among family members;
  • Having to move in with family members.

          Two-thirds of study participants say they have done nothing to preclude the necessity of moving in with family, if unable to live on their own. The concept that offspring will be available to assist their elderly parents is at best a hit-and-miss proposition. In fact, the reality can frequently be nothing less than a tragic irony. When older parents bail out their progeny, they may be jeopardizing their sustained independence.

          Add that to the aforementioned possibilities of children pre-deceasing their parents, parents dying before attaining old age, children and parents living far apart, plus the possibility of estrangement, broke offspring, and parents not having enough resources because they had been generous to their adult kids, and the answer to the question addressed to the childfree and childless of “Who will take care of you in your old age?” can be turned around and asked of parents as well.

True or False: Population Growth is Necessary for a Healthy Economy

Let’s answer the title question this way: If population growth is necessary for a prosperous economy, we will one day prosper ourselves into oblivion. If we must grow in order to prosper, we will either have keep populating until we all stand shoulder-to-shoulder, or decide to regress back to a less-wealthy state.

          As to whether we need population growth, let’s consider the broader picture. Automation is eliminating the need for workers. Technology improves worker productivity. We live in a society in which production is becoming more efficient. Costco, Amazon, Lowe’s, and the like are turning warehouses into stores. So while corporate profits and stock markets hit new highs, engineers are forced to drive school buses and work at Wal-Mart at the same time the Federal Reserve Bank buttresses a lagging economy. It sounds like an economy run by the Mad Hatter.

          All of these apparently contradictory indicators lead us to believe that we don’t have enough jobs to keep a growing population employed. Sooner or later, it seems, those corporate profits will sink away as we have an ever-growing segment of people struggling to pay their bills.

          But, hey, we’re not economists. In lieu of that status let’s look at a study from Population Connection (PC) that aims to refute the allegations of those it describes as “questionable characters” who are trying to “guilt American women into having more children.”

Population Connection logo          The organization asserts that while Americans will have to make some adjustments as baby boomers age, we can definitely have a healthy economy without increasing our population.  “Economic growth does not depend on population growth.”

          According to Population Connection President John Seager, researchers he describes as independent interviewed scores of economists and academics in related fields. The researchers concluded that economic growth is not dependent upon population growth. Considering the world’s limited resources it is a bad idea to rely on a growing workforce to compensate for an aging population. “Increasing productivity, boosting female participation in the labor force, and providing incentives for older workers to stay on the job longer if they want to, can offset the effects of an older population.

          “U.S. productivity can increase with a smaller workforce, but not unless we invest in education and address age discrimination.”

          Among the insights provided by the academics are:

  • Gross Domestic Product measures monetary value. It does not include leisure, volunteering, family time, and other productive activities.
  • Natural resources are limited. Humans are consuming renewable natural resources faster than the earth can replace them,
  • There is a culture in society of “education-work-retire,” which needs to be re-imagined. We need to adopt the concept of continuously educating ourselves, making us more adaptable.
  • Older workers should be open to—and should be accepted as—being able to do work that typically had not been thought of as suitable after “typical” retirement age.

          Seager makes the case that, “Unfortunately, in today’s media environment, panicking over ‘birth dearths’ and other ‘baby busts’ always seems to get more airtime. The message ‘We’re gonna (sic) be just fine,’ isn’t sexy so it doesn’t sell.”

          With so many environmental, quality-of-life, civil strife, and threatened species problems to be concerned with, all of which are exacerbated by mushrooming human population, “It’s nice to have at least one thing—too few babies—that we don’t have to worry about,” explains Seager.

          You can read the entire report upon which Seager bases his case right here.

          Our book makes the case that there are enough of us. The truth be told, there are more than Enough of Us.  And with fewer of us, our economy and planet can thrive. Hence, the answer to our question is a resounding, “False.”

 

 

Caring for Our Elders – Do We Need More Children?

[Sonia Burke lives in Portugal. She writes this essay in response to our September 4, 2013 column, “No Progeny Necessary – The Boon of Boomer Communities.” (http://www.enoughof.us/no-progeny-necessary-the-boon-of-boomer-communities). For background, we suggest you to read that column first.]

 

          In Europe there has been considerable debate about aging population and the sustainability of the welfare state. The question is, can nations afford pensions and national health care? But instead of presenting people with real solutions, we continue to hear that the solution is breeding more people.

          I’m childfree and I am sticking to that. What troubles me is the lack of will to put forward ideas that will accommodate the ever-increasing number of senior citizens and ensure their care. It doesn’t have to come from the public sector. In fact, it probably shouldn’t. But I am sure government incentives could give the private sector reasons to create appealing spaces in which those at the later stages of life can live and socialize, in contrast to the depressing elderly care homes that none of us would like to see their parent in.

          Ironically, while opting out of motherhood was very clear to me, I failed to realize that I should have a say when it comes to looking after my own parents. My parents were both 40 years of age when I was born. Having had my maternal grandmother living with us–and my paternal grandmother living at my aunt’s – this idea should have at least crossed my mind. Still, perhaps my mind was assuaged by the fact that my mother vowed never to put me through what her mother had put her through. And, let’s face it, if someone was difficult in their younger years they won’t have cute and cuddly personalities as they age. You can tell a child to go to their room, scold them for misbehaviour and expect they don’t repeat whatever they did wrong again. You can’t do that with a parent.

          I love my mother and my late father. When my father died we invited my mother to come live with us (we live around three hours away from her village). As you can imagine, when a death happens suddenly you don’t have time to think about such sensitive issues with a clear head. I lost my father when I was 25 and my life was just starting to unfold. His death brought it all to a halt. Neither my husband nor I imagined this would be a permanent thing. But at the time we felt the right thing to do for my mother was to invite her to live with us. Without much thought I was repeating what my mother did with her own mother, thus ensuring that I brought into my home and my marriage the very same atmosphere I’d experienced growing up. It was not pretty. Luckily, not having children stops me from any possibility of doing the same to someone else. Phew.

          After 10 years living with us, and a marriage that came far too close to ending, I had to tell my mother the arrangement wasn’t working.  Since she continues to be very healthy in every way, she’d have to split her time between our house and hers for all our sakes. This was heart-breaking and still is. No child, and no young couple, should be put through this decision.

           My mother used to say she’d go to a nursing home when she needed one, although now it’s a whole different story; it’s a taboo subject. If I try to discuss the future with her, we don’t get anywhere. I need to leave my country soon (as many are doing throughout southern Europe to find work) and I ask when are the governments going to start helping adult children and face the issue that many seniors need to make arrangements for their future? Many of these elderly, like my mother, are still perfectly capable of making decisions. But nothing  worth considering is being offered to them. You’d have thought that investors would gather around this new demographic reality and together with the government start promoting co-housing options. What we’re currently witnessing is that everyone is brushing the dirt under the rug and preferring to anticipate more babies, when what we’re really giving birth to, as a society, is millions of eventually aging citizens who may not have anyone to care for them.       

A senior residence in Ohio

Senior village in Columbus, OH

   I’m in my mid 30s and my husband is in his early 40s. Even if we did want children, we would not be able to afford them. If you consider that most of my friends who went to university are currently in the same predicament as we are (long periods of unemployment, low-paid jobs and therefore no stability) … how can we look after the elderly? I’ll still have a mortgage to pay when I get to the age of 70. My mother was financially independent in her 30s and retired at 55. My friends who have stable jobs barely make it to the end of the month with money in the bank, thanks to the high cost of living. How can my generation, and the one that’s right behind, care for the elderly when they have to work to survive? (Not to get rich… to survive). Most countries support parents with children to raise. But for adults who need to support their parents, there is no such assistance.

          Many of the elderly continue to enjoy their lives into their 90s. I know many who do and who don’t expect to live with their respective families. But even they are not really planning for the day when they can no longer be independent. I am sure these elderly would, if only there were choices presented to them.

          There are currently only two senior villages (as we call them) in my country, where the elderly can still have their own homes, cook, clean and have assisted care if they need to. The advantage is that they can have their family over to visit anytime, unlike what happens in care homes. Unfortunately no other projects have emerged. Wouldn’t this be good for the economy? It could create jobs. Healthier people in old age have fewer health issues and are less of a burden on national health, surely? Plus, their children are free to pursue their lives.  

          I can’t imagine anything more unethical than expecting people to breed for the sake of economics and to ensure their own care in old age.

 

A Baby Shortage? Here we go again with that fertility argument – Part II

In our prior column we began our response to Jonathan Last’s essay, “America’s Baby Bust,” in the Wall Street Journal Review section. He laments the current and soon-to-be-“worsening” baby shortage that will leave our economy in bad shape. After all, without a growing population, who will pay the bills for the ever-increasing number of senior citizens?

     Briefly, here is our response:

     Those seniors without kids, or with fewer of them, will be better able to afford to support themselves (see last week’s column);

  • If increasing the population of little ones is a good thing, why are we so stressed about being able to care for the current spate of baby boomers?
  • Increasing the size of our consumerist society means more pollution, trash, demand for energy, climate change and its ramifications, demand for renewable resources, water shortages, etc.
  • Increased population means expanding roads, public transportation, water supply and disposal systems, and myriad other public works needs. As things stand right now we cannot even afford to maintain America’s crumbling infrastructure.

Fertile land can become desert

As a result of climate change, loss of rainfall leads to desertification in some areas

      Thanks to immigration, US population has been growing at a fairly healthy clip. But immigration can be a double-edged sword. It provides a resource to pay for the needs of aging Americans by bringing a new generation of taxpayers into the country, but it also means that shrinking fertility is merely being replaced by another form of population growth. The United States could simply become an overflow receptacle for developing countries’ excessive populations, which would perpetuate the same drawbacks as having our numbers increase from within.

     Jonathan Last’s take on this is, “it’s unlikely to last. Historically, countries with fertility rates below replacement level start to face their own labor shortages, and they send fewer people abroad. In Latin America, the rates of fertility decline are even more extreme than in the U.S.” What does that tell us? In his essay, he lays out various plans, including tax incentives, to get folks to keep contraception out of the bedroom. This, he contends, will help motivate Americans to have the children they already desire.

     For their first 18 years and beyond, children tend to be burdens on society. In the current economic crisis large numbers of recent college grads can’t find work and must remain living with their parents. Folks with advanced degrees are working as unskilled labor in an effort to pay their bills. Many jobs are being shipped overseas or transferred to robots. And we don’t know what the odds are that many of those lost jobs will be replaced by employment openings that require domestic labor.

     It seems that society pays little attention to the burdens young people can place on their predecessors. These burdens are especially true for adults of any age who do not have their own children but must nevertheless share the expense involved in bringing up a new gneration..

     There are no simple answers to the issues raised by increased populations, or smaller ones, both domestically and worldwide. But thinking only in current economic terms without consideration of environmental and sustainability concerns is not a healthy approach. And prognosticating is a tricky business. But sooner or later we will have to decide that there are more than Enough of Us. And if we wait until much later, the generations that Jonathan Last wants so desperately to increase may have hell to pay for their parents’ profligacy.

 

 

The Latest Trend in Risks to Newborns – Part II

Last week, in Part I, we began this discussion of Judith Shulevitz’s The New Republic article, “The Grayest Generation,” in which she lamented the societal and biological risks of older parenting.

 

Men over 50 are three times more likely than men under 25 to father a schizophrenic child.

Fertility doctors do a lot of things to sperm and eggs that have not been rigorously tested, including keeping them in culture media teeming with chemicals that may or may not scramble an embryo’s development.

Commonly used, “Clomid . . . came out particularly badly in a recent New England Journal of Medicine study that rang alarm bells about ART [assisted reproductive technology] and birth defects,” reports Shulevitz. “ICSI (intracytoplasmic) sperm injection shows up in the studies as having higher rates of birth defects than any other popular fertility procedure.”

A child with trisomy-18

Trisomy-18 child. Photo: Emilyscookiemix.com

While she recognizes that women do not want to cut their careers short for the sake of having kids, Judith points out that if they don’t have children, they’re denying themselves s full life.

But older parents have emotional disadvantages. “Procrastinators” become members of the “sandwich generation,” caught between toddlers tugging on one hand and elder parents sharing the latest updates on their ailments. Elderly grandparents provide less support than their younger counterparts.

What haunts her about her own kids is the gamble of dying before they’re ready to set out on their own.

And these problems could proliferate if  “aging parents are, in fact, producing a growing subpopulation of children with neurological or other disorders who will require a lifetime of care. Schizophrenia, for instance, usually sets in during a child’s late teens or early twenties. [British psychiatrist] Avi Reichenberg sums up the problem bluntly. ‘Who is going to take care of that child?’ he asked, ‘Some seventy-five-year-old demented father?’”

The birthrate has dropped by a significant 45 percent around the world since 1975. By 2010, the average number of births per woman had decreased from 4.7 to 2.6.

While Shulevitz is making compelling arguments about older parenting, ones with which we agree, the goals of her arguments are where we part company. She makes the case that society needs to reform itself so that parents become parents at earlier stages of life. That way there will be fewer disabled children, more individuals to care for older generations, and enough workers to replace the aging people who will be better able to adapt to new technologies. She concedes that fewer people means less demand for food, water, land and energy.

Let’s start with the latter first. As we have written on several occasions, when societies move into the middle classes, their per capita consumption of food, water, land and energy skyrocket. Bigger homes, conspicuous consumption, wasted water, cars, heating and air conditioning; you get the picture.

It seems to us that there are three choices for the career-focused. Have your career or your kids. If you want them both, do as many others have done, and burn the candle at both ends earlier in adulthood. But making kids in order to provide preceding generations with a support system is selfish, reckless, and the world’s ultimate Ponzi scheme. We have to stop at some point. Are the projections of 10 billion-plus devourers of natural resources, clean air, and water by the end of this century not enough to scare the bejeezus out of us?

 

The Latest Trend in Risks to Newborns – Part I

The average age of first-time mothers has increased by four years over the past half century, according to science editor Judith Shulevitz in the December 20, 2012 issue of The New Republic. Many professional urban couples are postponing making babies until their 30s and early 40s. The downside is, as Shulevitz herself has experienced, recent rises in developmental disorders.

            Some examples: The average new mother from Massachusetts is 28; in Mississippi it is 22.9. The Asian American first-time mother is 29.1; African American 23.1. A college-educated woman has a better than one-in-three chance of having her first child at 30 or older.

           Shulevitz decries late-in-life reproduction, due to the amplified risks to the child and because delayed childbearing will result in a shortage of younger people to support, and replace, their progenitors. While we agree with the former, we dissent from the latter because of its societal self-serving motives. 

Judith Shulevitz

Photo: jtsa.edu

           Judith and her husband weren’t ready for parenthood until she was in her mid-30s and her husband was “forty-something.”  The doctor started her on a regimen of ovulation-stimulating hormones. The most popular fertility drug is clomiphene citrate, marketed as Clomid, or Serophene.

            If the Clomid didn’t work, she might move on to: IVF (in vitro fertilization), ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection), GIFT (gamete intrafallopian transfer), or even ZIFT (zygote intrafallopian transfer). The Clomid and IVF worked.

            “My baby boy seemed perfect. When he was three, though, the pediatrician told me that he had a fine-motor delay.”  He needed occupational therapy for his mild case of “sensory-integration disorder.”

            She soon found what she describes as, “a subculture of a subculture: that of mothers who spend hours a week getting services for developmentally challenged children. It seemed to me that an unusually large proportion of these women were older.”

            Subsequently, the couple had a “natural” daughter. But Judith found herself meeting women of approximately her age with kids who had Asperger’s, autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention-deficit disorder, and sensory-integration disorder.

            As we have previously discussed on this blog, and in our book, Enough of Us, according to the Centers for Disease Control, learning problems, attention-deficit disorders, autism and related disorders, and developmental delays are on the rise.  Between 1997 and 2008 there has been about a 17 percent increase in these disabilities. According to Shulevitz, one in six American children had a developmental disability between 2006 and 2008. That’s about 1.8 million more children than a decade earlier.

            Scientific evidence indicates that aging bodies of potential parents should elicit more cautious behavior than they apparently do. Would-be parents consistently underestimate how sharp the fertility drop-off can be for women after age 35. Inversely, the chances that children will carry a chromosomal abnormality, such as a trisomy—which includes Patau and Edwards syndromes—increase.  Patau syndrome gives children cleft palates, mental retardation, and an 80 percent likelihood of dying in their first year. Edwards syndrome, features oddly shaped heads, clenched hands, and slow growth. Half of all Edwards syndrome babies die in the first week of life. In previous posts we have given the examples of the unfortunate offspring of politicians Rick Santorum and Sarah Palin.

            The risk that a pregnancy will yield a trisomy rises from 2–3 percent when a woman is in her twenties to 30 percent when a woman is in her forties. When born to an older mother: spontaneous abortion, premature birth, being a twin or triplet, cerebral palsy, and low birth weight—leading to chronic health problems later in children’s lives—increase.

            Researchers suspect a link between the 78 percent rise in autism over the last decade and the rise of parental age. One theory “is that the same wised-up, more mature parents have had longer to absorb airborne pollution, endocrine disruptors, pesticides, and herbicides.”

We will continue this discussion next week in Part II of this post.

 

 

 

 

 

Grandparents by the Millions Have to Do it all Over Again

Typically, most parents with grown children fervently hope (and oft times pray) for grandchildren – so much so, that prospective grandparents sometimes pressure their own offspring to bear a little darling or three. But given the present situation in which grandparents are stuck with childrearing a second time around, the adage “Be careful what you wish for,” is worth heeding.

            According to the 2010 US Census, about 7 million grandparents have grandchildren younger than 18 living with them.  Of the 7 million:

  • 2.7 million grandparents are responsible for the basic needs of one or more grandchildren under age 18;
  • 580,000 grandparents who are responsible for grandchildren under age 18, have incomes below poverty level; 2.2 million have incomes just at or above poverty level.;
  • 1.9 million married (or separated) grandparents care for their grandchildren
  • 670,000 grandparents who are caregivers for their grandchildren have a disability

Photo courtesy grandparentscafe.com

Photo courtesy grandparentscafe.com

Millions of grandparents provide a home that saves their grandchildren’s lives both emotionally and physically. It’s a good thing these kinfolk are involved and willing to spread their love. However, the price they pay is a big one. They are not always prepared for their new role. They must frequently make the shift from grandma and grandpa to mom and dad, which isn’t natural or easy. Usually they have to deal with the emotional and health issues that accompany their grandchild, not to mention learning to navigate the educational, legal, social and health care systems.  It’s no wonder that a grandparent who rears his or her grandkid experiences more symptoms of depression than grandparents who are in the traditional role of enjoying their grandchildren sans raising them.

Besides the financial burdens of being a caregiver for grandchildren, grandparent marriages can suffer due to the jolt of a suddenly changed lifestyle.  In her article, “Kinship care and marriage: Raising grandchildren can create marriage difficulties!” Beth Q. Beck, former director of the Children’s Service Society of Utah, lists plenty of reasons for disagreement in kinship care marriages. Two big ones are:

  • Differences over whether grandma and grandpa agree that kinship care must be provided at all;
  • Nourishing the marriage falls by the wayside because the grandchildren require so much time and energy.

Ms. Beck describes a recent study at the University of Chicago, in which 12 of the 39 grandmothers who participated reported that the negative impact of raising grandchildren on their marriage was significant. Only three said that caring for their grandchildren strengthened their relationships with their husbands.

In an interview with a New Jersey social worker, Fox Business columnist Casey Dowd tried to shed more light on the increase in “grandfamilies” over the last decade. Social worker Janis Marler told Dowd that according to 2010 Census findings, a philosophical shift in the child welfare system has added value to placing children with relatives rather than in foster homes. A 2008 law signed by President Bush, encouraged this change. The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act mandates that child protective service agencies provide notice to grandparents and relatives within 30 days of a child’s removal from parental custody.

So, dear grandparents, beware of what you wish for!  Think about the possible consequences of pressuring your progeny to create more humans when we already have Enough of Us. The ultimate burden may well fall on your shoulders.

Not Having Kids Equals Degenerate Behavior? You Probably Won’t Believe

  Imagine deciding to take a gamble, but if you lose, that is if the bet goes wrong, an innocent party has to pay. In addition, just placing the bet is almost guaranteed to impact the planet negatively. Well, in his column, “More Babies, Please,” in the December 2, 2012 New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat (pronounced DOW-thut) exposits that by virtue of not making such bets American society is on the road to decadence.

Douthat is worried about America’s declining birthrate. “The retreat from child rearing is, at some level,” he proposes, “ a symptom of late-modern exhaustion – a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich

Ross Douthat, photo- New York Times

societies around the globe. It’s a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be.”

This is flip-flop reasoning. And it most certainly is not “conservative” thinking. Douthat’s reasoning would make the Ponzi scheme of population growth the savior of the US economy and quality of life. He feels that because our nation has had a higher fertility rate than France, Japan, China and Brazil it is a superior economic powerhouse.

He takes no notice that our planet is going to an ecological hell in a handbasket, fueled by a population soaring toward 9 billion-plus in this century. Wealthy countries like the United States are the worst offenders because of their profligate consumption of materials and energy.

He makes the case that today’s babies will grow up to be tomorrow’s workers, entrepreneurs and taxpayers. But with fewer people, we would not need as many entrepreneurs and workers. Douthat is concerned about the worker-to-retiree ratio. He is worried about who will pay taxes in the years ahead. Let’s project this into the distant future. Will we need more babies or immigrants to feed the insatiable retiree hunger, ad infinitum? This is the essence of a Ponzi scheme. The global community of humanity will need to stop growing before we doom our own survival. If not now, when?

Human beings are currently consuming renewable resources like lumber and water at unsustainable rates. Mankind is depleting fossil fuels that will be unavailable for future generations without knowing whether today’s babies will have the know-how to develop non-fossil alternatives for airplanes, ships and a variety of other concentrated energy demands. With climate change wreaking havoc on weather patterns we cannot – at least for now—reliably predict water supplies and shortages.

If we limit our thinking to shortsighted issues like US economic competitiveness and producing future generations for the financial benefit of current retirees, we are doomed to fail. Ideally what would benefit Americans, along with everyone else, is enlightened political leadership that is willing to look the elephant in the room in the eye and ask, “What are we going to do about this thing – this enormous, ever-growing, ever more-consuming mass of humanity that is cannibalizing its own home?”

Certainly there are enough of us. In actuality, there are way too many of us. But let’s go back to that bet that an innocent party has to pay for. We are referring to the very act of procreating. It’s a gamble. One percent of American adults live incarcerated and six times that many spend time behind bars in the course of a lifetime. One percent have disorders on the autism spectrum. Add in mental illnesses, childhood and adult diseases, the expectation that one-third of Americans will have diabetes, and dysfunctional families raising unhappy kids. In other words, parents roll the dice and if the resultant baby comes up craps, it’s the kid who is the primary loser of the bet. We wonder how Douthat can have the chutzpah to call America’s decreasing fertility rate “decadent.” The decision to not reproduce is anything but selfish.

 

Men Can Parent Older than Women. Ain’t that Grand? Maybe Not!

Photo: CommunitiesForAutism.org

There is no news in the knowledge that men remain fertile almost indefinitely. And in this blog, as well as our book, Enough of Us: Why we should think twice before making children, we discuss the jeopardies for babies of older mothers.

Now, research is indicating that being an older dad has its substantial risks as well. It turns out that because men generate new gametes (cells that unite with other cells to produce the fertilized egg—oh, what the hell—sperm) for each fertilization, the chances of the sperm having gene mutations increase as the years pass.

You may know that in the United States one of every 88 newborns is inflicted with one of the disabilities on the autism spectrum. That number has been rising dramatically over the past few decades. While it’s true that some of that increase is due to improved diagnostic capabilities —Cheryl’s own brother being an example of that—there are other contingencies that need to be considered.

Researchers in Iceland analyzed the genetic makeup of 78 families in which offspring had been diagnosed with schizophrenia or autism. It was random mutations in the DNA of the fathers’ sperm that were the primary source.

Women develop their eggs very early in life, so there is not a significant ongoing opportunity for mutations. But since men are constantly producing new sperm, the opportunities for mutation present at each occurrence of genetic copying that is part of the sperm production process.

The study found that a 20-year-old father typically produces 25 mutations in his child’s genetic makeup. By the age of 40, that average rises to 65. The Icelandic geneticist who conducted the study tells the Los Angeles Times that the trend toward later fatherhood is “very likely to have made meaningful contributions to increased diagnoses of autism in our society.” The University of Iceland researcher, Kari Stefansson, attributes between 15 and 30 percent of all incidents of autism to genetic mutations from older dads.

Even so, the risk of a man in his 40s producing a child with genetic disorders remains a relatively low one in 50. That liability grows with the father’s increasing age.

The questions remain, is gambling on the wellbeing of a newborn—or the adult it is to become—ethically responsible? At what odds is the gamble worthwhile? And isn’t it an increasingly problematic ethical question if the father takes that gamble to ever-higher levels by inducing pregnancy as he ages?