Sorry, New York Times, but wealth inequality cannot explain every societal trend. Culture is powerful, and understanding various groups’ cultural habits helps us understand those individuals’ behavior. A case in point is an article The Times recently ran about Cuba’s population, observing:
By almost any metric, Cuba’s demographics are in dire straits. Since the 1970s, the birthrate has been in free fall, tilting population figures into decline, a problem much more common in rich, industrialized nations, not poor ones.
Cuba already has the oldest population in all of Latin America. Experts predict that 50 years from now, Cuba’s population will have fallen by a third. More than 40 percent of the country will be older than 60.
It is true that many rich, industrialized nations, especially in Europe, are watching their populations contract. In an effort to avert a population death spiral, a Danish travel company has addressed their nation’s fertility crisis with two ads: the first urged Danes to “do it for Denmark,” and the second to “do it for mom.”
Like The Times article, the Danish ads disregard a crucial topic: religion. More than five decades of communist rule have radically changed the way Cubans think about family.
Communism Destroys the Will to Give Life
The Sexual Revolution changed things for women in developed nations everywhere, but communist regimes took those adjustments a step further, especially where abortion is concerned. Leaving aside the morality of abortion—which is a different article altogether—it is striking how fully integrated abortion is in the mindset of The Times’ young Cuban interviewees. While these women are likely Catholic by heritage, their thinking about family reflects communist cultural norms, not the values of the Catholic Church.
The Times’ article opens with the story of a 24-year-old woman who has already had two abortions because “‘[Life] would be so much harder with a child.’” The Times reports:
in Cuba: Abortion is legal, free and commonly practiced. There is no stigma attached to the procedure, helping to make Cuba’s reported abortion rates among the highest in the world. In many respects, abortion is viewed as another manner of birth control. . . . They speak openly about abortions, and lines at clinics often wrap around the building. By the numbers, the country exhibits a rate of nearly 30 abortions for every 1,000 women of childbearing age, according to 2010 data compiled by the United Nations. Among countries that permit abortion, only Russia had a higher rate.
Russian rates, of course, reflect the cultural inheritance of the Soviet Union, where abortion was similarly routine. In 1989, The New York Times reported, “By official count, 6.4 million legal abortions were performed in 1987, almost 1 million more than the number of Soviet babies born in the same period. . . . Some Soviet health researchers believe the real number of abortions may be far higher – as much as double the official figure.” Abortion was considered the “simplest birth control option,” despite being performed with “Stone Age equipment.” Women may shudder simply imagining what that would entail.
China is a third example of communists’ radically changing cultural norms related to family size. In reflecting on the reversal of China’s 35-year-old one-child policy, Brook Larmer writes in The New York Times magazine of “the needless human suffering the policy has inflicted: the forced abortions and sterilizations, the undocumented children born and raised in the shadows, the persecution and even imprisonment of those (like the blind lawyer Chen Guancheng) who tried to expose its abuses.” Larmer further notes that “A cultural preference for boys as family heirs meant that many parents tried to avoid having a daughter through selective abortion, adoption, even infanticide.”
We Don’t Need Ads, We Need Meaning
These are not actions parents typically undertake, especially concerning their own children. They reflect a cold calculus that unfree people adopt to survive awful realities, but such actions would not compute for individuals raised to believe that every person is created in the image of G-d.
Every major world religion celebrates the notion of family and the blessing of having, and raising, children. Children are a source of wonderment for adults around them, but they are also the future of those religions, as well as the citizens of nation-states. In that sense, while the Danes’ ads were stylishly done, the first biblical commandment, “Be fruitful and multiply,” remains the most effective fertility campaign ever created.
The challenge for Danes, Cubans, and others is not to ensure that couples have romantic getaways, but to persuade young adults to embrace both pregnancy and parenthood. In rich Western societies, where the average family size is shrinking and children are increasingly scarce, that’s not the easiest sale to make. And in communist cultures where the present feels bad and the future looks bleak, there really is no incentive for young adults to make that leap.
From the outside, parenthood looks like a life-altering, time-consuming, and expensive undertaking. For young people who don’t see parenthood as part of a religious calling and can’t expect support from a local religious community, it is easy to dismiss children as an unnecessary burden. The trouble is that when too many people opt out of parenting, societies can demographically delete themselves.
If Cuba’s government were serious about reversing their population shrinkage, their slogan would be, “Make Cuba Catholic Again.” Widespread re-adoption of traditional religion would be the most effective antidote to Cuba’s population-size problems. It’s too bad the Castro government is unlikely to ever promote allegiance to a power higher than themselves, because Cubans may not do it for mom, but history shows they’d do it for G-d.