The Risks of Giving Birth Early and Often Fall Mostly on Women and Children
During the October 2018 Women’s Session of General Conference, President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), spoke disparagingly about LDS women getting married at a slightly older age (two years older than in the past) and giving birth to fewer children. He did not make a direct call to action, but judging from what I am hearing in LDS forums, many women of childbearing age are feeling pressure to make babies. Some have reported that third parties have contacted them to nudge them toward starting families right away.
Oaks acknowledges there are valid exceptions to his counsel that he chooses not to mention. “I only teach the general rules. Whether an exception applies to you is your responsibility. You must work that out individually between you and the Lord,” he has said.
Before making life-altering decisions to get married young and bear many children, a woman must “work that out individually between [herself] and the Lord,” especially considering that pregnancy and lactation are confined to women by biology and, based on what all three members of the First Presidency said at the Women’s Session, it is also their assumption and preference that women will do the bulk of the work related to raising these children for the two decades following birth, even after biological differences between male and female parents become less pertinent.
As a public health professional, I worked with a community with an extremely high infant mortality rate. The cause of the deaths had been traced to very short intervals between pregnancies. One man was angry about our efforts to encourage birth control between pregnancies because he saw having large families as a religious duty.
I tried to explain that the health department was not opposed to large families; we were just encouraging people to follow the pregnancy spacing guidelines established by science. Mothers and babies are safer when siblings are born about two and a half years apart from each other, not within the same year. I myself am a mother of several children, I assured him. (I have four children—not as many as President Oaks, whose late wife June gave birth to six children, nor the current President of the church, Russell M. Nelson, whose late wife, Dantzel, had 10 children, but more than the previous president of the church, Thomas S. Monson, whose wife, Frances, had three children.)
The angry man told me that he knew people with 14 children and there was no way they could have so many if they spaced them two and a half years apart.
He was right. If people choose to follow guidelines that lessen risks for mothers and children, it is likely that they will have fewer children than they would otherwise. Many of the strategies for producing larger families—starting young, spacing pregnancies close together, and continuing to give birth into older age—carry significant health risks for both mothers and babies. Babies born under these circumstances are more likely to be born preterm and low birthweight, which can lead to other chronic conditions that affect them their entire lives. The women who carry these pregnancies are more likely to experience life-threatening conditions such as preeclampsia, diabetes and hypertension.
More income is required to keep a larger family out of poverty. “Poverty is the single greatest threat to children’s well-being.” Children who grow up in poverty are at greater risk for chronic illness, cognitive problems, and premature death.
A woman who marries at age 20 is more likely to divorce than a woman who marries at age 25, and single women with children have one of the highest poverty rates of all demographics in America. (The same risk does not apply to single fathers.) Fewer than half of divorced American women receive all the child support they are legally entitled to from noncustodial fathers.
Couples with children are less likely to divorce than couples without, but there is a dark side to this seemingly happy statistic: women are more likely to stay in unhappy or even abusive marriages if they have children. High proportions of mothers drop out of college and the workforce, not always by choice, narrowing their options to staying married or living in poverty.
Some people believe that if Millennials would make more babies, it would benefit elderly, retired people by replenishing the workforce with young workers who could contribute to the Social Security fund. Oaks mentioned the aging population in his talk. I respectfully suggest that even if every fertile LDS woman with access to a sexual partner or a sperm bank were to give birth as often as possible, we would not be able to reverse the demographic shift because the main factor driving it is not too few babies, but rather many, many more seniors.
The American senior population is now composed primarily of Baby Boomers, the largest generation in American history. More babies than usual were born from 1946-1964 after several years of repressed fertility due to the catastrophic events of World War II. During the baby boom, an average of approximately 4,100,000 babies were born each year.
In 2016, the most recent year for which data are available, 3,945,875 American babies were born—almost as many as during the heyday of American baby-making! With so many babies being born, why is the population aging? Because improved public health and innovations in medical technology are increasing life expectancy. Trying to match the size of the elderly population by making more babies is a futile attempt to chase a moving target.
Even if increased baby-making worked as a solution for the elderly, it could cause a new crisis for the children. The larger the population, the greater its carbon footprint. A side effect of another baby boom would be the need for more drastic lifestyle changes to control climate change, which has already started causing hurricanes and wildfires.
At the First Presidency’s initial press conference, President Oaks brought up another benefit to starting families early from his perspective; married Millennials are more likely to stay active in the church than their single counterparts.
By looking at the stats, or simply looking at the people in the pews at your local Singles Ward, it is apparent that single women are more likely to remain active in the Church than single men. Marriage as a retention effort is primarily directed toward men.
All considered, the potential risks of having babies early and often primarily affect women and children, while the theoretical benefits would help male church members and the elderly. Only elderly men are within the highest ranks of leadership with the LDS Church, so the opinions of some, such as Oaks, are unsurprising.
We might take a cue from the women who came before us. In the sixties and seventies, several church leaders condemned birth control, using much more forceful language than Oaks did in his recent talk. And yet, most LDS women disregarded the rhetoric and used birth control anyway. Eventually, church leaders implemented the current policy that birth control use is a private decision.
No one but you can determine the right size for your family. Whether due to personal revelation or personal preference, many people do choose to have large families, and I support their decision. To many, the rewards of having a large family are worth the risks. But please, don’t take on risk to yourself and your children simply because of the opinions of others, even if those opinions are expressed during a General Conference talk. You are the person who will be responsible for the lives you bring into this world.