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The great American birth dearth has arrived

On Wednesday, the CDC announced the worst fertility news we’ve ever seen in this country

Twelve Leap Day babies photographed at Royal Women’s Hospital in Brisbane, Australia, on Feb. 29, 1940.
Photo courtesy of The Brisbane Courier-Mail via Creative Commons

The decision to have a baby in the middle of a pandemic isn’t an easy one. I know because we struggled with making it (ultimately, we decided to go for it, though not without real serious conversations with medical professionals and a great deal of soul-searching). It’s unsurprising that amid all of the uncertainty, millions of American women decided to go another route and forgo pregnancy and birth.

Yesterday, the CDC announced the worst fertility news we’ve ever seen in this country: We’ve hit a record low birth rate in the United States (1.64 babies per American woman) and we’re well below the necessary replacement rate of 2.1 births per woman.

While this latest, drastic drop is certainly due to the medical and financial insecurity that a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic brings, unfortunately, the fact that our birth rate has plummeted cannot just be part of the COVID-19 story. Indeed, it’s part of a larger trend of fewer American women not only having babies, but getting married at all.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal about the announcement Janet Adamy explained, “Demographers say the data suggests that more fundamental social and economic shifts are driving down fertility. Births peaked in 2007 before plunging during the recession that began that year. Although fertility usually rebounds alongside an improving economy, U.S. births fell in all but one year as the economy grew from 2009 until early 2020.”

“It’s not just Covid,” a demographer at the University of New Hampshire told the Journal. “I’ve been waiting for years to see a big jump in fertility to women in their 30s and it hasn’t happened.”

Notably, half of American states saw more deaths than births in 2020. That statistic can of course be explained at least in part by an increased death rate — thanks (and no thanks) to COVID-19 deaths and the impacts that came with social isolation and a strained health care system.

But it’s illustrative of the larger picture of what this reduced birth rate means for the future of our society: It’s a dying one.

We are not a civilization confident in its own continuity, which is why more and more Americans are choosing not to bring more children into it. This slow dying can be attributed to countless signs of ill health, our faltering faith and our increasingly atomized families and communities, the latter only made worse by a pandemic that forced us all online and away from each other in person.

We’re likely to witness a rebounding of pre-pandemic life as vaccinations and prior infections bring us closer to herd immunity. What’s to be seen is if the birth rate will rebound along with our economy or social lives. Writing in the New York Post recently, Zachary Kussin and Marisa Dellatto rather crudely described the plans of urban residents who have spent the last year locked in apartments under quarantine with few opportunities for physical intimacy: “With all New Yorkers over 16 eligible to be vaccinated and bars and restaurants opening, city dwellers have one thing planned for this summer: getting it on.”

Does this sound like a society ready to implement meaningful life changes based on deep reflection about the meaning of life gained after living through a year of pandemic lockdowns? One that is ready to take on the responsibility and meaning that childbearing brings? We can look forward to pre-pandemic life coming roaring back, but our demographic time bomb will go on ticking, albeit a little bit faster than before. Unless, that is, we learn a different lesson from this pandemic.

One that looks at life as precious, glorious, fragile and invaluable; one that sees life with all its grief, pains and trials, and understands our duty to pass the torch.

Bethany Mandel is a homeschooling mother of four and a widely published writer on politics, culture and Judaism. She is an editor at Ricochet.com and a contributor to the Washington Examiner blog and magazine.