Ed West had an interesting and thought-provoking article in the print edition of the Catholic Herald, which you can read here. In it he tells us that Lucy Worsley, the television presenter and historian, has deliberately chosen not to have children.
I haven’t, but I have deliberately chosen not to have it all. I couldn’t do all of the exciting things that I do if I had children and I feel I have made that decision now. I think it is important to validate it as a choice. Helen Mirren is good at this, but there aren’t a lot of other positive, childless-by-choice people out there.
This leads me to reflect that there have been a whole bunch of childless by choice people out there, historically speaking – by which I mean religious celibates.
But it also leads me down a historical path. Many governments have introduced legislation to encourage people to have children, or rather, to encourage the right people to have children. Rome’s first Emperor, Augustus, induced the Senate to pass the Lex Julia, which made adultery illegal, and which penalised those who failed to marry and reproduce. He was moved by the fear that the ancient patrician families of Rome were facing extinction. In fact, the Lex Julia failed in its attempts to reverse the decline of the traditional noble family; by the time of the Antonines, the Senate was full of new men whose roots were in the provinces.
There have been other attempts in more recent times to succeed where the Lex Julia failed. One thinks of the inter-War years in France and various attempts to encourage les familles nombreuses; and of course the way that Mussolini gave out medals to mothers of many children. In Belgium today still, the tenth child of every family automatically has the Royal couple as godparents.
Augustus and Mussolini would have been horrified by Dr Lucy Worsley’s choice to be childless, particularly as she represents one of the brightest and best of her generation. Should we be horrified too? I wonder.
Childlessness can be a valid moral choice, though it is not one that we hear much about except in the context of vowed celibacy. But what strikes me here is that we often hear talk of population increase, and that if present trends continue, some sort of Malthusian disaster will overtake us. But this overlooks one important factor. Present trends rarely, if ever, continue. They frequently go into reverse. At the time of Constantine, in the early fourth century, Rome had a million inhabitants. By the time of Cola di Rienzo, in the mid-fourteenth century, it was a ghastly pestilential village of about 30,000 people. Yet no doubt in the time of Constantine people were constantly worrying about present trends continuing.
Dr Worsley’s decision is perhaps a small sign of the way trends reverse. Her mother was not childless, obviously, but Lucy is, and this represents a one generational turn around. My mother had five children, like her mother before her; but my four siblings between them have racked up a mere ten children; if you factor me in, that means an average of two each.
So what is happening here? We western Europeans have been remarkably successful breeders in the twentieth century; but success can produce an opposite and equal reaction. There is clear evidence that countries which were once very fertile are now the least productive of children. But what this means is of course for statisticians to work out and tell us. And maybe it is for moralists, such as myself, to ponder on.
Do we have a duty to have children? Do we owe it to future generations – we often hear this phrase – to ensure that there is a future generation?