The idea that high fertility rates are a barrier to economic success is a contemporary myth, Catholic University of America economics professor, mother of eight, and viral hashtag creator Dr. Catherine Pakulak told CNA.
Pakulak started the viral “#PostcardsForMacron” hashtag on Monday in response to French President Emanuel Macron’s comment at a Gates Foundation event.
Macron suggested that educated women would not choose to have a large number of children if they had a choice. While Pakulak thinks the comment was taken partly out of context, and tried to give Macron the benefit of the doubt, she still thought it was “so ridiculous.”
Pakulak’s academic research area focuses in part on the effects of fertility on economic development.
“High fertility is not the product of ignorance,” Pakulak told CNA. She said Macron’s comments represent an “underlying view” common in contemporary culture.
This attitude prevails both in Africa, and in other places such as the United States, she said. Women like herself who chose to have many children face a “pejorative attitude” from other people about their decisions to have lots of children.
“That’s what I pop into, and say ‘Hey, look, this is silly. Lots of women do choose this,’” she explained.
And while Pakulak said most college-educated women do not choose to have that many children, “there are some.”
“So that was my main impetus to pick that [line of Macron’s speech] out.”
Pakulak was critical of Macron’s take that families with large number of children are holding Africa back developmentally. She described this mentality as “kind of a contemporary myth” that is not backed up with statistics.
“There is no evidence that says countries cannot grow quickly, or steadily, with high levels of fertility,” she explained. “There are a lot of people, in response to this […] out there kind of crunching the numbers on African fertility. And some have pointed out ‘look, actually African fertility is not especially high relative to its income.'”
Across the continent, the average fertility rate does not climb to seven, eight, or nine, she said. In reality, the total fertility rate (TFR) throughout Africa is closer to the world’s median rate, “in the four range.”
“There simply is not mountains and mountains of evidence to say that if countries get their fertility rates down to the twos and the threes, all of the sudden you’re going to just explode [economically],” she said.
Nigeria, the country in Africa with the highest GDP, has the 12th-highest fertility rate in the world, with a TFR of 5.07. South Africa, which has the second-highest GDP on the continent, has a much lower fertility rate of 2.29.
Pakulak told CNA that she was unhappy that Macron compared forced child marriage, which is “not something Christians could get behind or agree with,” to having large families.
She theorized that Macron’s views were similar to those of the Gates Foundation, which considers population growth to be a barrier to economic growth.
She expressed concern that this viewpoint could be used to force contraception on African women, “regardless of whether they are asking for this.”
“And I think that’s false, because other countries have grown quickly with a TFR in the range that [African countries] are in.”
While most social conservatives do not oppose the availability of contraception, she said, “what they’re against is kind of an aggressive policy” that wastes time and money that could be spent on other developmental programs.
Additionally, Pakulak said that providing contraception to girls who were forced into marriage in their preteens “isn’t going to help” their situations. Instead, she suggested that more efforts be focused on opposing the cultural norms that approve of these situations.
She is also concerned that “an era of cheap and widely-available contraception,” in which it is easy for people to pick the size of their families, people are choosing to have fewer and fewer children.
Pakulak lamented declining fertility rates in other parts of the world, mentioning especially Europe.
While France is home to Europe’s highest TFR at 1.96, it is still below the population replacement-level rate of 2.1. This is cause for concern for Pakulak, who warned that the low birth rates would spell disaster for the continent’s extensive social programs.
She is also concerned that the anti-child mentality is a sign of bigger problems.
“People don’t have kids to save their countries from demographic winter,” she said.
“They have kids because of a certain attitude towards meaning and the meaning of life and what it means to live a good human life.”