Romney, Santorum and archaic ideas on fertility

Between them, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum have as many children — 12 — as there were tribes of Israel. … Continued

Between them, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum have as many children — 12 — as there were tribes of Israel. Ron Paul has five of his own, and in an early debate, perhaps unwilling to be outdone by Michele Bachmann’s fostering of dozens, Paul boasted that when he worked as a physician he delivered “4,000 babies.” 

There’s nothing wrong with big families, of course. But the smug fecundity of the Republican field this primary season has me worried. Their family photos, with members of their respective broods spilling out to the margins, seem to convey a subliminal message that goes far beyond a father’s pride in being able to field his own basketball team. What the Republican front-runners seem to be saying is this: We are like the biblical patriarchs. As conservative religious believers, we take seriously the biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply.

Especially worrisome is the inevitable corollary to that belief: Women should put their natural fertility first — before their brains, before their ability to earn a living, before their independence — because that’s what God wants.

And now, with their crusade against birth control, the Catholic bishops are helping to articulate and elevate that unspoken and archaic value in public. Fertility is a gift from God, they say. To mess with that gift goes against God’s plan. (The appeal of Sarah Palin to so many Christian women was exactly this: She prioritized her fertility while juggling a big job and a husband who was frequently out of town. Her fans call her a Proverbs 31 woman, a reference to the biblical character who does it all — and who keeps herself looking good. Her price, the Bible says, is “above rubies.”)

To which I say this: We’ve come a long way from the days of the Bible, baby, and I don’t want to go back there.

 The Bible contains profound truths about faith and love and justice and fidelity, but as a point-by-point guidebook to modern domestic life it’s nearly worthless. It was written at a time when women were men’s property, only slightly more valuable than sheep. Their worth was connected to their fertility. Infertility was a shame, a scandal, a condition the women of the Bible prayed to God to be released from. The value and status of a man could be measured by the numbers of his children and grandchildren. That’s why the Bible editors used all those “begats.”

In the Middle Ages, the only way for a woman to escape the binds of her God-given fertility (and the possibility that she would die bearing children) was to join a convent. There, she might learn to read and write.

The birth control pill, which became widely available in 1960, revolutionized modern life not, as so many conservative pundits argue, because it allowed women to have sex with as many men as they wanted (although some women did do that), but because it allowed them to take charge of their fertility, and in so doing, to take charge of their education, their earnings potential, and eventually, the planning of their families, and the loving, nurturing raising of their children. It is not an accident that the influx of women into colleges and universities, into law schools and medical school occurred after the invention of the pill.

This shouldn’t be news to anybody, but apparently, in 2012, it is. Family planning is good for families. In an economy where nearly all mothers work, where their ability to earn money doesn’t merely allow them the occasional splurge at the department store but actually pays the mortgage and the college bills, the romantic idealization of biblically abundant families is a retrograde dream.

Smaller families allow everyone in the family to be healthier and better educated. Healthy, well-educated people live longer and are more prosperous than those who are not. In the poorest parts of the developing world, the average woman has six children; in the richest parts, that average woman has three. This is the reality, Mitt Romney the outlier. As a man who earns $20 million a year, he can afford to have as many children as he can manage to conceive.

I am the first person to say children are a miracle, a blessing, a gift from God. But I also thank God that I live in a time and place where I can get up every morning and go to work, and with the money I earn help feed and educate my child. I’m guessing that if you asked them, most American women, liberal or conservative, would vote with me.

Lisa Miller
Written by

  • Carstonio

    “Especially worrisome is the inevitable corollary to that belief: Women should put their natural fertility first — before their brains, before their ability to earn a living, before their independence — because that’s what God wants.” – Excellent point. There’s nothing worng with motherhood, it just shouldn’t be compulsory. Access to contraception is vital for women to have social equality with men. And that belief is definitely out of place in making public policy.

  • jposto

    Even women who want larger families should have access to birth control to manage “timing.” Even these women don’t want to be treated as though their fertility is more important than their own health. These are people not just incubators.

  • lewfournier1

    Gee Alfred, thank you for your racist crap; you confirm everything bad one can think of right-wingers.