The recent annual speech to the nation of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has caught my eye. In it he urges Russians to have more children. He declares: “In the next 15 years we will feel the demographic effects of the 1990s when the birth rate was low. This is a serious threat. It is a challenge to our whole nation. According to the experts, a good way to get over the demographic crisis is to radically increase the number of families with three or more children.”
You don’t need to ask experts the answer to this problem. It stares one in the face: more babies. Of the European countries, Russia, Italy, the Ukraine, Spain and Germany are the worst affected by the fall in the birth rate – but it is happening here too. Improved healthcare means an increase of the elderly population; the routine use of oral contraceptives since the 1960s and the routine acceptance of abortion when contraception fails account for the lack of population replacement at the base.
I have some sympathy for President Medvedev’s plea. He is a child of the former Soviet Union, that gigantic failed experiment in Communism, when both men and women worked punitive hours, families lived in tiny, cramped apartments shared with other families and the number of abortions exceeded the number of live births. Russia was not a happy place in which to raise “three or more children”. Now, with a steadily shrinking population and with its demographically swollen neighbour, China, gazing hungrily at Russia’s empty eastern provinces, the president can be forgiven for feeling scared.
But we in Britain, without having experienced anything like the social sufferings of Russia, also have a declining population – only checked at present by immigration. The Government talks grimly of pushing back the age of retirement and cutting back on state pensions; as well as this there is a growing lobby to “ease” the elderly and frail into the afterlife because they are becoming too expensive to keep going.
Instead of managing this demographic decline, why doesn’t the Government offer incentives to married women to stay at home and have larger families? By the same token, why don’t our bishops, instead of simply managing the decline of parishes, tell parish priests to urge parishioners to chuck away their pills and potions (“clanking to bed” as Victoria Gillick, a mother of 10, once described it) and fill the pews with new faces? This would not only be in line with Church teaching (remember Humanae Vitae?), it would also reinvigorate society at large – and as a spin-off, might even produce more priests.
Once, when visiting a French colony, General de Gaulle surveyed the barren landscape, then ordered palm trees to be planted. “But it takes 100 years for a palm tree to reach its full height!” he was told. “All the more important to plant them immediately,” the general replied. It takes 30 years to renew the younger generation of the active population, according to demographic expert Gerard-Francois Dumont, who works for Human Life International. All the more important to plan for it now. Otherwise, as Dumont states in a fearsome image, we might in years to come be “celebrating” the “Feast of Kronos” – that figure from mythology who rejected the future by devouring his own children.