Political Animal


February 03, 2013 2:57 PM Creepy op-ed writers who obsess over women’s wombs

By Kathleen Geier

And no, this time I’m not talking about Ross Douthat or William Saletan. Today, is The Weekly Standard Jonathan Last who is trolling women about the tragedy of their barren wombs. In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Last claims that the root cause of nearly all of America’s problems, including “the fiscal cliff, the sequestration cliff and the entitlement cliff” (!), is our declining fertility rate. His basic argument is that low-fertility societies are less innovative, because they have aging populations and therefore pour too many resources into health care.

I agree that the U.S. spends far too much on health care; to me, that’s one of the strongest arguments for single payer. Last, however, is silent on this point. As for the argument that the U.S. is not innovative; that’s nonsense. Surveys regularly rank the U.S. economy as among the most innovative in the world.

What’s interesting is what Last doesn’t say. Going back at least to the days of Teddy Roosevelt ranting about “race suicide,” pro-natalist obsessives have generally tended to be racist cranks terrified about the white race’s inability, or unwillingness, to reproduce itself, but Last is too smart to go there. He doesn’t appear to be racist or anti-immigrant. Also, though he offers some policy solutions, he’s careful not to suggest policies that interfere with reproductive freedom, such as anti-abortion laws or restrictions on birth control access. So he almost sounds reasonable.

But then, when you start to look carefully at his argument about why we should be concerned about low birth rates, it falls apart. Correlation does not equal causation; there are places where the birth rate is high, such as sub-Saharan Africa and the Philippines, which are desperately poor, and others where it is low, like Germany, which are quite prosperous.

What’s he up to, then? Do a little digging, and it all starts to make sense. It turns out that Last is a full-fledged right-to-lifer in good standing — so much so that in a piece in the religious journal First Things he rather dickishly calls the pro-choice side “pro-abortion.”

This, then, is the key. It always is with these types who are so obsessed with other people’s wombs. They never have the best interests of women at heart. The best interests of a woman lie in choosing exactly when to have children and exactly how many children are right for her to have, given her unique circumstances. In general, the kinds of large families that the likes of Ross Douthat and Jonathan Last would like women to have are difficult to reconcile with gender equity. For instance, there is evidence that the more children a woman has, the more of a wage penalty she suffers, even if the time she spent out of the work force is held constant.

And of course, in real life, the time spent out of the work force is almost never held constant! In many families, it goes like this: a woman gets pregnant. She takes a leave of absence from her job, or possibly even quits her job and stays home for a few years. After all, she’s almost certainly making less money than her husband, so it makes sense that she’s the one who quits, right? If it’s a long leave or she leaves the work force entirely, she will inevitably lose ground in her career. And if she has several kids, she will lose even more ground. Meanwhile, her economically dependent status means she will also become a less-than-equal partner in the marriage. It’s inevitable that the person who controls the purse strings ultimately has the power in any relationship, even if he or she chooses to be a benevolent dictator about it.

My point here is not to cast judgment on any women’s lives. Only the individual woman can decide what is best for her, all things considered. Some women genuinely prefer being stay-at-home moms, and they have the privilege of making that choice. And certainly, there are some remarkable women who can successfully manage large families as well as thriving careers — I salute them! But gender norms about child care being what they are, and middle-class standards of child-rearing being increasingly demanding, it’s usually quite difficult for most women to maintain a career and also be a parent to more than one or two children.

So, to the extent that anti-choice men like Jonathan Last and Ross Douthat try to pressure women into having large families, gender equity is likely to suffer. Women will achieve less in the world, and they will become less-than-equal partners in the home. This is completely unacceptable, especially when their arguments about why we should be so deeply concerned about low birth rates are so pathetically weak.

Really, guys — if you want to turn back the clock to back alley abortions and 1950s-style patriarchy, why not ditch the unpersuasive rationale of “declining birthrates” and just come right out and say it? I still wouldn’t buy it, but having an honest conversation about these issues for once would be invigorating and refreshing.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee


  • aimai on February 03, 2013 5:13 PM:

    Its weird that Last begins with an absurdity--that societies somehow "age" because of something that younger people are "choosing" to do. The average age of the population in successful industrialized modern nations has gone up because fewer people die and more people live a long time. This has nothing to do with how many children people decide to have early on--you would have to have an exponentially increasing number of children per family in order to "make up" for the fact that the senior generation isn't dying off at the rate it used to with dangerous farm work, plagues, and poor health care. That would definitionally be unsustainable.

    As for "innovation" innovation can happen in any field. The fact that we need more resources to support our aging population isn't a drag on anything at all--people can and do innovate (what a ghastly term) in lots of ways with and through medicine, home health care, better distribution of resources, tools for independent living.

    Something that people who live in the eternal present seem to forget is that societies are always growing and contracting--Rome went from a city of a million to a city of a few thousand and grew again. Ditto Paris. We can afford to have a large senior population if we choose to make some changes with the way in which we handle housing, education, taxes, and immigration. Perhaps people can't afford to squat alone in large houses but need to trade housing for home health care. Perhaps we need to create safe, happy, healthy, retirement homes where people can live semi independently after they retire and turn their jobs over to younger people. But we sure don't need uncontrolled natalist policies on the assumption that all those kids will miraculously find educations and jobs and also be prepared to perform servile labor taking care of grandma and grandpa and great grandma and great grandpa.

  • ere on February 03, 2013 5:33 PM:


    Any chance you could write about pieces you disagree with without accusing the authors of "trolling?" It would make your less ideologically sympathetic readers more likely to read your work.


  • TomParmenter on February 03, 2013 6:06 PM:

    O, Ere, we can fix this.

    Instead of 'Jonathan Last who is trolling women about the tragedy of their barren wombs', he could be teasing women, or chiding women, or addressing women, or clarifying for women, or counselling women, or pontificating to women, or, I don't know, vouchsafing to women about the tragedy of their barren wombs. Which has the most appeal to the less ideologically sympathetic reader?

    To a raver like me, Last was trolling, being deliberately offensive in order to draw an interesting and intelligent analysis in this blog. Which you read, even though you had nothing to say about the subject.


    PS -- Aren't we lucky to have Kathleen Geier writing for a big-time blog that doesn't take the weekend off?

  • c u n d gulag on February 03, 2013 6:10 PM:

    "Forced Labor" for women.

    "Arbeit" will "Macht" you "Frei!", 'dears.'

    Also, how about some consideration for women who do decide to take themselves out of the workforce to raise their children, and take care of their families, when it comes to SS and retirement?

    Right now, women who decided to be stay-at-home Moms, are losing a ton of money while their husbands are still alive, but retired - and, who's to say that they wouldn't have made more than he did, if they continued working, so that they don't have to live on his Survivors Benefits when he passes.

    No one is forcing abortions on them - leave women alone to make their own choices.

    Conservatives, you CAN'T be anti big government, if you want to control the lives and futures of women.
    So, don't try to go that route.
    Just say that you want total control over women, and then let the people in this country decide.

    Oh, but you can't can you?
    November of last year showed you that.
    And now, you're trying to put lipstick, and perfume, on that same misogynistic pig.

  • Wapiti on February 03, 2013 6:29 PM:

    As a guy, I seriously wonder about people who seem such ardent advocates of womb-slavery. Woman's body, woman's life, woman's choice.

  • emily on February 03, 2013 7:35 PM:

    I find Last and Saletan to be fairly reasonable conservatives, not the creepy demons that Geier paints them as. Both actually attempt to make arguments, at least in their pieces for more mainstream rags like the WSJ, and neither are conservatives of the Limbaugh "slut" variety. I don't agree with their positions, but I don't find either any more radical than their counterparts on the left. If you're reduced to accusing Last and Saletan of trolling, what do you call what the nastier elements of the GOP do every day? It doesn't strike me as useful to declare that all conservative writers are equally as offensive. Saletan has actually written some insightful things for Slate, not that Geier chooses to highlight any of those. Cherry picking the most (supposedly) objectionable pieces occurs on the left as well as the right, it seems.

  • AMS on February 03, 2013 11:02 PM:

    Some of the online comments to Last's piece--many of them clearly by men---were much, much worse than the article. These guys need to push themselves away from the bar at the country club and get out a bit more. Among their claims: that today's women "don't even know how to use a crock pot", that the low birth rate is all the fault of feminism, that modern women are "too selfish" and unwilling to give up their toys to have children, that our low birthrate is virtually entirely the result of Roe v. Wade, and, of course, that it's all the fault of feminism.

    For what my opinion is worth, I agree with Ms. Geier that it's simply too difficult to raise a large family when two incomes are not a choice, but an outright economic necessity if the family is to maintain a middle-class lifestyle, and when there is almost NO social support for child-raising from business or, increasingly, government. We live in a "you're on your own" country where children are an individual choice and strictly an individual responsibility. There was a brief, shining moment in the 1970's and early 1980's when the zeitgeist favored some flexibility and accommodation for working families, but a hardening ideology of individualism and an economy that gives employers all the leverage changed that. Now it's every family for itself and it's darn tough. It's not for nothing that NPR's The Car Guys' "working mother advisor" is named Erasmus B. Draggin.

  • AMS on February 03, 2013 11:11 PM:

    Sorry about the repeat of "it's all the fault of feminism" above, but on second thought, it was cited so often by the online commenters that perhaps it merits a double mention.

  • low-tech cyclist on February 03, 2013 11:14 PM:

    Here's the thing about these types who say we desperately need to do something about the 'birth dearth,' as Ben Wattenberg of the AEI nicknamed it back in the 1980s:

    There's a simple, obvious, non-invasive solution to this problem - we just open our borders to more immigrants. (That's the solution Wattenberg himself came up with in The First Universal Nation more than 20 years ago.)

    Anyone who makes an issue of our population's age distribution and rejects increased immigration in favor of leaning on women to have more babies than they want had better, at the absolute minimum, come up with a damned good argument to support that, if they want to maintain any pretense of sincerity.

    And if, on top of failing to provide such an argument, they fail to address the question of incentives to make it easier for women to juggle work and family, like universally available, subsidized child care, rather than just saying that this is what women ought to be told to do, then the game is clearly up: they've got a hidden agenda, as Mr. Last evidently does. They are not arguing in good faith.

  • CharlieM on February 03, 2013 11:54 PM:

    @ Emily,
    Last and Saletan *are* exactly like Limbaugh's "slut" variety of conservative.
    They may dress up the language up a little better, but in the end, their points are directed precisely at who control women and make their choices. And both belittle women as surely as Rush call's them "sluts". They belittle the choices being made by women and infer that these choices are better made by old white guys in state legislatures.
    Rush feels compelled to demonstrate his misogyny while Last and Saletan try to hide as "reasonable" conservatives. But make no mistake - their end game is the same.

  • suitworld on February 04, 2013 6:57 AM:

    If I were a woman I would sooner help organize a big "no babies" strike until the society substantially reorganizes to support parenthood than have a baby.

  • aimai on February 04, 2013 7:41 AM:

    The problem with a "no babies" strike is that the cost is to the individual woman (and her partner) while the benefit is to her employer. The only thing I want to add to this conversation is the fact that families (babies and children) are, in fact, value added for a lot of people. Especially people whose work lives are hard and unsatisfying. People are often working *in order* to have children. The more the merrier hysteria is always focused on upper class women who have long controlled their fertility--late marriage, no pre-marital sex, and a focus on inherited wealth all made the upper classes quite conscious of the cost of children. Once upper class women entered the workforce the costs became understood in terms of opportunity cost in lost wages and life chance for the woman as well as in divided inheritance.

    I am one of many women who gave up a career and had children. More children would, perhaps, have delayed my re-entry into the work force even more but it wouldn't have ended it. And in this economy I know tons of people for whom the cost of higher education for their children is prohbitive but also seen as a necessity. Where the cost is taken up by the grandparent generation you might as well acknowledge that paying for children in this society in this day and age results in a diminution of inherited wealth to the middle generation.

    My point here isn't to draw attention to my (peculiar) circumstances but rather to say that people up and down the economic scale have different opportunity costs with respect to staying at home, never having children, paying for childcare and different cost scales when they cost out the cost of having a child over an 18-24 year framework. But no one in this society can afford more than two or three without exreme sacrifice--either of the woman's working potential or of life chances for the children.

    If the natalists want a full on natalist program in order to support the grandparent generation they can either accept increased immigration, offer each American child a full scholarship plus dance lessons and baseball lessons all the way through top private schools and University or they can resort to taking away women's contraception, the right to abortion, and sex education in the schools. What's that you say? They've chosen the stick instead of the carrot? Quel surprise.

  • The Pale Scot on February 04, 2013 10:32 AM:

    The so called lack of laborers is a fantasy. Besides it rally being a concern about lack of cheap labor, the improvements in robotics and AI means in twenty years, maybe as few as ten, significant areas of the economy are going to be automated. From manufacturing to fast food to white collar the people doing the work in this field don't see many jobs that can't be don by machines.

  • JoanneinDenver on February 04, 2013 2:30 PM:

    I am a pro-life feminist and a mother and grandmother. I rage against the arguments presented in Roe because they force women to adopt the male pattern of reproduction and nurturing. Biologically, men reproduce without having any biological imperative to protect the development of the offspring. Men must make a conscience choice to be a parent. Biologically, women conceive and then harbor the developing offspring. Women must make a deliberate choice after reproduction NOT to parent. Roe said, women must adopt the male pattern of reproduction if they wish to participate as equals in society.

    The bare minimum of support to mothers, the Family Medical Leave Act came TWENTY years, almost to the day, after the Roe decision. "Why can't a woman be more like a man?" She better, is she wishes to survive. Why would any sensible woman decide to have children, at all, unless she were rich?

  • p_pisciotta@yahoo.com on February 04, 2013 2:38 PM:

    No, Joanne, Roe didn't say women must adopt the male pattern of reproduction. It says that women can have control of their own bodies, rather than ceding control to the state legislatures. Abortion has always existed, and the most fervent supporters of legalized abortion were medical providers who saw the terrible effects of illegal abortions. It has nothing to do with theory of sex roles, and everything to do with an individual woman's response to her own individual circumstances. I'm glad you were able to be a mother and grandmother in good circumstances; other women are not so lucky and need to be able to make their own choices without interference from people who don't even know them.

  • JoanneinDenver on February 04, 2013 3:23 PM:

    Thank you for your thoughtful response. You know nothing of me....
    " I'm glad you were able to be a mother and grandmother in good circumstances" You assume that which is not in evidence. My decision was not based on my circumstances, it was based on my values, and my knowledge of biology.

    There are all kinds of laws that could be passed that would help women deal with difficult and/or unplanned pregnancies. But, Roe established the norm for how women would participate in the larger culture, and that was to become as much like men as possible.

    At the time of Roe, women could be fired for being pregnant. Indeed, I believe that that was one of the rationales given in Roe for legalizing abortion. Women who needed a job with medical benefits to care for her existing children, may have had no option but abortion. Women could then and can now be discriminated against in seeking employment if they attempt to return to the job market after staying home with children.

    If men were really committed to allowing women to control their bodies, there would be universal and 100% effect male contraceptions, promoted overwhelmingly by men.

    The obligation to put a child first does not cease with the decision not to abort;
    it dictates a woman's life practically forever. I had a job, prior to the Medical
    Family Leave legislation, when a child of mine became seriously ill. He needed more time and attention from me that the few days I was allowed at work. I had to resign from my job. My supervisor, a woman, told me that as a mother she supported my decision, but as my supervisor, she would see that I never worked for the state again. I worked very hard with pro-choice and pro-life organizations to promote the Medical Family Leave Act and then worked for Clinton's election. Signing that legislation was his first presidential act.

    I know what life is like for women. Abortion is a piss poor answer.

  • caffiend on February 04, 2013 4:03 PM:

    I usually stay out of these fights, I know what I believe and someone typing on a comment thread isn't going to change my mind. That said, Joanne, you perplex me. You say you are a pro-life feminist, and I suppose that's okay, but you go on to sat that you "know what life is like for women." And then follow that with "Abortion is a piss poor answer."

    I would argue that you know what YOUR life has been like, but you don't know what mine, or anyone elses, has been like. I have three kids, only one has "I was planned" bragging rights. Abortion wasn't something that I personally ever thought about, but it is an option that a handful of friends and family members have accessed at various points over the last 40 years for various reasons, and it's sure as hell not something I would ever consider telling someone whose shoes I haven't walked in that she can't access, but instead that she has to give birth (something that is not risk-free).

    That is, to me, abhorrent and, frankly, the trade of bullies. You made your choices, just as I made mine. Trust other women to make theirs and mind your own fucking business.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on February 04, 2013 4:31 PM:

    But, Roe established the norm for how women would participate in the larger culture, and that was to become as much like men as possible.

    Hmmm... Can't say that I begrudge the decision to treat women and their medical decisions with the same amount of deference as is accorded to men.

    If men were really committed to allowing women to control their bodies, there would be universal and 100% effect male contraceptions, promoted overwhelmingly by men.

    I actually have no comment on this...

    Re FMLA: FMLA only protects someone's job if they have to take leave for situations like maternity. However, FMLA is not "maternity" leave. Depending on whether or not a woman's workplace is even covered by FMLA, if a woman has a baby she can take leave but she has to use either paid or unpaid leave, whichever she has available. If she doesn't have enough paid leave to cover her entire absence, she does have to take a financial hit. So even if her job is FMLA protected, she needs to have her finances in order before she takes advantage of it because it's not free ride. So we're back to where we started: economic suffrage for mothers/families to be. Just sayin...

  • gretchen on February 04, 2013 4:41 PM:

    Joanne, you postulate that I know nothing of your circumstances. Your unfamiliarity with desperation tells me everything I need to know of your circumstances. Great. You're virtuous, and sacrificing, and do the right thing no matter what the cost. That tells me you don't know anything of the cost that the truly desperate suffer, which makes you incapable of legislating for such people.

  • joanneinDenver on February 04, 2013 5:45 PM:

    @Sgt. Gym Bunny
    You are absolutely right about FMLA. But it was the best we could do. FMLA legislation was passed three times by a Democratic Congress and vetoed three times- twice by Reagan and once by Bush 1. My point is that our country does not begin to do enough to support women who are pregnant and their families.
    I would love to see paid maternity leave for all women, maybe through Social Security insurance.

    I think the use of the term "unplanned" doesn't cover all the circumstances. I think it would be better to speak about women who find themselves pregnant in untenable situations. I believe in focusing on those kinds of situations to see what can be done to make it possible for women to carry their babies to term.

    I am not going to detail my own life or experiences to justify my position. I don't think that is relevant. I do know desperation. I do have experience with intolerable situations. I do know about abortion, although I have never had one.
    I know how critically important it is for women to be able to control their own health; however I do not think that cutting out a embryo/fetus is part of that control. I also think that life is inherently unfair to women; but I don't think that abortion balances the scales.

    If I have seemed to be indifferent to the plight of many women, I apologize.
    I don't think any of us can know someone else's life. But, that doesn't mean that we must remain silent or that we cannot advocate for better ways.

    For the record, I do not support the current right-to-life movement. I believe it was long ago co-opted by the religious and corporate interests for their own political purposes and has nothing to do with women and their children. I do support the introduction of a Human Life Amendment and would work for its
    passage. Now, before everyone hits the capitol key and starts screaming at me, let me tell you why. In this country, a Constitutional amendment process is how we debate and decide what are going to be the fundamental principles by which we live. I believe that the issues that have been raised here are the issues that we need to debate as a country. I believe that the process of looking at such a Constitutional Amendment would allow such a debate.

    I keep talking about women and children. But men are an absolute critical part of this and families should be another focus. Finally, Sgt. Gym Bunny, you should have a comment on a male contraceptive. Effective male contraception would eliminate the need for abortion, in large measure....Viagra with a spermicide? Temporary, vasectomy?

  • JoanneinDenver on February 06, 2013 9:07 AM:

    @Sgt. Gym Bunny

    I reread what you wrote about FMLA. I was discussing how difficult it was to get even that law passed. Your point, which I missed, was that it had a lot of loop holes and it was not sufficient to protect all women who needed such a law and were not eligible for it or could not afford the loss of income. Women in the latter categories might still need to abort for economic reasons. I appreciate that.