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The Rotten Root of an Infertile Culture: Why We Need A Revolution in Virtue

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that sin includes any activity that brings death to the body, or death to the soul.

Increased utilization of third party reproductive technologies and our current infertility epidemic are deeply tied to sin. The birth dearth is primarily a result of the marriage decline. The marriage decline is a result of a profound absence in virtues and character development—resulting in a culture in which people can’t trust themselves and can’t trust the opposite sex to meet the basic demands of a marriage: commitment, fidelity, and cooperation. We don’t need more sexual education, we need more virtues education.

I recently was confronted about my Catholic conversion by a teenager whom I’ve known for years. “You’re not going to force your religion on your kids, are you?” he chided. I responded defensively, “I plan on at least giving my children the gift of a moral education—which the Church expertly provides.” From there began a conversation about whether there was an absolute truth or not. My teenage friend announced that there is no such thing: “morality is arbitrary … Good and bad means different things for different people in different circumstances.” Later in the conversation, the topic of children came up. I asked him, “How old do you think you’re going to be when you get married and have kids?” “I’m not sure I want to have kids,” he said.

I’m not sure I want to have kids.

His response shocked me greatly, because I’ve known him for years and I know that he is great with kids and since early childhood he has regularly declared his desire to eventually be a dad. Were his first remarks regarding truth related to this change in desire for children? I think they are.

David Brooks of the New York Times wrote a column in 2011 addressing a researched study that found that young Americans lack categories and vocabulary on matters of “right and wrong, moral dilemmas, and the meaning of life”:

The default position, which most of them came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste. ‘It’s personal,’ the respondents typically said. ‘It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?’

Rejecting blind deference to authority, many of the young people have gone off to the other extreme: ‘I would do what I thought made me happy or how I felt. I have no other way of knowing what to do but how I internally feel.’

The problem with a moral framework based on how one feels is that feelings change all the time. A marriage is supposed to last a lifetime. How can a bride or groom trust that his or her partner will feel like behaving herself or himself for a lifetime together? Would you marry someone you thought could betray or abandon you at the flip of a switch? Probably not. Love cannot be cultivated without trust.

And trust needs virtue.

Others must demonstrate virtue in order to enjoy a partner’s full trust, but less obviously, we must first trust ourselves to behave virtuously. If we doubt our own ability to behave morally, trusting others to do so is impossible.

The following is a real scene from a real relationship documented in the upcoming book Love Like Crazy, by David and Amber Lapp. It showcases the unraveling that occurs when people fail in virtues, and thus fail in trust:

Tricia was waiting for Anthony to buy a ring, but his unemployment and drunkenness eroded her trust. Anthony caught her getting into a Camaro with a guy he suspected she was sleeping with. He packed Tricia’s clothes into trash bags and demanded she leave. Then she cried, they reconciled, and he proposed. But his depression deepened, and her friendship with the guy in the Camaro intensified. They ended the engagement.

The Lapps have spent several years researching the attitudes on love and marriage in a small town in Ohio. They’ve developed intimate friendships with seven working class couples as those couples have dated, hooked up, married, had kids (not necessarily in that order), and lovingly documented the outcomes and motivations intertwined in their decisions.

A theme in this book is that these couples suffer from a rotten ecosystem—in which no family members, employer, public idol, or peer entity supports their efforts to build a healthy family. They don’t trust their partners to behave, and they don’t trust themselves to behave. The keys to successful relationships are missing like oxygen and clean water. Love itself gasps for air and chokes on dirt as it desperately attempts to breathe.

This lack both of moral standards and one’s own confidence in one’s ability to keep to them results in major insecurity and relationship failures. And where there are few stable relationships, there are few children: Today our birth rate is 1.86 (non-replacement).

Governments around the globe are taking striking measures to increase stark birth rates. Vladimir Putin vowed in his 2011 campaign to spend £33 billion in an attempt to increase Russia’s population by 30 percent (he didn’t disclose whether the funds were to go toward surrogates using his own sperm samples). Other countries are giving striking financial incentives and delivering major ad campaigns to try to encourage couples to have kids. But no woman will have more than one—possibly two—children with a man she doesn’t trust, even if she could win a free refrigerator by having more. It would be irresponsible to conceive more children than she could take care of by herself, should the relationship dissolve. And many women today (à la Lena Dunham and her fans) expect the relationship to dissolve.

As a mother myself I believe that women are acutely aware of the physical, financial, and emotional sacrifices motherhood will entail. Giving birth, nursing, and educating a child (or two or three or four) is a very big deal. The good news is that women really do want to be mothers and experience love through this kind of responsibility. But we do not want to do so alone or impoverished.

So we have but a few choices: If there are no men to trust, we can settle for a weak and troubled relationship (not an attractive option); we can remain childless (another painful prospect); or we can circumnavigate a relationship altogether and call upon a fertility clinic to buy sperm.

The trouble with buying sperm, and single motherhood in general, is that women have to be financially stable to support their child(ren) alone. So perhaps that means we have to wait until our 30s or 40s after a certain amount of career success. Waiting might mean missing our natural fertility window—which would entail additional fertility treatments such as vendor eggs or surrogate wombs. Suddenly parenthood gets pretty expensive. Economically, it really makes the most sense for women to pursue motherhood during our 20s and 30s when our bodies are naturally designed for it. But those are vulnerable years for most women.

For example, in her early years as a young mother—without her daughter’s father to support her—J.K. Rowling survived on state benefits while raising her young child. Rowling today could afford time off work for pregnancy and infant care, but wouldn’t be able to conceive naturally. Even the most talented and creative women struggle to make single motherhood work. Note that Rowling never had a second child.

The trust deficit doesn’t solely pertain to fidelity. A robust virtues education includes but is not limited to: chastity, charity, diligence, forgiveness, kindness, humility, and temperance. The personal suffering of infertility and the related national suffering of population decline is affected by the full spectrum of sins.

Chastity: our bodies must be pure—pure from STIs and pure from poisonous substances. At least 25 percent of female cases of infertility or subfertility are STI-related. Charity: children require a generosity of the spirit. Diaper changing, soccer tournament escorting, loss of sleep—these are true sacrifices embodying the virtue of charity that a fertile society must value. Diligence: We must work. Scholars continuously comment on unemployment and the economy being a principle cause of marriage decline.

And so on. All of the virtues play into our fertility or marriageability. And if virtues and trustworthiness are too slow to develop, we may miss out on our natural fertility window. If a certain amount of virtues education is not observed after the wedding day there will be more divorces—which I’ve come to understand increases the use of egg donors and surrogates as divorced women in their 40s and 50s seek to remarry and bond their new relationship with a child, or remedy loneliness as single mothers by choice.

The purpose of this essay is thus to offer some hope and a possible solution to the problem we see in the use of commercial reproduction practices. It’s not enough to slap hands and bemoan the use of IVF and sold gametes or wombs. If you find yourself miserable from a poor harvest and a sick garden, you’d be wise to not just curse at it but rather improve the conditions of the soil and the seed. You should expose your specimens to the light.

For our fertility and flourishing too we must confront our rotten roots, the root of evil, our fallen selves. If you hate abortion, and trends of surrogacy and third party reproduction, then give glory and attention to the established virtues. Teach the people in your life about moral truths—for your sake and the sake of a coming generation.


Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • Nicely written – I have often myself thought of the same ideas, but didn’t know how to articulate it. I also do not understand how people can say we have an ‘over-population issue’ when our birthrate is so low. If you are not at least replacing yourself (and we aren’t all doing that) then we will not survive as a human family!

    • EarthNerd

      World population 25 years ago was 5.2billion. It’s now 7.2billion. Demographers (people who are trained to study population growth) estimate that if the current rate of world population continues (2.5) world population would be 27billion by the end of the century. There is a natural rate of extinction of animals of 1 to 5 per year. Currently that rate is dozens of species per day. “We” as a human family are in no danger of extinction. Currently, 38% of the world’s land is utilized to produce food — that’s the size of Africa, So America and Australia combined. I gave up red meat, gladly, since it takes 150 gallons of water to produce 1/3 pound of beef ( ). Clean water supply will become an issue in the future, count on it. In the meantime, let’s not worry about the “human family” surviving, especially with examples such as the TV show, 19 Kids & Counting. Those who don’t have kids (for whatever reason) are offset by those who choose to have more than the 2.1 replacement rate.

      • LFM

        No, not really. The more crowded parts of the earth cannot export their “surplus” populations to those nations of the First World where children are too few, though many of them may try. That means that there will soon be many gaps in services for the aging populations of First World nations, as well as a declining tax base. The political and social problems caused by declining populations will be enormous. You may think that this is unimportant in view of your catastrophic vision of the Earth’s future, but the rest of us will not necessarily share that vision.

        As for giving up eating “red meat”, does it not occur to you that many of those regions in which red meat (does pork count? how about lamb?) is raised are not suitable for growing grain? Or that it’s necessary for humans to eat considerably more grain than meat in order to get adequate nutrients? Or that transporting grain to those areas which cannot grow much of it might actually use more energy (and ultimately, water) than accepting mixed farming? Or that mixed farming itself helps to restore nutrients to the soil that are used up by continual cultivation, and more safely than the use of many modern fertilizers does?

  • All true– it is amazing that virtue survives against the cultural onslaught, a proof of God’s agency.

    I would like to bring out a major factor that is overlooked here. The moral roots are being fully severed from individuals, by the overarching competition for scarce dollars, by the boundless ambitions for fame and fortune. In the internet age young people have been giving up their lives for some undefined, better life in the future. It is a false promise of course: our children are being thrown into a giant maze, and the better life for them is most likely to never arrive.

  • Kate

    I thought this article has a lot of great points, especially about virtue and trust in relationships. And obviously it is absurd to think that you can suppress the body’s natural fertility through artificial contraception for 15 yrs of a woman’s life, and then expect it to just work fine when you decide late in your fertility years that you want children.There are two main points that the I think the author misses, one, that choosing not to have children is not the same thing as infertility. Secondly, I think there does need to be a clear statement that infertility is not a direct result in all cases of lack of personal virtue. Nor is getting married later in life necessarily an indication of selfishness or lack of virtue. I understand that there is a societal norm the author is discussing, but it sounds as though she is saying if you practice the virtues you will getting married in your twenties and have no trouble having children.

    • Greg

      Well said. The devaluing of the childless and the complete lack of understanding that infertility is very common in your 20’s is missed in this piece.

  • Johannes Cato

    What immediately occurred to me after reading this enlightening piece, as a man, is how utterly superfluous this makes the male half of the species. To put it bluntly, like a drone bee. On the one hand, it seems like many men like this kind of culture because, biologically (and I am not speaking here morally for a second), we simply are not forced to take as much responsibility for our actions. Children become, once again, a woman’s domain – which is obviously very demeaning to women, especially those impoverished who have to support these children alone.

    And, given the medical technology you explained above, correctly so, it very much makes a man appear utterly useless – like the males of many animal species. God forbid this from being where we end up.

    More egregious, I think, is the education of children. Please note that I am not saying that a single woman could not hold down and support a family. Many have; and, given how many men behave, that probably was better for the children and the woman than a male-female household. Yet women shouldn’t have to – especially given the economy. Schools end up filling the gaps, as they already have, and distributism begins to falter.

    In addition, from my personal perspective, I have a hard time believing that men simply want to be migrant loners holding down jobs. I think there is as much a desire for familial and paternal love among men as among women. In the end, I do think that marriage is simply the healthiest institution for long-term protection, rearing, and education of the human species as well as for both parties involved – contra some biologists today.

    Thanks again for the article.

  • CharlesOConnell

    There was a fly in this ointment: An unnecessary, disparaging remark about the President of Russia, bordering on an ad hominem attack. That remark marred an otherwise sterling composition.

    “Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God.” – Romans 13:1

    Much as we might dislike the actions and person of Vladimir Putin, we respect the office, not the man. He is the leader of one of the only countries in the world which is officially pro-natalist and pro-family. Can we really afford such self-indulgence?

    “Immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be mentioned among you, as is fitting among holy ones, no obscenity or silly or suggestive talk, which is out of place, but instead, thanksgiving.” Ephesians 5:3-4

  • MCN Hobbs

    …slight quibble… Rowling had a daughter (Jessica) with a first (apparently abusive) husband, in 1993, and she had to go on benefits because of needing to leave that situation. She remarried in 2001 and now has 2 more children, with her second husband.

  • LFM

    J.K. Rowling does, in fact, have 3 children, the latter two with the man to whom she is now married. I don’t know anything about whether she used any form of assisted reproduction. See