Birthing Babies & Family Size: One Side of the Debate

Sarah's daughter, Eden

Sarah’s daughter, Eden

31 years ago today my middle daughter, Sarah, slipped out of my womb and into the world.  Actually “slip” is a bit of a euphemism.  It took hard work to birth her, but in the end it appeared as though she suddenly slipped into my world, changing it forever. I remember the weekend–planting our Tennessee garden on Saturday–heading to church that morning and thinking maybe labor had started but not yet being sure.  Being sure later that afternoon.

Some days are like that, so Momentous they become forever storied, unlike so many other days that pass without much notice at all.

I birthed Sarah at home, and as is common she came in the night.  Her older sister slept through all the noise of bearing a child, but as soon as she heard the “mew” of a newborn cry she woke up, and our friend, Leslie, ushered her into the den where Mark, Sarah and me were all gathered on our hide-a-bed-turned-birthing-bed.

Last week a radio host asked if I’d participate in a friendly debate on Moody Radio’s broadcast, “Up for Debate” where controversial subjects get presented and then callers have a chance to dialogue with the two opposing presenters.  The topic: should Christians limit their family size? I was being asked to represent the yes answer, because I wrote about it in Walking Gently on the Earth. I declined the offer. Debates are not my forte. Even friendly ones. Partly I suspected the audience would be decidedly less friendly towards the yes position than my host, and I didn’t particularly want to walk into that.

But I do want to be willing to speak my perspective about controversial matters, and so here it is. Below is a short summary of my views on birthing babies informed by my faith, and by the understanding I have of the world through my discipline, sociology.

1) Children are a blessing from God.

2) Offspring of all sorts are a blessing from God.

3) Christians understand themselves to be stewards of creation, made in the image of God and so have the capacity to manipulate their environment more than any other creature.  Christians are to represent God in creation–to love Earth and it’s creatures as God loves it, and so to live in ways that foster the flourishing of life–all life–human lives around the world, and the living creation in our care.

4) Because humans can manipulate creation we’ve figured out how to feed lots of people, how to have a reliable source of meat, and how to eat foods year around and from around the world.  We have medicines and surgeries so that people can live longer than they used to, live when they would have died, and insured more children live to adulthood.  No other species has been able to master this.  The result: the human population has sky-rocketed in the last 200 years, corresponding with the Industrial Revolution.  The  rise has been particularly profound in the last 60 years.  The world population hit 1 billion in 1800, and didn’t hit 2 billion until 1927.  Since 1960 (when we hit 3 billion) we’ve added another billion about every dozen years.  We’re currently over 7 billion and by 2050 expected to be at 9 billion.  Some estimates suggests the earth can sustain maybe 13 billion people adequately.

5) Fact: most of the population growth is in the majority world, or Global South–not in Northern Europe and North America.

6) So the conversation is about how people live, not just how many children they have.  After researching diets and populations, The Earth Institute concluded that if we all ate like they do in India (a plant-based, local and seasonal diet) the earth could feed 10 billion people well.  If everyone ate like we do in the United States (high meat consumption, and neither particularly local nor seasonal) the earth could feed 5 billion well. People in the West/North use more resources than people in the Global South.  Even though our families are smaller on average, we consume more fuel, more meat, more lumber, more water, more of everything.  Some (and I would put myself here) say we are using more than our share of Earth’s resources.  This is a Way Bigger conversation than how many children we have, but family size is a factor.

7) So, one way to be a good steward of God’s earth–and to love my neighbors in the Global South as well as the rest of God’s creation (a point I have not discussed here, but is worthy of its own conversation), may be to limit how many children we birth. Adoption is another way to celebrate and create a large family–giving homes to children who otherwise would not have them.

One final thought: Big families tend to use less resources per family member than small ones.  They travel less, eat out less, recycle clothes and toys more, which is why how we live is as critical to being God’s representative stewards of creation as how many children we birth.

I welcome your responses.

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