Actually, It's Perfectly Justifiable to Reject the Duggars' Nightmarish Version of Family Planning
The normally sensible Mary Elizabeth Williams, of Salon, posted today an emphatic apologetic for the most fertile family in America, the Duggars. It caught me off-guard, because I thought it was fairly common opinion that their relentless drive to reproduce isn't exactly a terrific plan. Like the Duggars, I’m from northwest Arkansas, where we were reading about this sprawling family long before the rest of the country pressed against the glass to gawk at their reproductive prowess. When my mother sent word yesterday that they’re now expecting their t … w … e … n … t … i … e … t … h child, I wrote her back in a bit of a flurry:
Imagine if each of those kids went and took the same attitude toward reproduction as their parents:
One generation: 20 kids.
Second generation: 20 parents x 20 kids each = 400 grandkids
Third generation: 400 parents x 20 kids each = 8,000 great-grandkids
Fourth generation: 8,000 parents x 20 kids each = 160,000 great-great-grandkids
Fifth generation: 160,000 parents x 20 kids each = 3.2 million great-great-great grandkids (greater than the population of Arkansas)
Now, this assumes that in each of these generations, they continue to find people outside their family to marry. (Obviously when you have 160,000 distant cousins running around, some of these might cancel one another out.) Still, at this rate this family line alone would, assuming a 20-year generation, create a living family that surpasses the current population of China, Canada and California combined by the year 2130.
Aw, letters home to Ma! As admittedly cludgy as these calculations are, they're my attempt to wrap my head around such profligate babymaking. Williams skips that consequence of 20-child families in her piece, “Stop Judging the Duggars,” which carried the infinitely charitable deck, “So what if they're expecting again? A family of 20 is just another side of reproductive choice.” Williams is justified in defending the family against some of the nastiest of the Internet slimers who make cracks about Mrs. Duggar’s anatomy and about the family generally. The Duggars are people, after all — a lot of people, at that — and while the parents are clearly not interested in availing themselves of the advances in modern contraception that have been made over the past 10,000 years, their kids still deserve to be able to Google themselves.
But as we pass 7 billion people on this increasingly hot, increasingly crowded blue marble of ours, this quibble about multiplying the species isn’t academic. It’s one of the great tasks facing humanity: Where in the hell is everyone going to live, and what are they going to eat? What pressures will those demands put on ecosystems, on farmland, on water supplies? What weaker nations will succumb to poverty and war as stronger nations take those essentials by force? Williams would probably not be so amenable to a family famous for driving a singularly spectacular monster truck that got one mile to the gallon. So why’s she feeling so charitable toward a family intent on putting 20 (or 400 or 8,000) more cars and trucks on the roads?
To put it as lightly as possible: We owe the continued existence of human civilization as we know it to the fact that the Duggars do not represent the mainstream of family planning. It's very healthy to acknowledge this fact. You just don't have to act the thorough jackass in doing so.
For a consideration more sober than the Duggars’ on how parents will determine the fate of the frickin’ world, please read Bill McKibben’s essay “The Case for Single-child Families,” about his decision, rooted in considerations of faith and geography alike, to get a vasectomy after his first child. We'll close here with an excerpt:
The beginning of Genesis contains the fateful command, repeated elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, to "be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth." That this was the first commandment gave it special priority. And it was biological, too, a command that echoed what our genes already shouted.
But there is something else unique about it—it is the first commandment we have fulfilled. There’s barely a habitable spot on the planet without a human being; in our lifetimes we’ve filled every inch of the planet with our presence. Everywhere the temperature climbs, the ultraviolet penetrates more deeply. … There’s not a creature anywhere on earth whose blood doesn’t show the presence of our chemicals, not an ocean that isn’t higher because of us. For better and for worse, we are everywhere. We can check this commandment off the list.
And we can check it off for happier reasons as well. There’s no denying that we’ve done great environmental damage, but it’s also true that we’ve spread wondrous and diverse cultures, full of love and song, across the wide earth. We should add a holiday to the calendar of every church to celebrate this achievement.
But when you check something off a list, you don’t just throw the list away. You look further down the list, see what comes next. And the list, of course, is long. The Gospels, the Torah, the Koran and a thousand other texts sacred and profane give us plenty of other goals toward which to divert some of the energy we’ve traditionally used in raising large families, goals on which we’ve barely begun. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the oppressed; love your neighbor as yourself; heal the earth. We live on a planet where 3 billion people don’t have clean water, where species die by the score each day, where kids grow up without fathers, where violence overwhelms us, where people judge each other by the color of their skin, where a hypersexualized culture poisons the adolescence of girls, where old people and young people need each other’s support. And the energy freed by having smaller families may be some of the energy needed to take on these next challenges. To really take them on, not just to announce that they’re important, or to send a check, or to read an article, but to make them central to our lives.