Dr. Love is struggling. Oh, the business side of things is going well. There’s the couples cruise, the magazine, the singles nights, the self-authored sex ideology he calls “bio-communication.” And the international media still can’t get enough of him: A few years back, seemingly every wire service in the world had a story on the young gynecologist’s forthcoming “super baby making show,” which would pit 10 couples against one another to see who could conceive first in a public assault on Singapore’s shockingly low fertility rate. As a government-backed baby booster for the island city-state, Wei Siang Yu just wants couples to work less and fornicate more. But try as he might, the good doctor can’t seem to coax Singapore’s child-free twentysomethings into bed.
Ask young women about Dr. Love, and you’ll get derisive giggles. Ask for his allegedly widely available pro-sex DVD at the local entertainment megastore, and the seller won’t have a clue. Ask one of the assistants at his home office whether young lovers actually rent out his bally-hooed procreation pad, which is dominated by a complicated looking “sex swing” and other accoutrements of venturesome lovemaking, and he’ll change the subject.
Dr. Love’s allies in the war on childlessness have fared no better. The Singaporean government’s official matchmaking agency, the SDU—the initials stand for Social Development Unit, but it’s known to snarky islanders as “Single, Desperate, and Ugly”—is situated just off the city-state’s main shopping thoroughfare, and it doesn’t seem nearly as popular as the nearby Emporio Armani.
These days the official slogan of Singapore’s baby-making campaign is “Three or More.” But Singaporeans of childbearing age grew up listening to an altogether different appeal: “Stop at Two.” As in much of East Asia, the tiny island’s population exploded after World War II—by more than 90 percent between 1957 and 1970 alone. In the Age of Aquarius, billboards and posters warned young couples “the more you have, the less they get” and “girl or boy, two is enough.” Parents who agreed to be sterilized after having two children got priority placement for their kids in elementary school.
Since then, demographic conditions have changed radically, but the state has maintained its intense interest in procreation. Singapore’s “total fertility rate,” a crude prediction of how many children a woman will bear in her lifetime if current patterns persist, is among the lowest in the world at 1.07, but the baby bust is not a future the island faces alone. From Hong Kong (0.98) to Italy (1.29) to Russia (1.39) to Canada (1.61), most of the world’s population will soon live in nations where the fertility rate is below the “replacement” level of 2.1. Governments far less authoritarian than Singapore’s are intruding into childbearing choices. After 200 years of exponential population growth, and just four decades after overpopulation doomsaying began filling the bestseller lists, the First World is suddenly gripped with underpopulation hysteria.
And everyone has an explanation for it.
“Europe is facing a demographic disaster,” said quondam Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in his February concession speech. “That is the inevitable product of weakened faith in the Creator, failed families, disrespect for the sanctity of human life, and eroded morality.”
The late Pope John Paul II agreed with America’s most famous Mormon, speaking of a “crisis of births.” On the liberal side you can find demographic thinkers such as Phillip Longman, author of The Empty Cradle, and the Australian demographer Peter McDonald, who argue that we’re headed for a dark future unless governments begin bestowing mothers with some serious baby shower gifts.
Books like P.D. James’ 1992 novel The Children of Men (made into a bleak film in 2007) join Mark Steyn’s America Alone in depicting a harsh and violent babyless landscape. Even in the United States, where population growth remains uniquely irrepressible among wealthy nations, ideologically driven concerns about demography have crept into the national conversation. They appear in the 2004 science fiction comedy Idiocracy, in which intelligent women and men, by failing to produce children, have doomed the world to collective mental incapacity by the 26th century (when the U.S. president is a porn star and the most popular TV show is Ow! My Balls!). They appear in the hysterical 2008 documentary Demographic Winter, in which we can watch a lone, naked boy shivering in an empty warehouse.
The developed world is experiencing a wave of pro-natalist sentiment that threatens to bully the childless, tax the single, and reorient states toward the production rather than the protection of citizens. In most developed nations with below-replacement fertility, governments are attempting to align incentives so that women will use their bodies for the purpose of childbirth. In the U.S., right-wing religious groups are calling for a rollback of contraceptive freedom and a return to patriarchal arrangements, all in the name of something called “demographic balance.”
It may sound like a movement of sorts, but it is far from cohesive. Although pro-natalists share an obsession with procreation, they are driven to this anxiety by a host of different fears. As a group, they worry that their countries are admitting too many immigrants, and too few; that we have liberated women too much, and not enough; that welfare states are too strong, and too weak. Pick any divisive social issue—a lack of religiosity, say, or an excess of the same—and you can find someone to draw the connection to demographic decline.
Modern fertility panic stems from a desire to reshape polyglot cultures, to regain control over women’s reproductive choices, and to locate a single, easy-to-understand culprit for disparate social problems. As they have for hundreds of years, societies are projecting their deepest anxieties onto empty wombs.
If you’re a woman of childbearing age in a developed country, there’s a good chance your government will pay you to reproduce at the currently desirable rate. Russian women who opt for a second child receive a lump sum of 250,000 rubles ($9,200)—not bad compared to Poland’s going rate of a measly 1,000 zloty ($460) per kid. France and Sweden combine pro-natalist incentives with more traditional social welfare schemes. Fecund couples in Sweden, for instance, receive a combined 13 months of parental leave, 11 of which can be taken by one parent, and during which the government provides 80 percent of a parent’s former income. Parents collect 900 euros ($1,410) per year; bosses then must allow their employees to work part time for prorated pay once they become parents.
In May 2004 the Australian government tried to boost its birthrate of 1.76 by announcing that the parents of children born after July 1, 2004, would receive 3,000 Aussie dollars ($2,800). As Australian economists later noticed, pregnant women due in June did not leave it up to nature whether the maternal stipend would come to them; more babies were born on July 1, 2004, than on any day in the previous 30 years.
Singapore’s SDU offers a free government dating adviser who interviews young singles about themselves and their ideal partners. The adviser chooses a match, and the eligible bachelors watch videos of one another before agreeing to the date. Before the big night, both are offered makeovers, and the SDU gives free lectures on personal grooming. “Personal hygiene doesn’t end with a shower and clean clothes,” reads a helpful dating guide. “For close encounters between the sexes, oral hygiene cannot be ignored.…Extreme halitosis may require medical attention.” The largesse extends well past date night. First and second children bring in baby bonuses of 3,000 Singapore dollars ($2,200) each, while third and fourth children garner 6,000 Singapore dollars ($4,400) each. The government also matches parental investment in special children’s savings accounts, which can be used for day care or other child-related expenses, dollar for dollar.