Catastrophe By The Numbers

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T hat the traditional indulgent view of large families should die hardis not surprising. The fact remains—and it is a fact of which there is no excuse for ignorance—that those who reproduce as if they were living in the past are preparing for the children of the future a world in which life will scarcely be worth living. Yet evidently little stigma attaches to their doing so. If suburban mothers hesitate to traipse across the shopping center with a train of offspring, nothing in their bearing betrays it. A father of ten grins with self-satisfaction out of the television tube on “Generation Gap,” while another parent beside him apologizes for being, by comparison, an underachiever. A prominent clergyman of the nation’s capital and his wife are evidently unembarrassed at having brought nine children into the world. Newspapers regularly report the plight —and complaints—of parents of twelve on relief, without any suggestion that society has rights in the matter, rights which have been grossly violated. Public figures who have become known partly because of their concern with the nation’s future, like columnist Jack Anderson and entertainer Dick Gregory, can have nine and seven children, respectively, and not feel that they owe the pubic an apology any more than John Wayne, who also has seven children. The governor of New Jersey, Richard J. Hughes, had three children by one wife, acquired three more with a second wife, and by her had an additional three. Presumably his career has not been impaired as a result—or Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s by his having six children, or ex-Congressman Hugh L. Carey’s by his having had fourteen.

The crucial test of public opinion on the issue came last year when a strong bid for the presidential nomination was made by a dynamic and appealing young politician whose ten children (with an eleventh on the way) marked him as entirely disqualified to address himself to the problem that Dwight Elsenhower had called one of the most critical of our time. During his campaign for a Senate seat Robert Kennedy had indeed lightheartedly confessed to this disqualification. The next year he had gone further. Speaking in a country in which one of the world’s most rapidly growing populations had for two decades been outstripping an already inadequate food production by to per cent—Peru —he gaily challenged his audience to outbreed him. (“Deadly dangerous,” the Washington Post termed the ploy, and with reason. If all the speaker’s eleven children and their descendants reproduced as he had, there would be over 214 million descendants of the Robert Kennedys in the ninth generation, and seven times as many as there are people in the entire world today in the eleventh.) Not only, however, did Senator Kennedy’s exemplification of the procreative irresponsibility that is pushing the world toward catastrophe create no bar to his political ambitions; no public figure, editorialist, or columnist that I know of deemed it important enough to mention as bearing on his eligibility for the supreme office.

In a statement hailed by family-planning groups, the heads of thirty governments in the United Nations have announced “that the opportunity to decide the number and spacing of children is a basic human right.” Not to limit but to decide the number. What this “right” is, of course, is the “right” of any part of the human race to make the planet uninhabitable for the whole. It is the “right” of any passenger in a lifeboat to help himself to as much of the provisions as he wants, regardless of the consequences to his fellows.