Is “trust the science” going to solve our demographic woes?

August was the month to go slack. And that is just what yours truly did. Research and writing gave way to reading and ruminating. In so doing, I stumbled across a fascinating new documentary of interest to diehard demography devotees.

August wasn’t so slack in Singapore. That’s when Channel NewsAsia (CNA) released their two-part documentary, The Baby Makers. Part 1 is The Race For Babies: Our Fertility Issues. Part 2 is The Future of Baby Making.

Warning: don’t confuse The Baby Makers documentary with the 2012 Hollywood movie by that name about a sperm bank heist. OK?

Early in the documentary a scientist in Singapore says, “We might start being concerned about underpopulation.” How unwoke can you get?

Singapore’s total fertility rate (TFR) is 1.1 (2.1 is replacement-level). The city-state has recently legalized egg-freezing for “non-medical reasons” for women aged 21 to 35 regardless of marital status. Singapore’s Family Planning and Population Board, originally established to combat the “population explosion,” is fully on board.

From there The Baby Makers veers deeper into reproductive technology, visiting several countries.  

Singapore researchers are trying to stimulate ovarian follicles to produce more eggs, enabling their “harvesting” for in vitro fertilization (IVF). Remember the road paved with good intentions?

Israel has a TFR of 2.9, the highest in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Its population is projected to double in the next 40 years. As one (female) Israeli fertility specialist remarked, in Israel “Your uterus is everyone’s uterus.” Continuation of the Jewish people is the government’s priority. Israel is becoming a more religious place, as the ultra-Orthodox Haredim’s TFR is 6.6, up from 6.0 in 1980. In 1980 the Haredim made up four percent of the population; last year, they were 12.9 percent; by 2065, one in three Israelis will be Haredi.

Israelis are at the forefront of reproductive tech. Yael Gold-Zamir, CEO of Embryonics, says “we rate embryos” and that soon artificial intelligence will have the ability to screen for genetic problems in embryos, leading to more advanced treatment in the womb. It could also lead to other outcomes…

Also in Israel, there is a lab extracting stem cells from skin and blood to create embryo-like structures without a fertilized egg known as “embryoids.” A clinician told CNA that “the future of baby-making is going to look different.”

Israel’s Palestinian Arab population (over 20 percent) was not mentioned in the documentary, nor were the mostly Arab populations of the West Bank and Gaza under Israeli control.

The Times of Israel just ran a story headlined, “Jews now a 47% minority in Israel and the territories, demographer says.” This is based on the research of Haifa University professor Arnon Soffer:

According to Soffer, there are 7.45 million Jews and others along with 7.53 million Arab Israelis and Palestinians living in what he termed the Land of Israel, meaning Israel plus the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Ethnic tension is endemic in that part of the world.

Scientists in Mumbai have developed UBAR software with an algorithm that supposedly predicts which embryos have “the best chance of successful implantation.” Scientists in Japan are on track to construct artificial wombs with synthetic amniotic fluid. Some of this technology is scary stuff. (See MercatorNet here and here.)

Denmark is another country showcased. It has a “stable population” with a 1.7 TFR supplemented by immigration. One in ten children in Denmark is born with the benefit of assistive reproduction technology. The world’s largest sperm bank, in Aarhus, exports to 100 countries.

But Denmark pays a steep price for their population-stability-through-immigration strategy. A growing parallel Muslim community has little in common with the native Danes. Denmark is now a dual society. Hopefully it doesn’t become a dueling one. The inimitable Marcus Roberts has discussed this in MercatorNet.

Denmark also boasts a robust fertility initiative, promoting slogans like “Have you counted your eggs today?” and “Do they [sperm] swim too slow?” The driving force behind this in-your-face campaign is Dr Søren Ziebe, head of the Fertility Department at Rigshospitalet in Copenhagen. MercatorNet readers will remember Denmark’s “Do It for Mum” campaign.

Yes, all those happy scientists in Singapore, Israel, Denmark, Japan, India and elsewhere are working hard, doing their dead-level best to facilitate family formation. But it’s all techno-talk. Could that be part of the problem? Human beings are not devices. We’re flesh and blood – spiritual, familial, emotional – and so much more.

Many of these brilliant lab-coated techies place their faith in science, believing that a Brave New World scenario will save us from extinction. It won’t. While technology is helpful to many, the solution to the birth dearth does not lie with technology. A massive shift in social priorities – how people think – is most important. If some of these highly intelligent folks could get their head out of the lab for a time, perhaps they could understand that.

However, a most interesting segment of The Babymakers was a story out of South Korea (which again broke its own record for the world’s lowest TFR: 0.8). MercatorNet has been following this here and here

South Korea has a sampo generation, 20-somethings who have openly given up on marriage and children. But – scholarly pushback against extinction is to be found at Sejong University where a “gender and cultural studies” course “gives students positive encouragement about forming good relationships, marrying and having children.” That’s a bit different from “gender studies” in the West.

The Sejong U. course includes a mandatory four-hour date with a low spending cap to allow the couple to actually interact with one another. Maybe it’s working. Sejong’s TFR is 1.6, twice the national rate. However, there is something a little off about having to teach young adults how to interact with the opposite sex. For millennia we’ve been able to work that out without the benefit of higher education.  

Infertility is a huge issue. Consumerism, careerism, hedonism, tight money, junk food, drugs and alcohol, plastic toxins and radiation-emitting electronic devices don’t help. Do these scientists in their labs understand the transcendent? Do they understand that these dangers to humanity’s continued existence are also the product of humanity? Even by the hand of scientists like themselves?   

The Baby Makers documentary is certainly worth watching. While most informative, it led me to think that with all our high-tech devices and gadgets galore, maybe we’re just too smart for our own good.


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