Soap Opera: futility and fertility

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

Let us not listen to Malthus and “court the return of the plague” just yet.


This article appeared in Ceylon Today on May 28 2014


Colman's Column3



On May 12 2014, the London Independent published an article claiming “research has shown” that chemicals in soap can cause male infertility. Professor Niels Skakkebaek, of Copenhagen University Hospital, said: “For the first time, we have shown a direct link between exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals from industrial products and adverse effects on human sperm function”.

When someone shared the article with me telling me it was “important”, I made the flippant and not very original retort that there were too many people on the planet anyway, so why should male infertility be a problem. I discovered that many people had taken the same line in the paper’s comment thread. Many also repeated the same joke that if men stopped using soap it would not help the fertility rate because they would be too smelly to attract sexual partners.


The sharer told me that Thomas Malthus had, in 1798, recommended that poor people be killed in order to ensure that there was enough food to feed the world. I knew that Malthus had recommended various strategies for limiting population growth, such as contraception, abstinence and later marriages. I had not been aware that he was in favour of extermination. Swift in his Modest Proposal had suggested that the Irish poor should sell their babies to the rich as gourmet meals. This was satire. Swift did not mean it.

My Facebook friend, that gentleman scholar, television personality, wit, raconteur, and all-round good egg, Francis Wheen, pointed me in the direction of a passage which indicated that Malthus was more pro-active than I had thought. As well as adopting a kind of “do not resuscitate” approach, he also suggested putting the poor in harm’s way. In Book IV, Chapter Vof An Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus wrote:

“Instead of recommending cleanliness to the poor, we should encourage contrary habits. In our towns, we should make the streets narrower, crowd more people into the houses, and court the return of the plague. In the country, we should build our villages near stagnant pools, and particularly encourage settlements in all marshy and unwholesome situations.”

Ironically, Malthus proposes to curb the fertility of the poor by depriving them of soap.

Population Bomb

In his best-selling book of 1968, The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich warned “the cancer of population growth must be cut out” or “we will breed ourselves into oblivion.” The world population has continuously grown since the end of the Great Famine and the Black Death in 1350, when it was near 370 million. In America in 1790, women bore an average of 7.7 children. Benjamin Franklin saw children “swarming across the American countryside like locusts.”From 1750 to 1950, global population increased from one billion to two and a half billion. According to the UN Population Fund, the total reached seven billion on October 31 2011.

The population bomb might be a damp squib. Today there are concerns that not enough babies are being born. When I worked for the Social Security Advisory Committee way back in the last century, we were even then scratching our heads about the time bomb of we baby-boomers living to grand old ages and being a burden on the state at the same time that numbers of workers were falling. In 1955, there were nine American workers to support each Social Security recipient. Today there are three. By 2030, the number is expected to be two.

So we are today in that peculiar situation where over-population is straining the globe’s resources, at the same time that fertility rates are falling below replacement level. Look at World Population Prospects: the 1996 Revision, a reference book published by the UN.

Declining TFRs

In his book, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, Jonathan Last argues that demographic trends will undermine America’s competitive position in the world. The aging of the population will bankrupt the retirement system or divert spending from other priorities, or lead to an increase in taxes. It will weaken America’s capacity to project military power in the world because families with few offspring will be reluctant to sacrifice them in battle. It will diminish the proportion of innovators in the economy and lower America’s rate of economic improvement.

British environmental journalist, Fred Pearce, argues that we are heading not for exponential population growth, but a slow, steady decline. In his book, The Coming Population Crash: and Our Planet’s Surprising Future, Pearce argues that children will become a rare sight and middle-aged culture will replace youth culture. For Pearce, environmentalists’ scaremongering about overpopulation transfers the blame to poorer people when the real problem is overconsumption in the US and Europe. Over breeding is almost entirely in countries with a very low per-capita footprint on the planet. The carbon emissions of one American are the same as that of 20 Indians, 30 Pakistanis, 40 Nigerians and 250 Ethiopians.

Population growth continues but it will stabilize. TFR in Somalia is 7.0. For Eastern Africa as a whole, TFR is 5.7. Western Africa (5.9) and Middle Africa (6.3) have high TFRs. In Muslim Tunisia, over three decades the rate has fallen from 7.2 to 2.9.Birth rates even in Africa and Asia are falling. Indian women are having fewer than three children on average. Around the world, fertility rates have halved.


For the world as a whole, the TFR (Total Fertility Rate) is 2.7. Much of North America, Northern and Western Europe, as well as Australia, are at below-replacement fertility (a TFR of less than 2.1). Eastern and Southern Europe are very low fertility regions with TFRs averaging at 1.3. Italy, a Catholic country, has a fertility rate of 1.2. The demographer Antonio Golini says such rates are “unsustainable.” By the year 2060, Europe will have lost 24 percent of its people.

Making Babies

During the early 1970s, several Asian countries including Sri Lanka, experienced steady declines in fertility. The TFRin Singapore declined dramatically from 6.4 in the 1950s to 2.6 in 1975. Even though the total fertility rate for Asia as a whole is 2.3, there are regional variations. In 2006, the TFR for the East and North-East Asian region was well below replacement level at 1.7 births per woman. The TFR for South and South-West Asia is three births per woman, while in South-East Asia, the total fertility rate is 2.3. The TFR of Macao, which was already low at 1.5 in 1995 declined further to 0.8 by 2005.


Old in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka will have to face the challenge of a growing elderly population. Sri Lanka’s fertility levels began to decline during the early 1960s. TFR fell from 5.32 children per woman in 1953 to 3.45 in 1981, dropping further to 2.26 during the 1988-93 period and to 1.96 in 1995-2000.


A person reaching the age of 60 years can expect to live another 20 years. There needs to be a welfare system for the elderly. There will more elderly widowed women and fewer children to care for them.


There are policies that influence fertility directly by offering direct cash incentives to families with children. Studies show that in OECD countries, the level of family cash benefits is positively correlated with total fertility rates, but the relation is weak. Studies have shown that there is a strong positive correlation between tax exemptions and fertility.


The Sri Lankan government has introduced several policy measures to improve the status of women and children. Maternity leave enables mothers to care for their babies during the first year of their lives. Plantation companies provide childcare facilities to women who have pre-school children. It is necessary that policies be in place to enable women to return to the workforce following childcare responsibilities without loss of accrued benefits.

In his book The Birth Dearth, published in 1987 Ben Wattenberg argued: “Eventually, demography blends into psychology. There is likely to be a lot more personal sadness ahead. There will be missing children and missing grandchildren.” The demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, writes that “we may live in “a world in which the only biological relatives for many people — perhaps most people — will be their ancestors.” Many people will be without brothers or sisters, uncles, aunts or cousins, children or grandchildren — lonelier people.