Two headlines: "Contraceptive Shortages Loom in Less Developed Countries"; "Low Fertility Not Politically Sustainable." Both come from the August/September issue of Population Today, that indispensable publication from the Population Reference Bureau. The first article, a front-page piece by Population Today editor Allison Tarmann, deplores the lack of "contraceptive security" in the developing world. "Analogous to food security," Tarmann writes, "contraceptive security denotes an adequate supply of choice of contraceptives and condoms for every person who needs them, whether for family planning or for disease prevention."

About the choices that make "contraceptive insecurity" such a threat, Tarmann is silent. The people she describes are active agents only in seeking to limit births and prevent infection from sexually transmitted diseases.

Meanwhile, on page 3, demographer Peter McDonald notes that while "the population field" has been dominated by "concerns" over high birth rates, "for many … countries the problem is now very low rates of birth." The goal of population-control advocates has been the "replacement level of two births per woman," but in fact "the birth rate has continued to fall in nearly all populations that have reached the replacement level."

How widespread is the problem? McDonald cites a PRB study showing that "65 countries and territories now have fertility rates that are below the replacement level, including 40 of the 42 countries and territories in Europe." McDonald's article bristles with the demographer's jargon, but the reality he's describing is utterly bizarre: whole societies, affluent beyond the dreams of most people in most of human history, failing to have enough children to replace their generation!

You can almost hear the Planners tut-tutting around the conference table. Why don't people behave sensibly? We laid it all out in our last report. …

But no one seems to be paying attention. They have too many children, or too few. They have unprotected sex (or have it forced on them) and die from AIDS. Solution? More condoms, more reports (a graph showing "Condoms Supplied by Donors to Sub-Saharan African Countries"), more policy recommendations. Considered in the abstract some of these may be helpful, some not, but the bureaucratic discourse in which they are embedded proceeds with serene irrelevance to the wellsprings of human action.

This is not to deprecate the gathering and analysis of information such as the PRB and many other sources provide—not at all. But it does suggest that we should read these reports alongside Shakespeare and Dostoevsky and Paul's Letter to the Romans, where the deep irrationality of human behavior is unforgettably on display, where the power of sin is palpable, and where we can glimpse the promise of grace.

Article continues below

John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture and editor-at-large for Christianity Today.

Related Elsewhere

Visit Books & Culture online at or subscribe here.

Population Today is available at the Population Reference Bureau, but the August/September issue isn't online yet.

World magazine editor Joel Belz argued that God controls world population numbers in an October 1999 article.

Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:

The Strange Case of Napoleon Beazley | The latest poster boy for death row chic. (Aug. 27, 2001)

Apocalyptic City | The dream and the nightmare of megalopolis (Aug. 20, 2001)

Megalopolis Forty Years On | The ambiguous face of the city. (Aug. 13, 2001)

The Future Is Now | You want the news? Read science fiction. (Aug. 6, 2001)

Memorable Memoirs | Whether telling us about the Spirit in the South or the crumbling atheism of a Chinese immigrant, these books provide windos into others' lives. (July 30, 2001)

The Distorted Story of Memoir Inc. | There are many good autobiographies out there, but do those who write about them have to pretend they're the only books worth reading? (July 23, 2001)

Looking for the Soul of CBA | Nearly anything that can be said about Christian publishing is true to some extent, thanks to the industry's ever-enlarging territory. (July 16, 2001)

Give Me Your Muslims, Your Hindus, Your Eastern Orthodox, Yearning to Breathe Free | Immigration's long-ignored effect on American religion is garnering much attention from scholars (July 9, 2001)

Shrekked| Why are readers responding passionately about a simple film review? (July 2, 2001)

Debutante Fiction | The New Yorker should have paid less attention to the novelty of its writers and more attention to their writing. (June 18, 2001)

Saint Teddy? | Yes, Roosevelt paid the usual presidential respects to Christianity, but didn't show much explicit personal devotion to it. (June 11, 2001)

History Bully | Christian scholars speak not-so-softly over a big sticking point: Theodore Roosevelt's faith. (June 4, 2001)

'Taken Up in Glory' | The Ascension has been forgotten in many Protestant churches, jettisoning an essential part of the Christian story. (May 21, 2001)