Have children, save the world? The right’s push for the right kind of babies

“Having children is saving the world,” Hungarian President Katalin Novák recently declared before a crowd at Brigham Young University. The first woman president of Hungary traveled to Utah to warn Americans of the “demographic ice age” threatening the West. Aging populations and declining fertility rates, she said, are signs “we are about to give up on our future.”

Novák’s speech came on the heels of an address at the United Nations General Assembly and meetings with Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Elon Musk. During her U.S. tour, she has been touting Hungary’s family policies and urging others to follow suit–all while somewhat burying the lede that this once-promising post-Soviet democracy has become a bastion of nativism and anti-LGBTQ reactionism under the leadership of Prime Minister Viktor Orban

Hungary has chosen to aggressively subsidize child-rearing while also doing its utmost to deter migrants from outside of the European Union (EU) and to cultivate a hostile environment for those already in the country. The state has erected a menacing, electrified fence topped with razor wire along portions of its southern border. The Orbán government has repeatedly fought EU institutions on its anti-migrant policies. This year, the European Court of Justice found a Hungarian law requiring asylum seekers to file their applications in embassies outside the country–regardless of whether or not they had already arrived in Hungary–to be in violation of EU law.

Aside from migration, the Hungarian government has promoted a highly restrictive view of what constitutes a healthy family. LGBTQ Hungarians have been consistently cut out from this definition. At this year’s Budapest Demographic Summit, Jordan Peterson–who joined a participants list that included Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and self-styled “postliberal” Gladden Pappindeclared that “The proper encapsulating structure around the infant are united and combined parents, man and woman.” Hungarian law and political culture certainly reflects the same sentiments. Same-sex couples cannot adopt, and the Hungarian constitution was amended in 2020 to state that “based on marriage and the parent-child relation. The mother is a woman, the father a man.” Orbán himself took to the stage to insist, “We need a change in the political course. We have to make sure that family-friendly, conservative powers take over in as many European countries as possible.”

The Orbán government’s generous support for traditional, heterosexual families and its hostility to both LGBTQ rights and foreign immigration offers a clear example of a country that sees its path to growth in starkly ethno-nationalist terms. And this willingness to use the state to promote a sort of nativist idyll is part of why so many self-styled “postliberals” and other authoritarian-curious American intellectuals have flocked to Budapest in recent years. 

In the U.S., even with the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision still standing, right-wing scholars and activists have continued to attack the validity of same-sex marriage. Arguments like the one put forth by Jason Carroll of BYU-Provo and Walter Schrumm of Kansas State place reproduction at the center. In a 2016 article in the Ave Maria Law Review, they wrote “Because of the critical role opposite-sex marriage plays in perpetuating and maintaining the vital conceptual link between marriage and procreation, it warrants the exclusive recognition, promotion, and protection of the state.”

After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year,  I argued that the Dobbs decision had opened up a new landscape wherein we saw right-wingers fusing anti-immigration politics with a call to seize on the momentum of abortion restriction and promote family policies. It struck me then as a poisonous cocktail. Today, with Vivek Ramwaswamy running on a platform in which he refers to the nuclear family as “the greatest form of governance known to mankind” while also advocating for ending birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented migrants, I am even more alarmed.

During a 2022 Dr. Phil discussion on procreation, on which I was a panelist, things quickly turned in the direction of hard-right policies around family planning. One of the most extreme co-panelists, Jesse Lee Peterson, exclaimed that “we definitely need white babies!” For my part, I stressed that there are really two big tools that countries have for fighting population decline and aging: incentivizing birth and increasing immigration. What I find worrying is when advocates opt only for the former and totally abandon the latter. Unfortunately, this combination is increasingly common, and Peterson’s politics can no longer be said to be strictly fringe. Just last week, Donald Trump expressed similarly ethno-nationalist anti-immigrant views in the most noxious terms possible, telling an interviewer that undocumented immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country.”

Immigration offers an obvious means of increasing the overall population simply by adding residents. Moreover, it can help combat aging trends. In many cases, migrant populations across the EU are  younger than native-born populations. Per Eurostat, as of 2021, the median age of immigrants in member states was 30 years, compared to the EU’s total population median of 44.4 years as of January 1, 2022. Fertility rates among foreign-born mothers are rising across the EU, accounting for 21% of live births across the EU in 2020.

That piece got me invited to be a panelist on an episode of Dr. Phil dedicated to the question of procreation. On the show

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And, as I noted at the outset, here in the U.S., the fall of Roe and the rise of more aggressively pro-natalist rhetoric has put a decidedly nativist style of politics at the center of our own debates about population growth and aging. The staunchly anti-immigration Tucker Carlson has leaned heavily into the far-right Great Replacement Theory precisely because he sees America’s demographic changes combined with low native-born fertility rates as a plot to “replace the current electorate.” 2022 Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters flirted with backing bans on contraceptives as he and other hardliners looked to seize on the Dobbs decision. Masters, of course, argued for immigration restrictions and accused Democrats of seeking to “import” voters via refugees and illegal immigrants.

Yet immigrants remain an engine of American growth. In 2017, the fertility rate of foreign-born women in the U.S. stood at 2.18, a whopping figure for a world in which multiple European countries are seeing overall rates below 1.5. Overall population growth in the U.S., already sluggish before the pandemic, ground to record lows in 2021 and 2022-–analysis from Brookings stresses how immigration largely filled the gap in the little growth that was seen.

So there is real cause for concern when it comes to fueling the next generation of growth in the United States. Offering state support for childbearing and families can, of course, be liberal and even progressive policy. It is a national embarrassment how many Americans face potentially knee-buckling hospital bills just for giving birth. But family is also a fraught concept that the right has regularly sought to define down to its narrowest attributes. In a post-Dobbs landscape of receding reproductive rights, that restrictive definition begins to appear more like a straight jacket. Paired with hostility to foreign immigration—the very thing that could supercharge American growth for the 21st century, and which only stands to rise amidst the changes of a warming world—such a politics only offers illiberalism and decline. It becomes clear that when the hard right argues that having children will save the world, they mean only the narrow, exclusionary world that they inhabit


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