Elise Italiano Ureneck

An Associated Press report revealed June 29 that the Chinese government has devised a widespread plan amounting to the “demographic genocide” of its Uighur population through forced sterilization.

It appears to be designed to either drastically curb or totally eradicate the Muslim population in the Xinjiang region and is being enforced through fines and penalties including imprisonment in detention camps. According to the report, the goal is to “purge (the Uighurs) of their faith and identity” so to assimilate them into the Han Chinese culture. Forced abortions have been among the horrors endured.

Data indicates that birthrates in regions heavily populated by the Uighurs dropped by more than 60% from 2015 to 2018, and last year in Xinjiang the birthrate dropped another 24%.

Journalists, politicians and humanitarian organizations have unequivocally denounced the campaign. The U.S. Department of the Treasury issued sanctions on July 9 in connection with the abuse.

The fact that so many are clear-eyed about the systematic eradication of a population — and the means used to achieve it — is good. Whenever people recognize the “throwaway culture” and the “culture of death” spoken of by Pope Francis and St. John Paul II, we should applaud. To forcibly take away a people’s future is a grave moral evil.

“God bequeaths children,” said Gulnar Omirzakh, one woman who has been sterilized. “To prevent people from having children is wrong.”

But what happens when a population does not want to perpetuate itself? Is it as worrisome or morally problematic? What does it say about a people?

These are questions that we Americans might ask ourselves. The decline of our own population has not garnered much attention, nor has it generated any unanimous moral judgment. That may be because it is slower, or because it is partially of our own choosing. Yet its implications are no less serious.

Just five days before the story of the Uighurs broke, Lyman Stone and W. Bradford Wilcox reported in Newsweek that the U.S. fertility rate will drop to 1.7 children per woman this year, the lowest rate in our history. This number falls below the “replacement level” needed to stabilize the population (excluding immigration). According to the authors:

“For years, demographers have been shamelessly erasing this story of declining fertility, claiming it’s merely a ‘tempo’ effect — meaning that lost births now will be made up later. But the rate at which women transition into parenthood has barely budged for women over age 35, even as it has plummeted for women under 35. There’s no credible sign of a baby catch-up in the works.”

The reasons for this “baby bust” are many and varied, but a chief factor was the 2008 recession. Though many predicted a rise once the economy recovered, it never came. Now COVID-19 is predicted to contribute to a sharp decline in the number of American children being born. The Brookings Institution is estimating a drop of up to half a million fewer births next year alone.

This trend has serious sociological implications.

First, it disproportionately affects Hispanic, Native American, Black and working-class white women. When we consider the growing divide between the “haves” and “have-nots” in this country — including material wealth, educational opportunities and marriage outcomes — we will have to add family size to the disparities. Middle class and low-income families will have fewer children than they report they would like to because they cannot afford them, while wealthier Americans will have more flexibility on family size.

Second, a declining population will affect our country’s future economic growth, prosperity and stability. As we are seeing in the wake of COVID-19, absent these goods, many people will suffer what are known as “deaths of despair.”

Third, elderly Americans will increasingly find themselves suffering from loneliness and isolation. Many will die without family members or loved ones; their final years will be spent in nursing homes or in the care of home health aides. Stone and Wilcox report that if we stay on our current trend, many men and women will find themselves without kin by the age of 50.

In a 2017 speech, retired Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said the following:

“The future belongs to people with children, not with things. Things rust and break. But every child is a universe of possibility that reaches into eternity, connecting our memories and our hopes in a sign of God’s love across the generations. That’s what matters. The soul of a child is forever.”

The eradication of Uighur children from China’s population is a horrific way of cutting off a people’s memory, identity and hope. We are right to recognize it as ghastly and apply pressure to reverse course. Their desire for posterity should stir up something similar in us. Our future literally depends on it.

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Elise Italiano Ureneck is a communications consultant and is a columnist for Catholic News Service.