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Be Fruitful and Multiply: Mitzvah or Sin?

For a long time now, people have been insisting that I should have babies, and lots of them, and soon. It started around 9th grade when my best friend, a sweet, ingenuous, halachically-oriented, culturally traditional (does that paint a clear enough picture, for you?) gal who we'll call "Yael" disagreed when I told her that I "wasn't sure I wanted to have children."

"Oh, Helly," she scoffed, writing me off with a laugh and a condescending smile. "Of course you'll have babies. You'll have cute Helly-babies."

Sure, we were all of fourteen years old, still in our freshman year of high school–still virgins–but the conversation stuck with me. Here was someone–my best friend, no less–"disagreeing" with my most serious, emotionally-charged thoughts. She wasn't even willing (or maybe more to the point, able) to engage in a discussion about it. It was a wake-up call as intense and enduringly problematic as my first period, two years earlier. We were not going to have the conversation about whether or not I was going to have "Helly-babies," because there was no conversation to be had.

As I got older, the emphatic insistence that I should and would procreate came from other directions. I'm not so vain as to think that it's my babies in particular for whom people have this rapacious appetite. People are just baby crazy. Instinct is a bitch. This knowledge doesn't change the fact that certain relatives and friends of my mother are ravenous. And now that I've been in a serious, Jdate-procured relationship for the past year and a half, and I'm pushing 30, the pressure is on.

The problem, of course, is that even though I'm sixteen years removed from my 9th grade self, I still have the same reservations about procreating. Even worse: I know more, now, than I did then. I know that our world faces a number of serious issues related to population, for example:

It took all of human history until 1830 for world population to reach one billion. The second billion was achieved in 100 years, the third billion in 30 years, the fourth billion in 15 years, and the fifth billion in only 12 years. In 2005, world population exceeded 6.5 billion people, growing by nearly 80 million per year with virtually all of the growth taking place in the poorest countries in the world, where population already strains economies, environments and social services.

Rapid population growth causes or exacerbates poverty, hunger, environmental degradation, economic stagnation, resource depletion, disease and illiteracy – a surefire formula for global insecurity.

I know about the understaffed orphanages and "dying rooms" of China, the problem of female infanticide there and in India, the innumerable unwanted girls that are born in both countries each year. Knowing about the poverty, hunger, environmental degradation, economic stagnation, resource depletion, disease and illiteracy that exist in our world due to overpopulation, and knowing how many unwanted, abandoned babies need and deserve homes around the world, how on Earth can I rationalize honoring the Torah's first stated commandment to humankind?

"Be fruitful and multiply," we're instructed in Genesis 1.28. My translation actually reads "be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it." Well, I think it's safe to say that we've completed that task. So, now what? Aren't there enough people (over 6.6 billion, thank you very much) on the planet already? Isn't it wrong to bring a child into a world plunging headfirst into impoverishment and destruction? What boggles my mind most of all is how still, to this day, my concerns are laughed off, unheard, unanswered. People are still rooting for the "Helly-babies." Why? Is it ignorance? Denial?

In their 2004 book, One with Nineveh: Politics, Consumption, and the Human Future Paul and Anne Ehrlich write:

Americans, probably the chief contributors to the population-consumption problem, broadly defined, seem mostly oblivious to the potentially massive threat posed by increasing numbers of people. Many Americans apparently have been lulled by contrary claims into believing that the population explosion is over, or that further growth doesn't matter. You would never know by reading the newspapers or watching television today that the numbers of people will greatly affect our own and our children's futures.

The affluent not only have a duty to learn the basics of how the world works; they also bear a responsibility to help their destitute cousins share in the rewards of modern life. The rich are primarily the ones who have the resources and opportunities to get the job done. To us, that implies a necessary, substantial change in the behavior of the citizens of industrialized nations, not just in how much we consume and how much assistance we give the needy but also how many children we have.

What's a 30 year old, Jewish gal to do? For me, the jury is still out, but here's what the Ehrlichs seem to be prescribing: Educating ourselves and each other, Supporting family planning campaigns in the poorest, least developed nations, Supporting the education of women in those countries (educating women and giving them job opportunities has been associated with sharply declining birthrates, and female literacy particularly has been negatively correlated with family size), Consuming less, Giving more, and Limiting the number of children we have. It sounds like an honorable plan steeped in Tikkun Olam, but it won't be easy to live up to.

No kid-ding.

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