According to a recent article at Catholic Health World, roughly 75% of parents who are hesitant to vaccinate their children against COVID-19 have expressed concerns that the vaccine may affect future fertility.
That finding gave me pause. At this point, the “birthrate crisis” is a household name: In order for any society to maintain itself organically, it is necessary for the overall birthrate to hover at or above 2.1 children per woman, but the average birthrate in the USA has been in decline for some time – we are currently hovering around 1.7. At first glance, it would appear as if Americans have lost interest in reproduction.
That is what makes the concerns about COVID vaccines and fertility so strange – and encouraging.
The concern about COVID vaccines and low fertility rates is misplaced, but beneath that misguided fear is something beautiful: A deep desire for grandchildren. As a missionary, armchair economist, and grandpa, I’ve lived my whole life plotting out ways to surround myself with more grandkids. Perhaps that comes with age. I assumed my desire for an ever growing stable of grandchildren came from my own eccentricity, but if the numbers cited above are true, then my eagerness for grandchildren is more widespread than our cratering birthrates would suggest.
As I have concocted ways to encourage my own family’s growth, what I have found is that our fertility, so to speak, is bound up in a complex variety of factors, such as spirituality, the vitality of our relationships, the economic policies that affect us, and our physical fitness.
For example, we clear the stage for future grandchildren by develop a culture of grace in our families and communities. Because we all make mistakes, and family life is messy, we prepare younger generations to live life with vigor when those of us with gray hair make a habit of saying, “It’s okay, I’ve done stupid things too. We can get through this. Let’s talk, think, and find a way forward. God’s grace and love always trumps our failures.”
Similarly: It may sound mercenary, but we lay the groundwork for future potency by modeling an active lifestyle. I am serious. One often ignored aspect of the fertility process is that the hormones necessary for reproduction are largely correlated to physical fitness. Getting into shape doesn’t automatically set you up for reproductive success, but it removes a host of biological roadblocks. With that in mind, raise your children to value physical activity, insofar as you are able to. As soon as they are capable of moving freely, induct them into an active lifestyle. Once upon a time, that looked like saying, “Let’s go bale hay, cut wood, or build,” or “Fall is here, let’s get in the woods.” Today, it looks more like “Who wants to run up this hill with me?” or “Have you tried to go backwards on the monkey bars?” or “Let’s go for a bike ride!” or “Can you spot me on this lift?” or “Our family trip will involve lots of hiking!”
Speaking of reproductive hormones: Some chemicals can be detrimental to the fertility process. It’s relatively well-known that some steroids tend to have sterilizing side effects, but the same can be true – albeit to a lesser degree – in the case of much more common chemical products. You can avoid exposing your children to fertility hindering chemicals by carefully researching any yard sprays, processed foods or beverages, and other products before bringing them into your home.
Perhaps ironically, given the current fear about COVID vaccines and fertility, is the fact that one of the best things you can do to protect your children from avoidable obstructions to their fertility is to keep them up to date on vaccinations. I remember my own mother’s fear of catching rubella when she was pregnant with my brothers. Mumps similarly affects fertility. So does HPV. Generally speaking, vaccinated kids become vaccinated adults who produce grandchildren with fewer of the health concerns of earlier generations – and fewer of the impediments to fertility.
More than any physical or medical decisions you can make, the lifestyle you model to your children will influence their attitude towards procreation. If you can do so, live multi-generationally. Get your kids as much time as possible with their grandparents – and aunts and uncles, and others. If your extended family lives a prohibitive distance away, find older couples who enjoy little ones. In doing so, you may develop in your kids a hunger to replicate their best childhood memories for their own children.
Along the same lines: Live life full of emotional authenticity. Go to weddings and funerals even when they are time consuming or inconvenient. Celebrate new births, and the accomplishments of youth. Laugh and cry together. Model to your children that a good life is full of many relationships, all of which are full of both joy and loss. Furnish them with hunger for community with messy ups and downs.
While you’re at it, model a lifestyle of healthy risk-taking as a family. This is more important than you think: If you obsess over financial security to the point that you only marry and have children when you can plan it all out, you will never have enough stability to marry and have kids. And if you model that attitude for your children, they won’t, either. Show your children what it looks like to be willing to take a new job, start a new business or nonprofit, or become part of a church plant. They will see firsthand that, yes, many risks will fail. But they will also see that some will succeed, and therein your family’s experience will testify to God’s faithfulness. The character built through your family’s healthy willingness to take risks can often motivate young couples to start having kids earlier, when their life is still unpredictable, but their health is at its peak.
Likewise: Be willing to stand alone against the fears of your local peers. Amidst other factors, birthrates typically increase when a community invests in their kids. I’ve always admired those with gray hair who go to school referendum meetings and, while their peers are howling about property taxes, approach the microphone and say, “I’ve raised my kids. I don’t have any need for a new school. Yet, I remember how hard it was to raise those kids, and I want young families to succeed in our community. Therefore, please join me in voting, ‘Yes’ to launching this new campus.” Similarly, I admire those who call or write to their representatives and senators and start with, “I see that you are considering a policy that would make it easier on young families with kids. My kids are grown, but they are still my kids. They’ve gone to college, and they work full time, but they can hardly pay their bills. I know I won’t get any direct benefit from the proposed policy, but it will give my grown kids an economic boost.”
Lastly, remember that you and your generation are not the heroes of the story – God is. My great grandma Eichhorn always liked to say that “The good old days weren’t so good.” Yes, those of us with gray hair have wisdom that should be heard – and in my experience, most young people hunger for that wisdom. By creating a culture of wisdom-sharing, we make straight the path for a culture of procreation. But that “culture of wisdom-sharing” will inevitably come on the back of stories that begin with, “Let me tell you about another dumb thing I did once upon a time.”
This resistance of parents to vaccinate their children due to concern about the COVID vaccine’s effect on future fertility is troubling insofar as it prolongs the pandemic, but encouraging insofar as it exposes our deep, lifelong desire for grandkids. We can turn that desire into a reality by living with vigor in community, displaying grace to all, and advocating for policies that make life better for those with children.
Dave Jenkins has been associated with the American Solidarity Party for several years. He is chaplain at the Catholic Health Initiative (CHI) Home and Hospice in Dickinson, North Dakota. Dave and his wife Jana have 5 kids, 1 son-in-law, 1 daughter-in-law, and 1 granddaughter. He previously hosted a popular radio show on KFM while residing in Uganda, and then wrote a popular column for Rwanda Focus while residing in Uganda.