The Rise of the Eunuch image

The Rise of the Eunuch

The human race could be in trouble – not just the troubles of pandemics, economics and politics, but something far more existential: the ability to make babies.

In her book Countdown reproductive epidemiologist Shanna Swan expands on an eye-popping 2017 study that found sperm counts in western men declined 50-60 percent between 1973 and 2011. Sperm counts are declining at between 1 and 2 percent each year and there is clearly a point at which this will mean widespread infertility.

The reasons for this worrying trend seem to be linked to endocrine-disrupting chemicals found in everyday products, which are now everywhere, and thus very difficult to avoid in the modern world. EDCs cause disruptions in hormone signalling in the womb and have a lasting impact on male reproductive capabilities into adulthood.

It is not just the men that are in trouble though, as research shows women are also experiencing decreased fertility. Added to this, we are seeing an increase in the number of miscarriages and developmental abnormalities, especially in boys, such as small penis development, intersexuality and non-descended testes.

This decline in fertility is so dramatic it is seriously suggested that by 2045 almost everyone will need to use assisted reproduction methods in order to conceive.

That is a problem, on multiple levels.

At the level of national demography we are entering an era in which populations are rapidly ageing and will begin to decline. In order for a population to remain stable every woman needs to have on average 2.1 children but across much of the world fertility rates are significantly lower than this. A particularly stark example is South Korea where the fertility rate stands at only 0.92.

An ageing and shrinking population creates all kinds of problems – not least of which is that it means a smaller number of young, economically productive, people have to support a growing number of older, unproductive, people. A kind of death spiral sets in – as we are beginning to see in South Korea and Japan – where the young make up an ever smaller proportion of the population and seem ever more reluctant to marry and produce children.

How Christians should respond to these demographic and economic issues is worth thinking about; but declining fertility rates raise a number of more pastoral problems. Perhaps Swan’s Doomsday Day predictions will not materialise and we will somehow recover the potency of our grandparents – let’s hope so. However, if fertility does continue to plunge here are some suggestions of problems we are likely to face.

The pain of childlessness
If you have longed for a child and been unable to have one, or if you have walked alongside someone experiencing this, you will know how incredibly painful it can be. In a quarter century of pastoral ministry helping people navigate this has been one of the most difficult things I have had to handle.

With fertility rates plunging as fast as they are childlessness is an exposure to pain we will all be facing more regularly. This will place strain on pastors and on churches as a whole – our churches will increasingly become places where there will be a collective grieving over the inability of many couples to conceive. That will require a great deal of pastoral skill and a new capacity for the kind of godly lament that leads us from despair to hope.

The ethical problems of assisted reproductive techniques
Assisted reproductive techniques are fraught with ethical difficulties, at least for Christians. What of the ‘spare’ embryos often created by IVF? Or the significant issues of donated gametes, that involve a third party in a couple’s relationship (adultery at a half-step remove)? Or the host of ethical problems surrounding surrogacy?

Faced by the pain of infertility many Christian couples will hopefully, blindly, follow the advice of medics, without giving sufficient thought to the ethical bind they may be placing themselves in. Few pastors, even, are sufficiently ethically alert to effectively teach and guide on these issues. That will need to change. If we are to remain a faithful witness it will be imperative for Christians to take often costly stands against the norms of assisted reproductive techniques – and pastors will need to give far more attention to ethics.

Increased sexual confusion
Shanna Swan is far more positive about gender fluidity than I am, but suggests part of the reason for the increase in this could be down to EDCs: “In addition to influencing the physiology of reproductive development, environmental chemicals may be affecting gender identity and sexual preference.”

Whether homosexuality is due to nature or nurture has been a long and inconclusive (and mostly fruitless) argument but we may need to reckon with a world in which human biology is so affected by environmental chemicals that this rather than your DNA, or your relationship with your mother, could be a genuine reason for sexual indeterminacy. We know that exposure to environmental chemicals in other animal species can change both biology and behaviour: an increased incidence of intersex physiology and same-sex mating. It is not impossible that similar factors are at work in humans.

A world in which human biology is significantly disrupted by environmental chemicals would present us with novel pastoral challenges. The Bible has quite a lot to say about eunuchs. We may need to do some more work on that.

Countdown is a rather depressing read. I hope it’s more gloomy prognostications prove false – but those stats about declining sperm counts are real, not modelled. If nothing else it reinforces the obvious fact that Christians should be environmentalists. Our stewardship of the earth should have us doing all we can to reduce fertility-destroying EDCs (this not made any easier in a pandemic-fuelled plastic surge: all those facemasks and wipes). And it should make us think again about how having children is a gift: a gift we need to treasure and cannot take for granted.

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