Faith and fertility: Data show large families, religiosity connected

Published: Monday, Oct. 23 2006 12:00 a.m. MDT

Meg, left, Mati and Chloe come to the counter for cookies with their mother, Shelly, and brother, Tanner, at the Andresen home.

Laura Seitz, Deseret Morning News

Shelly Andresen had thought her family was complete with three children, but now that it's bigger, she wouldn't have it any other way.

"We just enjoy them," she said of her six children, who range in age from 4 to 18 years. "It's not perfect all the time; we just do our best."

Utah has long had a higher fertility rate than the rest of the United States, though it is declining along with the nation's. In 1960, Utah had a fertility rate of 4.3 compared to the nation's 3.1. In 2004, Utah had a fertility rate of 2.5 compared to the nation's 2.0, said Pamela Perlich, senior research economist at the University of Utah's Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

Perlich said Utah has followed the national trend of decreasing fertility rates and smaller households since the baby boom following World War II. Part of that trend has to do with people living longer, so there are more retirees in households of one or two people, she said.

"It's a downward slope, but Utah is above the nation," she said. "It does not just have to do with the fertility rate; it also has to do with people living longer."

However, unlike the nation, Utah still has a fertility rate above replacement levels, and it experienced an acceleration in the 1980s.

"Right now we're in a pattern of constant fertility rate in Utah for the next little while," Perlich said.

For those with large families, faith often plays a role, said David Dollahite, professor of family life at Brigham Young University. Dollahite, who has seven children, said data has shown that those who are devout in their faith are more likely to have large families.

"Strongly held faith tends to lead toward larger families," he said. "The LDS influence on welcoming as many children as possible into the home certainly has an influence in Utah."

"It's not just a Utah Mormon thing, it's a religious thing," he said, noting devout Catholics, Orthodox Jews and the Amish are among those who also tend to have larger families.

"The data show a positive relationship between religiosity and fertility," he said.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has long considered traditional families to be the foundation of society but has stopped short of saying those families should be large.

"The (LDS) Church views the bearing and rearing of children by a married couple to be a joyful blessing," LDS Church spokesman Dale Bills said in a statement. "However, the decision as to how many children to have and when to have them is a private matter left between the couple and the Lord."

Betsy and Jed VanDen- Berghe of Holladay have eight children, and Betsy said the couple's LDS faith "has played a very big role" in their family planning.

"We have been very prayerful about our family size and have felt inspired," she said. "I kind of envisioned myself with maybe four, possibly five kids. I never imagined eight."

VanDenBerghe said she doesn't believe a good LDS family needs to be large, however, saying, "We took it one child at a time. ... I don't think either of us set out to have eight children. ... We felt with each pregnancy, it was the right thing to do."

Those who choose to have large families often find themselves having to balance the diverse interests of several children and learn to be shrewd in their budgeting. They also sometimes find themselves facing a stigma.

Even in Utah where large families are fairly common, Andresen said she still gets looks and comments from time to time, similar to those she received while living in California. Some people here, and in other states, have approached her with comments such as, "Haven't you heard of birth control?"

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