The Baby Bust

by Michael New

Amanda Marcotte has an article on Slate today hailing the increase in the number of women who are choosing to remain childless. Marcotte gives legal abortion much of the credit for this — but not in the sense that more women are using abortion as birth control. Instead, she states that the “defense of legal abortion led feminists to create a national discourse around the concept of ‘choice,’ which helped legitimize the decision to remain childless.”

Marcotte is partly correct here. Conservatives have often overstated their concerns about the effect of legal abortion on population levels. Because Roe resulted in substantial changes in both social and sexual mores, even though the abortion rate went up after the decision, the number of conceptions went up as well; therefore, the change in the nation’s birthrate was small.

However, these changes in sexual mores have had subtle but important effects on women’s childbearing decisions. Like contraception, the presence of legal abortion has separated the link between sexual activity and childbirth. Abortion has made it both logistically easier and more socially acceptable for women to engage in recreational sexual activity before marriage. As such, it is unsurprising that many women continue to view sex as largely recreational even within a marital relationship.

From Marcotte’s perspective, this is a good thing. However, it should trouble conservatives who think that both marriage and sexual activity possess intrinsic value beyond recreation. Indeed, the fact that more people view sexual activity and marriage in utilitarian terms isn’t just leading to more childless women. It’s leading to increases in out-of-wedlock births, single-parent families, and abortions.

Certainly, there are a number of reasons apart from changes in sexual mores that explain why so many women are choosing to have fewer children or even no children. More and more young women are going to graduate school, which tends to delay childbearing. The fact that young women are pursuing careers that offer greater compensation has increased the economic costs of taking time off to bear and raise children. There is no longer much societal pressure to marry at an early age.

That having been said, the baby bust is not something to be taken lightly. Many European countries are struggling to determine how a progressively smaller group of workers can afford to pay for the government services promised to a larger elderly population. These problems are not as severe in the United States, but they are real nonetheless. Children provide a number of important short- and long-term societal benefits. As such, finding strategies to encourage childbearing should remain an important issue for policymakers of all political persuasions.

Michael New is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama and a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute.