Just like in other rich countries, fertility rates in the U.S. have been falling. A lot of this decline is probably because people are waiting until they feel ready to become parents. U.S. social policy has emphasized the importance of people's waiting to have children (until they are older, until they are financially stable) for decades. So why isn't the fact that people are delaying their fertility treated like the policy success that it appears to be? Instead, we've seen many news stories bemoaning falling fertility rates, warning of economic collapse and not-so-subtly blaming selfish women for not having enough children.
Surely a country that prides itself on people's living their lives as they see fit would see this as a success?
For decades, U.S. women have reported that far higher fractions of their births occurred before they wanted or after they had had as many children as they wanted, compared to women in other rich countries. As access to highly effective contraception in the U.S. has improved, this rate — and the difference between our rate and the rate in similar countries — has declined. And these declines have been linked to our falling fertility rates. Surely a country that prides itself on people's living their lives as they see fit would see this as a success?
But no. Instead, this reproductive autonomy is decried as women's failing to fulfill our duty to the economy. Which is both callous and ironic, since choosing when you have children is a fundamental human right, and delaying childbearing until you are ready it is exactly what social programs have been promoting for decades.
Put simply, there's been a wildly successful campaign to convince women in the U.S. that it's our responsibility to plan our fertility. The message that we should have babies only when our lives are arranged just so, not before, and that if we plan well enough we will be able to achieve all our aspirations — financial stability, relationship dreams, educational goals, a good life — has sunk in.
We hear that we should wait to have babies until we can afford to financially support our families. We hear that teen pregnancy is bad and that young women should complete their educations before having kids. Again and again, the same message: Wait to have kids.
Women have gotten the message. Declines in fertility have been concentrated among younger Americans. Teen fertility has declined by more than 75 percent in recent decades, all the way down to 15.3 births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 19 last year, from 61.8 births per 1,000 in 1991. Importantly, waiting to become a parent doesn't mean never having a baby. Until the pandemic, fertility at older ages was rising. In 2018, 85 percent of women had become mothers by age 40 to 45, compared to 80 percent in 2006.
And we have seen dramatic declines in people who say that they became pregnant before they wanted to be.
People are able to control their reproductive lives like this because of contraception. More teenagers are using contraception, and they are using more effective methods than ever before. And because of the Affordable Care Act and other policy changes, more women of all ages can get the most effective (and most expensive) methods of contraception with fewer barriers.
The resulting demographic changes — people delaying childbearing until their later 20s or 30s and avoiding births before they are ready — would be a cause for celebration if we honestly judged demographic change by the explicit goals of U.S. social policy.
Both quantitative evidence and people's own accounts of their lives tell us that having access to contraception and abortion allows people to achieve their goals and live the lives they want. For example, when Colorado, my home state, expanded its family planning program, fewer teens had babies and more young women graduated from high school. And women who get abortions when they seek them are less likely to stay with abusive partners and more likely to be financially stable in the future, and their existing children fare better.
The message that you shouldn’t have children unless your life is in order includes the clear implication that you’re on your own once you do have kids.
So it seems likely that fertility delay is working. But substantial fertility delay may also reveal how hard it is to live in this country, especially with children. The message that you shouldn't have children unless your life is in order includes the clear implication that you're on your own once you do have kids. So when people's lives are difficult, as economic inequality is rising and when many have very limited opportunities for advancement, it's not surprising that people are delaying having kids.
Meanwhile, a spate of news stories and research studies has outlined how awful it is to be a mother in America — pandemic or no pandemic. When getting ahead or even treading water is very hard, when any small catastrophe could block your way to the middle class, doesn't it make sense to try to establish your life and your career before you introduce the joyful chaos of children into your life?
It isn't surprising that the women entering their middle to late reproductive years right now — my generation — are the first to really internalize this message that we can delay fertility to achieve our dreams. Our mothers were among the first for whom modern contraception was broadly legal and accessible. They used contraception and benefited from it, but they did not spend their lives hearing that planning their fertility was their responsibility. We have.
Our country has successfully convinced us that it's our job to wait to have kids until we can buffer themselves and our children from the battering ram that is American indifference to the challenges of parenting. And we have listened. That we can choose when we want to have kids should be cause for celebration, not hand-wringing. The conditions under which we make these choices — that's worth getting upset about.