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Births Up -- No, Down!: Stats and the Politics of Fertility Anxiety

Posted: 08/27/08 07:28 PM ET

"More Women Than Ever Are Childless, Census Finds" read last week's NY Times headline. Both the claim and the rather alarmist phrasing ("more than ever!") may have confused readers who recalled the December 2007 headline for the story on the annual CDC birth data (gathered from birth certificates), which told us that "Teenage Birth Rate Rises for First Time Since '91." That article then went on to report that rates were up for women in all age categories between 15 and 45. Both reports were based on data from 2006.

So how can births be up and down in the same year? Easily, if you're comparing to different years past.

Where the CDC report compares to 2005 data, the Census report looks back thirty years and finds that in 1976 women 40 to 44 had a total average 3.1 kids, whereas now they have 1.9--one child fewer overall. Since some women do still have three or more, part of that average is a rise in the number of women who end their "childbearing years" without bearing children - up from 10% in 1976 to 20% in 2006, the lowest level documented to date.

Easily too, if your data come from different stages in women's fertility stories: where the CDC documents actual births in the given year, the Census takes a retrospective look at how many children women report having by the time they're 40 to 44, an age group assumed to have largely finished having kids.

It's no surprise that more women are childless now than were in 1976. Work and family expectations have changed substantially. For most, birth control means the chance to decide how many kids you want, and when. But for some it means the chance to say "None" and still have a romantic life.

The 2006 CDC data tell us that births to teens 15 to 19 were up 3% after a steady 14-year decline, and that, less problematically but interestingly, births to women 20-24 were up 4%, women 25-29 were up 1%, 30-39 up 2%, and 40 to 44 up 3%.

In addition the CDC report calculates that the total fertility rate [TFR] for women went up to 2.1 in 2006. The TFR projects the total number of children that a hypothetical woman currently of childbearing age might be expected to have at current rates. Given that the TFR in 1983-1986 (when the women who were 40-44 in 2006 were just starting to have babies) was between 1.799 and 1.837, the recent Census report of 1.9 could just as well have been headlined: "Women Having Slightly More Children Than Predicted."

But that would have required cross-referencing the CDC and Census data. Doing that might also have raised other questions. For instance, since the birth rate to women 40-44 was up 3% in 2006, and up consistently for more than 20 years prior, and with egg donation offering the possibility of expanded numbers of births to women 45 and over, there is basis for questioning whether the set of women 40 to 44 actually does offer us a good portrait of "completed fertility." Something to talk about.

Background Anxiety

Though both reports don't purport to do more than give some "facts," statistics are always read in context. There's a lot of complexity to the back-story on recent birth patterns, having to do with education, economics, changing social rules, HR policy, and the relative lack of affordable childcare, but the takeaway from the Census article for many readers was one more drop in the bucket of fertility anxiety.

Though the Times article began with a statement about women choosing not to have kids, the alarmist cast of the headline plays into an ongoing story we've been hearing constantly over the past five years about rising problems with infertility, in spite of the fact that that story is highly unspecific.

Lots of women have kids in their late 30s and early 40s, some in the usual way and some with the help of IVF, though sometimes it takes them longer to become pregnant than it would have earlier. Some try without success. After 43, increasing numbers of women employ egg donation, and many women adopt. Some decide to stay childfree.

Presumably the rise in the number of childless 40-to-44 year olds is due to a combination of some women and their partners choosing against kids altogether, others hoping for kids but out-waiting their fertility, and still others planning to start soon. Exactly what proportions are unknown. But infertility was the inference made by the reporter who called me asking if the story wasn't evidence that working women were waiting "too late" to start their families.

The hyped-up infertility consciousness (repeated by the media ad infinitum) and the big emphasis on babies and on women's "secret desire" to stay at home with kids long term, in spite of plenty of evidence to the contrary, is a sign of another, underlying anxiety among some of us over how many women really don't want to just stay home.

That anxiety helps shape the environment that's putting pressure on women of all ages to have babies NOW, at whatever age--along with the recent highly politicized decreases in access to birth control, especially for younger women. Will it block the exits from the ways of yore? For many, sadly, it may.

If women are forced to step out of school at whatever level in order to raise kids they would rather have had later, our nation and our economy will suffer, especially if we offer them no real way to step back in. At a time when a strong future depends on our rigorously educating all our people, it's not the time to throw away the real contributions that educated women make to our common wealth, both as moms educating young workers and citizens and as workers and citizens themselves.

At the same time, we have a group interest in supporting the family ambitions of our population. It's time to move toward a really family-friendly national policy, that combines real work/family balance options in business, mandating insurance coverage for existing fertility treatments and expanding fertility research, and honoring the decisions of those who choose to live childfree.

 
 
 

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