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Robert Engelman

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Surging Vasectomies Signal Record Births are History

Posted: 03/26/09 05:43 PM ET

Americans registered record births in 2007, but starting in a few months the market for storks is likely to head in the same direction as the market for stocks: down.

The Cleveland Clinic reports a 50-percent increase in vasectomies, and many of the soon-to-be-sterile men are telling their doctors the economy made them do it. Vasectomies are among the cheapest forms of birth control, and they're one way men can take responsibility for safely separating the fear of parenting from the joy of sex.

"They realize they don't have the financial security long-term with what's going on," Dr. J. Stephen Jones said of his patients to CNN. "Several of them have mentioned, 'We can't afford to have any more children in this economy.' My perception is that it's more the concept of raising children in an uncertain economic future."

The Cleveland Clinic's experience mirrors other reports, from Planned Parenthood chapters and others, of rising demand for contraception and abortions.

Childbearing trends are far more sensitive to what's happening in the world than most people realize, a point I document in my book More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want (Island Press, 2008). In 18th and early 19th century Sweden rural couples timed their childbearing based on the harvest. Bumper crops led to baby boomlets nine months later, poor crops to noticeable slides in babymaking. The Swedish farm couples may have been using withdrawal or just abstaining from sex, but the correlations between reproduction and food production were striking.

The same trend was evident in Tokugawa Japan in the 18th century, which in the midst of hard economic times had the first documented instance of "replacement fertility" -- two children per woman -- and a stable population for decades. Then the country's ruling shogunate pressured and propagandized reproductive-age couples into having larger families. Japanese population proceeded to explode until World War II.

Women I interviewed in Africa, Asia and Latin America before writing my book expressed the same conviction about managing childbearing that guided these Japanese and Swedish couples of 200 years ago. They wanted decent birth control so they could decide for themselves when the time was right to have a child. It's a logical stratagem for reproductive-age women and men -- and, as it happens, an adaptive one collectively for a people-stressed world.

Parents and would-be-parents have noticed, just as other observant folks have, that we're running low on energy, fertile soil, fresh water, and stable climate. With 6.8 billion of us on the planet, a recovering economy amidst all these scarcities and environmental vulnerabilities will likely wallop us all right back to the high food and fuel costs and the unaffordable housing that kicked off the financial meltdown in the first place.

So as long as it represents the realization of couples' reproductive intentions, a dip in the world's population growth rate couldn't be better timed. The only problem is that for tens of millions of couples around the world, misinformation or poor access to contraception continues to lead to unintended pregnancies -- at least two out of every five and possibly more worldwide, and nearly half in the United States. That's the main reason, over time, that population keeps growing at all. If the global economy stays moribund for long, maybe we'll learn the value of making birth control easy to find and use for everyone who wants it.