12/07/2012 04:39 pm ET Updated Feb 06, 2013

The Myth of 'Choice' in Women's Fertility

In "Falling birthrates: the threat and the dilemma," Chrystia Freeland offers an important, measured response to some Americans' fears about the fact that American women are having fewer and fewer babies. "It is tempting," she notes perceptively, "particularly if you happen to be an affluent man, to frame any choice about childbearing in the lofty language of moral philosophy, to see it as a decision between valuing personal fun in the present over service in the interests of others -- one's children and one's society -- in the future." But it is not true, she argues, that birthrates are falling simply because women are too selfish to want children. They are not "post-familial," she says, but are rather forced into making difficult choices.

Where I depart from Freeland's diagnosis somewhat is in her willingness to concede the point that falling birthrates can, in fact, be best explained through the paradigm of choice -- and economic choice at that. "Women are voting with their wombs," she writes; "the truth is that for most women, children are the most delightful and luxurious of consumer goods." She is certainly correct that women make choices that indirectly affect birthrates. When they choose to pursue education or career before procreating, or when they choose to wait for the right partner rather than settling for whomever is around when they are in late adolescence, their fertility is naturally declining all the while. But this does not necessarily mean they are consciously choosing to have fewer children; they may simply think they are choosing to have their children later.

Needless to say, there are indeed many women who, for their own reasons, choose to have only one child or even no children at all. But of the twenty or more folks I can think of who came from, or now live in, one-child families, almost all of their stories (mine included) involve some combination of infertility, miscarriage, divorce, disease or worst of all, a child's death. Several also involve husbands who, for whatever reason, did not want more children. Then there are my many wonderful single friends who really want children, but who cannot seem to find partners with whom to make families. (I know, this is their fault for choosing not to be women anymore.)

Americans are a proactive people. We like to believe that our destinies are wholly within our control, and that everyone gets exactly what she deserves. The "choice" myth is therefore very powerful in all kinds of ways, including in our conversations about women's fertility. Indeed, it provides the self-identification for an entire movement -- though some women who terminate pregnancies undoubtedly do so precisely because they feel they have no real choice. If postmodernism has taught us nothing else, it is that we should hold notions of human autonomy very lightly. Self-determination is a highly tempting narrative that, while sometimes accurate and often convenient, just doesn't come close to telling the whole story.