Childlessness Up, Down and Steady: Parsing the New Pew Research Center Report

Elizabeth Gregory

Last month Pew Research Center confirmed there are indeed more older moms around. This month they report fewer women are having kids. Both reports resonate with the recent 50-year anniversary of the birth control pill.

Several corrections were made to this article at 10:06 am Monday, June 28th to fix hyperlinks that were incorrect.

Here’s another later-fertility story from the Pew Research CenterLast month they confirmed our suspicion that there are indeed more older moms around.  This month they report that fewer women are having kids.  Both reports resonate significantly with the recent 50-year anniversary of the birth control pill, confirming predictable outcomes.

But the data are not entirely clear cut.  For instance, the new report begins with an oddity.  The headline reads “Childlessness Up Among All Women; Down Among Women with Advanced Degrees.”  The lead sentence tells us that “Nearly one-in-five American women ends her childbearing years without having borne a child, compared with one-in-ten in the 1970s.” It turns out, they are comparing fertility data about women ages 40 to 44 across 30 years, and the “nearly one-in-five” is specifically 18 percent.

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What’s odd is that the graph the authors provide (though not the discussion) indicates that the rate of childlessness in this age group in 2000 was 19 percent.  So, it would have been just as correct for the headline to read “Childlessness Down Among All Women.”   Or “Childlessness Fairly Steady For Past 15 Years,” since, as the graph also shows, the big rate jump occurred between 1984 and 1992, when the rate went from 11 percent to 16 percent.  So that change is not exactly news.[1]  Data are mobile, to paraphrase Rigoletto.[2]  Since headlines are often all that people take in, care in contextualizing them is important, especially about key issues like fertility and family.  

Another complication comes in the use of the word “childless.”  The study looks at biological childlessness, and does not include step- or adopted kids.  So its focus is on the biological productivity of children by women, not on their experience or construction of family.  Many parents in the not-included categories would take exception to being called childless.  That’s not what the study was about, it turns out, but the title is imprecise and the terrain is muddy.

And of course “childless” itself is a fraught term.  People who choose not to have kids or who couldn’t have kids but don’t want to dwell on the fact often prefer the word “childfree.” As ever, data-mining can be a minefield. 

As you will have remarked by now, there are many back stories in play here, especially on the explanatory front. 

Causes of trend?

• A. Increase in Voluntary Childlessness: due to birth control, increased career options and lessened social pressure, increasing numbers of women and men choose not to have kids.

• B. Increase in Delay Leading to Infertility: due to those same factors and others, many women put off trying for kids until later and some of them wait too late to have kids with their own genetic material.

(The Pew researchers cite one study of 2002 data that found among those who defined themselves as never going to have kids, these explanations split the group about half and half.)

• C. Some Are Only Temporarily Childless: they will yet have kids – either as standard issue or via egg donation or egg freezing.  This category isn’t dealt with in the study.

Fertility choices of women 40 to 44 today differ from their seventies counterparts:

Point B morphs into point C when another questionable premise of the study–that women ages 40 to 44 are at the end of their childbearing years–is put under the microscope.

There are at least two questionable points here:

1. That 44 is the end of fertility.  That was a fair working premise for the vast majority of women until recently. But whereas in 1980 only 60 previously childless American women had their first babies in the 45+ range, in 2008 2,036 women in that age range had their first baby, 34 times as many (out of a total 7,666 babies born to women in this age group, up from 1,200). Birthrate-wise that’s an increase from 0.0 to 0.2 births per thousand women ages 45 to 49 having a first birth and from 0.2 to 0.7 among women ages 45 to 49 overall.[1] It’s still a very small group, but it’s growing at a great rate.  So the report operates under the cloud of a kind of willed delusion.  Yes, it’s true that most women who don’t have kids the usual way won’t have any, but it’s also true that women who have no kids through their mid 40s have a lot more money to spend on fertility treatments than their fecund younger sisters and increasing numbers will be successful.  That money, and the cultural clout that goes with it, are part of the reason they waited.

2. That childless 40-year-olds in 2008 are as unlikely to have kids as their counterparts in 1978. They’re not. The use of 40 to 44 year olds as a group with the same standard fertility prospects is very problematic because it’s physically untrue (one study indicated that roughly 66 percent are fertile at age 40, 50 percent at age 41, and then a quick downhill to 13 percent at 45).[4]  In the past however, it may have seemed true, for social reasons. Back in the day there was a lot of pressure on women to marry and have kids young, so very few women who intended to have kids entered their 40s without any. But now many women do delay their first child til 40 and beyond, and many of those women will yet have kids – which means they will leave the realm of the “childless” after their 40th birthday in larger proportion than women did in the past. And indeed, in 2008 the group of mothers 40 and up was the only group to buck the downward recessionary birth trend and show an increased birth rate (up 4 percent).

There’s plenty more to say on all this, it’s complicated, and good data are hard to find— but this is the morphing world we live in and we have to keep track of lots of dynamics at once when talking about contemporary fertility, which is both highly politicized and highly personal.  The Pew report offers a nice opportunity to open up the discussion of the realities of modern fertility, but let’s look hard at the data before we accept the headline analysis.  There’s a lot still to be determined.  

I’ll be writing on the education angle later.

[1] Interestingly, the CPS data seem to differ from the National Survey of Family Growth data cited in the Pew report’s footnotes, which gives 15% as the total childless figure for 2002 (6 percent voluntary, 6 percent involuntary, 2 percent temporary, 1 percent unaccounted for) and 12 percent for 1982.  Abma, Joyce C., and Gladys M. Martinez. “Childlessness Among Older Women in the United States: Trends and Profiles.” Journal of Marriage and Family, 68:4. (2006).

[2] It would be interesting to see a graph of this trend for the whole 20th century – it’s been so up and down on the fertility front.  Expanded graphs often enrich the story, but the data is not always available. 

[3] Though women 50-54 are also included in the numerator since there are so few.

[4] They are linked here because that’s the way the statistics are gathered, in five-year groups.

Culture & Conversation Abortion

The Burden Is Undue: What I Have Learned and Unlearned About Abortion

Madeline Gomez

For all 29 years of my life, the right to abortion has been under attack. In early March, I slept at the Supreme Court overnight, waiting for oral arguments, and had time to reflect on the experiences that have made me an advocate.

Thirteen years before I was born, the Supreme Court declared abortion a fundamental right in Roe v. Wade. Despite this, for all 29 years of my life, the right to abortion has been under attack.

In the past six years alone, states have enacted 288 provisions restricting access to abortion care. Three years ago, the Texas state legislature enacted HB 2, an omnibus anti-abortion bill. And on Monday, the Supreme Court ruled two provisions of that law are unconstitutional.

I am a Texas native, a Latina, a lawyer, and a reproductive justice advocate, so this case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, naturally hits close to home.

In the years since HB 2 has passed, I have heard from friends who have waited weeks and been forced to drive hours just to get an appointment at a clinic. And, as my colleagues and I wrote in an amicus brief the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health filed with the Supreme Court, women of color in Texas, particularly the 2.5 million Latinas of reproductive age, have been disproportionately affected by the clinic closings resulting from the expensive, onerous, and medically unnecessary standards HB 2 imposed. For example, if the law had been allowed to go into full effect, residents of my birthplace, El Paso, Texas, where 81 percent of the population is Latinx, would have to drive over 500 miles to San Antonio in order to get an abortion in the state.

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In early March, I slept at the Court overnight, waiting for oral arguments. In the 24 hours I spent outside the Court, I had time to reflect on the experiences that have made me an advocate.


I am 12, with my mother and her dear friend at the dinner table. As the three of us sit together, I regale them with stories of a teacher I deeply admire. She’s been telling us about how she prays the rosary and speaks to women entering abortion clinics, urging them to “choose life.” I believe this is a good act, something I want to be part of, and I’m proud of my righteousness. My mother’s friend says to me simply, “There are a lot of reasons women have abortions.” Almost 20 years later I will learn that this friend had an abortion, which makes sense statistically speaking, since one in three women do.

I am 14 and sitting in high school religion class. The male instructor tells us that pre-marital sex and contraception are forbidden by our Catholic faith. He says the risk especially isn’t worth it for women: It is, according to him, physically impossible for women to orgasm. At the time, and still, I despair for this man’s wife, and for him. Shortly after this lesson the class watches a 45-minute “documentary” about “partial-birth abortion.” This concludes my sexual health education.

I am 18 and counting 180 seconds, waiting to see whether one or two lines appear on a white stick. In a few weeks I am moving to New York to begin college. In those 180 seconds I decide with little fanfare that, regardless of the number of lines, I will not be pregnant when I go. One line appears and I move, able to begin the education I’ve dreamed of and worked for.

I am 19 and talking with a friend. We get to a question that often comes up among women: What would you do if you got pregnant? She tells me calmly and candidly that she would have an abortion. She is the first person I’ve heard say this aloud. Her certitude resonates with me. I know that I would too, and that though I always felt I should be sorry, I would not be. I feel the weight of the shame I’ve been carrying and I stop apologizing for what I know.

I am 20 and teaching sexual education classes to high school students. More than one young woman tells me that she believes she can prevent pregnancy by spraying Coca-Cola into her vagina after intercourse. We talk about safe and effective methods of contraception. Years later, I still think about the damage and danger inflicted upon young women out of fear of our sexuality and power.

I am 21 and lying naked in bed next to a man I’ve been seeing. We’re discussing monogamy. I’m on the pill and he’d like to stop using condoms. He wants me to know, though, that if I become pregnant he won’t let me have an abortion. Because I am desperate to be loved and because I don’t yet understand that love doesn’t mean conceding your autonomy, it will take another year before I leave him.

I am 22 and my friend—the first I know oftells me she is having an abortion. After the procedure I do not know the right thing to do or say or how to comfort and support her. We will lose touch. Like 95 percent of women who have abortionsshe will not regret her choice. When we reconnect years later, we will talk about her happiness and success and about how far we’ve both come.

I am 24 and reading about Congress making a budget deal contingent on “defunding” Planned Parenthood. I understand that though I now refuse to date men who believe they have a say in my reproductive choices, I’m stuck with hundreds of representatives and senators who think they do and who will use my body and health as a bargaining chip.

I am 26 and in my home state of Texas, Wendy Davis is filibustering an anti-abortion bill with two pink tennis shoes on her feet. I watch her all night, my heart swollen with pride at hundreds of women screaming in the rotunda, refusing to be ignored. Despite their efforts, Texas HB 2 will pass. Within three years, over half the abortion clinics in Texas will close.

Today I am 29 and five justices of the Supreme Court have declared the burden imposed by two provisions of HB 2 undue. Limiting abortion and lying about the effects of these laws hurts women’s health, and now the highest court in this nation has declared these actions and these laws unacceptable and unconstitutional. I am in Washington, D.C., 1,362 miles from the home where I grew up, the day the decision is announcedbut it is not just about me and it’s not just about Texas. It is about the recognition and vindication of our worth and rights as human beings. All 162 million of us.

Commentary Sexual Health

Don’t Forget the Boys: Pregnancy and STI Prevention Efforts Must Include Young Men Too

Martha Kempner

Though boys and young men are often an afterthought in discussions about reproductive and sexual health, two recent studies make the case that they are in need of such knowledge and that it may predict when and how they will parent.

It’s easy to understand why so many programs and resources to prevent teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) focus on cisgender young women: They are the ones who tend to get pregnant.

But we cannot forget that young boys and men also feel the consequences of early parenthood or an STI.

I was recently reminded of the need to include boys in sexual education (and our tendency not to) by two recent studies, both published in the Journal of Adolescent Health. The first examined young men’s knowledge about emergency contraception. The second study found that early fatherhood as well as nonresident fatherhood (fathers who do not live with their children) can be predicted by asking about attitudes toward pregnancy, contraception, and risky sexual behavior. Taken together, the new research sends a powerful message about the cost of missed opportunities to educate boys.

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The first study was conducted at an adolescent medicine clinic in Aurora, Colorado. Young men ages 13 to 24 who visited the clinic between August and October 2014 were given a computerized survey about their sexual behavior, their attitudes toward pregnancy, and their knowledge of contraception. Most of the young men who took the survey (75 percent) had already been sexually active, and 84 percent felt it was important to prevent pregnancy. About two-thirds reported having spoken to a health-care provider about birth control other than condoms, and about three-quarters of sexually active respondents said they had spoken to their partner about birth control as well.

Yet, only 42 percent said that they knew anything about emergency contraception (EC), the only method of birth control that can be taken after intercourse. Though not meant to serve as long-term method of contraception, it can be very effective at preventing pregnancy if taken within five days of unprotected sex. Advance knowledge of EC can help ensure that young people understand the importance of using the method as soon as possible and know where to find it.

Still, the researchers were positive about the results. Study co-author Dr. Paritosh Kaul, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, told Kaiser Health News that he was “pleasantly surprised” by the proportion of boys and young men who had heard about EC: “That’s two-fifths of the boys, and … we don’t talk to boys about emergency contraception that often. The boys are listening, and health-care providers need to talk to the boys.”

Even though I tend to be a glass half-empty kind of person, I like Dr. Kaul’s optimistic take on the study results. If health-care providers are broadly neglecting to talk to young men about EC, yet about 40 percent of the young men in this first study knew about it anyway, imagine how many might know if we made a concerted effort.

The study itself was too small to be generalizable (only 93 young men participated), but it had some other interesting findings. Young men who knew about EC were more likely to have discussed contraception with both their health-care providers and their partners. While this may be an indication of where they learned about EC in the first place, it also suggests that conversations about one aspect of sexual health can spur additional ones. This can only serve to make young people (both young men and their partners) better informed and better prepared.

Which brings us to our next study, in which researchers found that better-informed young men were less likely to become teen or nonresident fathers.

For this study, the research team wanted to determine whether young men’s knowledge and attitudes about sexual health during adolescence could predict their future role as a father. To do so, they used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (known as Add Health), which followed a nationally representative sample of young people for more than 20 years from adolescence into adulthood.

The researchers looked at data from 10,253 young men who had completed surveys about risky sexual behavior, attitudes toward pregnancy, and birth control self-efficacy in the first waves of Add Health, which began in 1994. The surveys asked young men to respond to statements such as: “If you had sexual intercourse, your friends would respect you more;” “It wouldn’t be all that bad if you got someone pregnant at this time in your life;” and “Using birth control interferes with sexual enjoyment.”

Researchers then looked at 2008 and 2009 data to see if these young men had become fathers, at what age this had occurred, and whether they were living with their children. Finally, they analyzed the data to determine if young men’s attitudes and beliefs during adolescence could have predicted their fatherhood status later in life.

After controlling for demographic variables, they found that young men who were less concerned about having risky sex during adolescence were 30 percent more likely to become nonresident fathers. Similarly, young men who felt it wouldn’t be so bad if they got a young woman pregnant had a 20 percent greater chance of becoming a nonresident father. In contrast, those young men who better understood how birth control works and how effective it can be were 28 percent less likely to become a nonresident father.9:45]

Though not all nonresident fathers’ children are the result of unplanned pregnancies, the risky sexual behavior scale has the most obvious connection to fatherhood in general—if you’re not averse to sexual risk, you may be more likely to cause an unintended pregnancy.

The other two findings, however, suggest that this risk doesn’t start with behavior. It starts with the attitudes and knowledge that shape that behavior. For example, the results of the birth control self-efficacy scale suggest that young people who think they are capable of preventing pregnancy with contraception are ultimately less likely to be involved in an unintended pregnancy.

This seems like good news to me. It shows that young men are primed for interventions such as a formal sexuality education program or, as the previous study suggested, talks with a health-care provider.

Such programs and discussion are much needed; comprehensive sexual education, when it’s available at all, often focuses on pregnancy and STI prevention for young women, who are frequently seen as bearing the burden of risky teen sexual behavior. To be fair, teen pregnancy prevention programs have always suffered for inadequate funding, not to mention decades of political battles that sent much of this funding to ineffective abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Researchers and organizations have been forced to limit their scope, which means that very few evidence-based pregnancy prevention interventions have been developed specifically for young men.

Acknowledging this deficit, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Office of Adolescent Health have recently begun funding organizations to design or research interventions for young men ages 15 to 24. They supported three five-year projects, including a Texas program that will help young men in juvenile justice facilities reflect on how gender norms influence intimate relationships, gender-based violence, substance abuse, STIs, and teen pregnancy.

The availability of this funding and the programs it is supporting are a great start. I hope this funding will solidify interest in targeting young men for prevention and provide insight into how best to do so—because we really can’t afford to forget about the boys.