The decline in America’s birth rate has pundits and politicians pondering what we should do about this news.
Former House Speaker Paul Ryan would say you should have kids. “I did my part,” Ryan said in 2017, “but we need to have higher birth rates in this country.” And once you’ve had kids, economist Bryan Caplan’s advice is to have even more kids.
If you don’t, say these men and others, not only will you come to regret your choice personally but you may even be responsible for the downfall of the economy. But as I argue in my book, Childfree by Choice, (selected by Ms. as a Summer 2019 Bookmark!) we have far more urgent problems to solve—and shaming women into becoming mothers or having more children is never the right path.
Proclamations about the horrors that could ensue if we fail to reverse the downward trend in fertility rates among some women are overblown and misdirected, and they undermine women’s reproductive autonomy and children’s wellbeing. If we really care about families and children, we must focus on protecting and providing for those who are already here.
The timing of this news about low birthrates among some women in the U.S. could not have come at a better time for opponents of reproductive freedom. What to do about a declining birth rate? Banning abortion, doing away with sex ed, and making birth control difficult to access is one approach. But stripping women of their reproductive autonomy is the very worst response to population concerns.
As states from Ohio to Alabama trip over each other in a race to destroy Roe v Wade, they seem to have overlooked that families, states and nations fare best when parenthood is a role that is chosen rather than decreed.
We need only look to nations that have gone down this path before to understand its dangers. As writer Amy Mackinnon observed: “Romania offers a cautionary tale of what happens when a state tries to control reproductive rights.” There, kids went hungry, orphanages overflowed and women died from back-alley abortions.
This was Romania’s outcome despite fact that they allowed for abortion exceptions in cases such as rape or incest. Imagine what’s to come in Alabama, where there is no such exception.
Even now, children in the U.S. are going hungry—and anti-abortion activists are only just warming up. Most such groups say that the interests of children are at the very core of what they do, but according to No Kid Hungry, a national campaign of the nonprofit organization Share Our Strength, nearly 18 percent of children in the U.S. experience limited or uncertain availability of safe, nutritious food at some point over the course of the year. It isn’t just hunger these kids face: Food insecure children are more likely to experience developmental delays and struggle with social and behavioral problems.
Many children also lack safe housing and access to health care. The National Center on Family Homelessness reports that the rate of homelessness among children is at an historic high. Today, one in 30 children in the U.S. is homeless, and while rates of uninsured children had fallen for nearly a decade, they increased in 2017.
Advocates interested in improving the lives of children and families, and perhaps even increasing the numbers of children women give birth to, should also consider the struggles American families face to balance their work and home lives. Research shows that parents in the U.S. are less happy than non-parents, and the U.S. is notorious among developed nations for offering little support for working parents. In 2016, a team of researchers discovered that the “negative effects of parenthood on happiness were entirely explained by the presence or absence of social policies allowing parents to better combine paid work with family obligations.”
A change in these social policies—rather than in policies surrounding reproductive rights—would be a more fruitful pursuit for those who care about helping families thrive. More people will not make our country stronger. Healthy children, happy parents, and citizens who choose freely how their households are composed are what make us great.