All the shenanigans in the US Senate the last few days have been directed at either getting a new justice appointed to the Supreme Court or preventing that appointment. One of the crucial things at stake is the future of the seminal abortion decision by the US Supreme Court, Roe v Wade. If Brett Kavanaugh is successfully appointed, and if the Supreme Court does get a chance to revisit its previous rulings on abortion, and if the Court does decide to overturn those previous rulings, then there is a strong likelihood that abortion will become much more restricted in many states of the USA than it is now. Clearly, there are a lot of “ifs” to flow under the bridge until we get anywhere near that point. But, say those ifs did line up and abortion was restricted in the US, what would that do to the country from a demographic standpoint?
The current fertility rate for American women is currently at 1.76 children per woman, well below the replacement rate of 2.1. This is the second straight year that US fertility rates have dropped to historic lows. The idea that this fertility rate would increase with a rebounding economy has not yet occurred. In the 1970s, 40 per cent of American women had four children or more, today that number is down to 14 per cent. There have been about 50 million abortions in the past 50 years. As Hal Boyd writes at the Weekly Standard, if Roe were done away with, the demographic impact might be thought to be fewer abortions, higher fertility rate, more children, lower average age. Simple, right?
Well, perhaps not. Abortion rates in the USA are now at their lowest level since legalisation (14.6 per 1000 women in 2014 as opposed to 16.3 in 1973) and yet the fertility rate continues to drop.
There are still major cultural reasons why fewer children are being born to American women. In short, so many just don’t want to have more children. A recent survey in the New York Times noted that young adults who don’t plan on having children do so because they want to develop their careers or they can’t afford children or because they want more leisure and simply don’t “desire” to have children.
The younger generation of Millennials (I can say “younger”, just) are burdened with high cost of living in many cities and huge student loans (from a New Zealand perspective the loans needed to complete law school in the USA seem criminal). But they also have a waning desire for family and growing desire for leisure time and relaxation: missing the early stresses of childrearing seems to be more than recompense for missing the joy of children or grandchildren.
There is also a wider issue: if fewer people in your social circle marry and have children, then it becomes harder for you to marry and have children – the social cost becomes higher. And children are hard: you need to self-sacrifice and give up things that you liked to do. I used to like to read in cafes on a Saturday morning, pretending I was living on the Left Bank. Having three children was a good way to cure me of that pastime.
Boyd argues that:
“Achieving a demographic U-turn will require viewing children as a worthy goal that is in each individual’s best interest (and also in the interest of society). Marriage and family must once again pervade American life.”
In short, a Supreme Court ruling is unlikely to result in people deciding to have more children.
“Only a culture that champions marriage and child-rearing as an essential good and a long-term investment—rather than a mere lifestyle choice (best taken in small doses)—will motivate individuals to once again place parenthood above pets, PlayStations, and paychecks.”
But how do we build such a culture?