14 May 2009

Will the global recession lead to a ‘baby bust’?

Jennie Bristow examines the concerns and the evidence.

The economic recession had barely become a reality before commentators began to speculate about its likely impact on the birth rate. An article on msnbc.com by Melissa Schorr in January 2009, titled ‘Shaky economy means “bye-bye baby” for some’, suggested that, in America, ‘[w]ith rising job cuts and home foreclosures, many financially crunched families have decided the time isn’t right to have a child, or another child.’ (1) In February 2009, Gaby Hinsliff, political editor of the UK Observer, wrote: ‘For couples contemplating starting a family now whose job prospects are uncertain, the temptation may well be to hold off’. (2)

There is a concern that, at a time when couples can no longer be confident that they will receive their next wage cheque, they may decide to save themselves the expense and responsibility of having a child, or more children, perhaps spelling the end of the mini-baby boom we have seen in the UK since the year 2000.

Some have gone so far as to argue that the recession is leading to a rise in the demand for abortion. In April 2009, the UK Daily Telegraph reported that vasectomies and abortions were on the rise ‘as economic meltdown hits US families’. (3) According to Barbara Zdravecky, president of a Florida wing of Planned Parenthood, in the area covered by her group abortions have risen by 14 per cent in the first two months of this year compared to the same period in 2008, and Planned Parenthood regional offices report similar figures across the country. The Telegraph also reports that Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, said there had been a significant increase in calls to the organisation’s hotline because of the economy - including many from women struggling to afford the cost of a termination.

Similar concerns have recently been aired in relation to Singapore, which already has in place a national campaign to boost the birthrate through offering incentives to encourage couples to have more babies. According to AFP, government figures show 39,935 babies delivered in 2008, well below the 60,000 Singapore needs to maintain its native population. (4) Reporting that ‘Singapore has one of Asia’s most liberal abortion policies and the global financial crisis could be prompting more women to terminate pregnancies’, this article cited figures showing that there were 12,222 abortions in the city-state in 2008, compared to 11,933 in 2007 (no official figures are available for 2009).

In December 2008, Gabrielle Malone, programme director with the Marie Stopes Clinics in Britain, argued that the increase in Irish women travelling to Britain to have an abortion was ‘“because they can’t afford to keep their baby”’. Malone was quoted in a news article headlined ‘Recession linked to rise in women seeking abortions.’ (5) In an article in the Observer in February, which reported an ‘Internet boom in DIY abortion pills’, Dawn Purvis, leader of Northern Ireland’s pro-choice Progressive Unionist Party, said:

‘“I am hearing more about these ‘pills’ at the moment with the recession in full swing. Money is short and it’s mainly working-class women who can’t afford to travel. Buying the pills off the net is an easy solution.”’ (6)
It is true that children can be expensive, and that the recession has added major pressures to individuals’ and families’ circumstances. But how far is it possible to extrapolate from this the prediction that this will lead to a decline in the birth rate, and a rise in the abortion?

Birth rates and recessions

It is historically the case that birth rates tend to fall during times of economic crisis and uncertainty. As Melissa Schorr notes on msnbc.com:

‘There was a dramatic decline in fertility rates following the Great Depression in the 1930s, when, for the first time in US history, women went from having an average of three children the previous decade to two.

‘In each year after the country’s last four recessions, general fertility rates — calculated as the number of women of child-bearing age per thousand who gave birth — dipped slightly. For example, in the year following the 1973-1975 recession, fertility rates dropped from 68.8 in 1973 to 65 in 1976, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Similarly, following the 1980-1982 recession, the fertility rate fell from 68.4 in 1980 to 65.7 in 1983.’ (1)

An article in the New York Times back in 1991 began: ‘Five years of steady increases in the number of births in America ended abruptly this year, and many demographers and economists are blaming the recession.’ (7)

Similarly, Gaby Hinsliff notes that the birth rate in Britain ‘fell in the 1970s during tough economic times’ – though she adds that ‘that period also coincided with greater availability of contraception and more women taking up careers.’ (2) It is this coincidence of economic conditions with other social developments that is key.

In historical terms, the key explanation for major declines in the birth rate is economic development. This is distinct from the specific pressures caused by short economic cycles. The concept of the ‘demographic transition’ sums up this process, by which declines in mortality and fertility result in ‘an older stationary and stable population corresponding with replacement fertility (i.e., just over two children on average), zero population growth, and life expectancies higher that 70 years.’ (8)

The process of demographic transition began in the developed world from the eighteenth century onwards, way before the existence of modern methods of contraception or abortion, indicating that people’s desire and ability to control their fertility does not depend wholly on scientific birth control. The decline in the birth rate following the Great Depression of the 1930s coincided with major strides in the development and availability of contraception; however it worth noting the major differences between then and now: abortion was still illegal and contraception not freely available to all. Therefore, while it is plausible that times of economic hardship leads people to delay, or to decide against, having children, it is not evident that they are able to do that because of the availability of contraception and abortion. It is just as plausible to argue that birth rates go down because people have less sex, or have sex at a different time of the month – data that would be pretty hard to collect.

Abortion rates and recessions

This point is borne out by the differences in the abortion rates in the USA and the UK. As has been discussed at length elsewhere, the abortion rate in England and Wales has steadily increased since abortion was legalised in the 1967 Act. (See for example the graph on page 2 of the Office for National Statistics’ 2007 Abortion Statistics).

If one were to correlate the abortion rate with periods of economic recession - the mid-1970s, the early 1980s, the early 1990s – if anything it appears from the graph below that the abortion rate declined during those periods, while it has increased during the recent ‘mini-baby boom’. When we take account of the fact that correlation does not mean causation, it is implausible to argue that recessions cause women to have more abortions – or even that recessions correlate with women having more abortions.

A similar point is true for the USA, where the abortion rate has been steadily falling since the beginning of the 1990s (the time of the last economic recession). (See Slide 2 of the Guttmacher Institute’s Trends in Abortion in the United States, 1973–2005).

The discussion as to why the US birth rate is falling is both unclear and highly politicised: as Nancy Gibbs has argued in Time magazine:

‘The problem is that no one can prove what complex chemistry of cause and effect, culture and calculation, explains the falling rates — and for people who have devoted their lives to this issue, there’s no glory in achieving one’s ends if the means are anathema. Pro-choice groups credit comprehensive sex education and access to contraception, strategies that social conservatives often resist. Pro-lifers credit campaigns to tighten laws controlling access to abortion and to warn women about abortion’s risks — which the other side deplores.’ (9)

The major social differences between the USA and the UK mean that the factors affecting the abortion rate are likely to be very different. One important difference is that, unlike in the UK, most women in the USA have to pay for contraception and abortion. A recent survey commissioned by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) found that three percent of women of child-bearing age had stopped using birth control because they could not afford it: according to the ACOG, these findings suggested that the recession may be leading to more unintended pregnancies. (10) In general terms, it is worth considering the relationship between a society’s birth rate and the cost and availability of contraception and abortion.

However, one common point between the UK and the USA seems to be that there is no clear link between economic crises and whether, or not, people decide to have an abortion. There are many factors that influence whether women have abortions, to do with their relationships, family dynamics, beliefs, and sense of personal identity.

The ‘second demographic transition’

Does this mean that the legal availability of abortion and contraception has no impact on demographic trends? No. These developments have been key to what theorists have described as the ‘second demographic transition’: the period in economically developed society characterised by ‘sub-replacement fertility, a multitude of living arrangements other than marriage, the disconnection between marriage and procreation, and no stationary population.’ (8)

In this context, the impact of demographic changes such as later motherhood, female employment and immigration have a significant impact upon the birth rate, and there is no doubt that contraception and abortion play an important role in enabling individuals to make choices about whether and when to have children, and how many children they have. These issues have been discussed by Ellie Lee on Abortion Review. (11) The key point to note, however, is that even here the relationship between scientific developments, reproductive health policies, individuals’ choices and demographic trends is far from clear.

For example, in an interesting article titled ‘Can governments influence population growth?’, Kajsa Sundström, of the Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, and the women’s health and empowerment group Qweb, examines why in Sweden ‘almost a century of policies to encourage larger families has failed to boost birth rates.’ (12) She produces a diagram showing the dates of certain policy developments, and their relationship to the birth rate. From this diagram, it seems that none of the social policy developments had their intended effect of raising the birth rate.

When it comes to broad demographic trends, both economic determinism and political determinism are inadequate explanations. History can tell us that uncertainty about the immediate economic future may have a negative impact upon the birth rate following a major recession, although the wealth of other social and cultural factors that impact upon reproductive decision-making today – for example, risk consciousness and the pressures of modern parenting culture (13) - mean that even this should not be assumed.

We can be reasonably confident, however, that the current economic recession will not ‘cause’ either a rise or a fall in the abortion rate. Women’s decisions to terminate pregnancies through abortion are not motivated by rational economic factors, but by a host of broader social and personal circumstances. 


(1) ‘Shaky economy means “bye-bye baby” for some’. Msnbc.com, 14 January 2009
(2) Dreams shelved as recession forces Britons to put lives on hold. Observer, 8 February 2009
(3) ‘Vasectomies and abortions on the rise as economic meltdown hits US families’. Daily Telegraph, 4 April 2009. Also see ‘Abortion rate spikes: Some say 10% rise in Colorado may be due to bad economy’, Denver Daily News, 2 April 2009
(4) ‘Singapore sees abortions rise amid recession’. AFP, 2 May 2009
(5) Recession linked to rise in women seeking abortions. Herald, 11 December 2008
(6) Internet boom in DIY abortion pills. The Observer, Sunday 1 February 2009
(7) Drop in Births Reported, And Recession Is Blamed. New York Times, 3 November 1991
(8) ‘Second Demographic Transition.’ Ron J. Lesthaeghe. [Extract]
(9) Why Have Abortion Rates Fallen? By Nancy Gibbs. Time magazine, 21 January 2008.
(10) Unintended pregnancies a sign of the times. LA Times, 7 May 2009
(11) Why don’t abortion rates decline? By Ellie Lee. Abortion Review, 10 March 2008
(12) ‘Can governments influence population growth?’, Kajsa Sundström, OECD Observer, November 2001
(13) See for example Risk Society and The Second Demographic Transition, by David R. Hall. Canadian Studies in Population, Vol. 29(2), 2002, pp. 173-193; and I Would Want to Give My Child, Like, Everything in the World”: How Issues of Motherhood Influence Women Who Have Abortions. Jones, RK; Frohwirth, LF; Moore, AM. Journal of Family Issues, Vol. 29, No. 1, 79-99 (2008). 1 January 2008

Also read:

Is the Recession Causing More Abortions? Double X, 15 May 2009.