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Childless by Choice?

Anecdotal evidence of a growing trend could do with more statistical analysis.

At times the press just has an interesting story to tell. In the November 28 edition of the Washington Post, Nancy Rome describes her own story of being childless and finding a community of other childless women in a piece headlined “Childless: Some by Chance and Some by Choice.”

On the one hand, the story is just that: the author had a stillborn baby, divorced a few years later, and has chosen not to seek other means to be a mother. She has friends who have chosen not to parent themselves, and she is now working on a documentary about women who don’t have children.

The author notes that, “According to 2004 U.S. Census Bureau data, the proportion of childless women aged between 15 and 44 was 44.6 percent, up from 35 percent in 1976.” She also notes that women with higher incomes are less likely to have children.

But how much is by chance and how much is by choice? How much of the increase in childless women is due to women waiting too long and having fertility issues, or a change in infant mortality rates? How are the numbers affected by reduced teen-pregnancy rates? How much of the increase can be attributed to women not finding partners with whom to have children?

Rome notes that the “National Center for Health Statistics confirms that 6.6 percent of women in 1995 declared themselves voluntarily childless, up from 2.4 percent in 1982.” But a survey on this front has obvious bias: many of the women in Rome’s story acknowledge the hardship they endure for not having children – and women may have been even less willing to declare themselves voluntarily childless in the early 80s than they are today.

When trying to comment on a pattern – in this case, a pattern of women not having children for whatever the reason – numbers make the case, not anecdotes. Anecdotes have appeal, and they tell a story, but the numbers really drive the point home (and confirm whether a trend is real). Are we seeing a pattern? Do the stories of the women told in the article reflect a cultural shift or demographic shift in the general population?

According to Dr. Rachel Ashby of Brigham and Women’s Hospital (a teaching affiliate of Harvard University), infertility affects from ten to 15 percent of couples. These are couples who have tried but failed to get pregnant over the course of one year.

The rate of couples who never have children due to infertility is of course much lower than that – sometimes couples need more time to successfully have a child (according to one 2004 study published in Obstetrics and Gynecology, 43- 63 percent of infertile couples will conceive if they persist for another year), fertility treatments are successful in many cases, and many infertile couples choose to adopt.

Even so, as the age of couples seeking to have children increases, and thus fertility decreases (for men as well as for women), the rise of fertility treatments may or may not make up the difference in those who want children being able to have them.

These statistics suggest that infertility applies to only a small proportion of the 44.6 percent of childless women aged between 15 and 44. But some of the increase in child-free women since 1976 is due to a decrease in teen birth rates. According to the Guttmacher Institute, in 1976 there were 101.1 pregnancies per 1,000 women ages 15-19.

By 2002 (the last year the data are available) this rate had decreased to 75.4 pregnancies per 1,000 teen women in the United States. Overall, the birth rate declined from 52.8 babies per 1,000 women in 1976 to 43 babies per 1,000 women in 2002. Could it be that in the 1970s more women had babies because they had become pregnant by accident?

Infant mortality rates have also decreased in the past 30 years. According to the U.S. Health and Human services, the infant death mortality rate in 2003 was 6.9 deaths per 1,000 live births. That’s down from about 20 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1970 (we were unable to obtain specific figures for 1976). Since the rate of infant mortality has been steadily decreasing (with the exception of a few anomalous years), one can presume that women are not more childless due to infant mortality rates, despite the author’s personal experience.

But what of women getting married later? Are they trying and failing to have families, or are they child-free by choice? It’s an important question – and the title makes a tantalizing suggestion to the reader that an answer is hidden in the article. Unfortunately the author didn’t bother to find numbers to round out her anecdotal evidence of a growing trend.


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