The Sexual Politics of Population Decline
Last week, reports surfaced showing that U.S. birth rates hit a record low in 2020, and the call is on for women to to sacrifice their lives and their independence for the sake of the almighty dollar.
In what amounts to a capitalist pyramid scheme, pundits are predicting a dire economic future unless we produce more human widgets. And in a twist that could fit comfortably into the new season of The Handmaid’s Tale, 2021 is shaping up to be one of the most regressive for women’s reproductive health since abortion became a federally protected right in 1973.
Population-based appeals for more children are not moral but financial — fewer people will mean shortages of workers and taxpayers. But the idea that population growth is key to economic growth is in fact controversial, and not agreed upon by contemporary economists. The juggernaut of our current economy includes the Gen X population slump.
Yet there’s no denying that the current downturn in birth rates corresponds with the expansion of, and improvement in, birth control. Since the 1960s, as women’s health care options have increased, from oral contraceptives prescribed only to married women to chemical abortions available by mail, birth rates have fallen steadily. For those of us born prior to this era, the difference is personal.
It’s not been that long since women had little in the way of alternatives when it came to motherhood. The pill wasn’t readily available until the mid-1960s, and then only to married women. It was 1972 before Massachusetts — where I was born — became the last state in the union to allow oral contraception for all (read: unmarried) women.
“I wish I never had kids,” my mom often said throughout my 1970s rust belt childhood. And she wasn’t alone. In a 1975 survey, Ann Landers asked parents if they’d have children again. Seventy percent said no. As someone who ran away at 15, left for good at 17, and checked myself into rehab at 19, I’d argue that the costs of unwanted children could easily rival that of a declining population.