The Future of Infertility and Low Birth Rates

empty crib.

Governments and researchers call it the ‘global fertility crisis,’ but what does that even mean? Is there a crisis, or are women in control of their reproductive systems for the first time? One thing is clear: today’s global average fertility rate is just below 2.5 children per woman, which is less than half of the global fertility rate from 50 years ago when the average woman had at least five children, if not more.

Why do women have fewer children? Both sociologists and governments want to know. As of 2017, almost half of all countries (including the United States) are below the rate of replacement — meaning our populations could begin to shrink, which could alter the way our society can function rather dramatically.

Like everything to do with childbearing, there’s no clear answer to the decline in the birth rate, but there are some insights into some of the potential causes that may surprise you.

Infertility is on the Rise

The first item that comes up on the birth rate agenda is the increasing prevalence of infertility. Going through infertility can be very isolating, especially if you are watching your peers get pregnant successfully – or even by accident. At the same time, infertility is common: 12 to 13 out of 100 couples in the U.S. have trouble conceiving. About ten out of 100 women have difficulty getting pregnant and making it through their pregnancy. More women are also having trouble conceiving a second time after getting pregnant successfully once already.

Infertility also is expected to become an even more significant problem in the future, seeing as male infertility also anticipated to increase dramatically. Sperm counts among otherwise healthy men have declined to a point where scientists conducting studies say it “should ring alarm bells.”

However, infertility isn’t just a biological issue. It’s also political and economic. The most effective infertility treatments are expensive. The average cost of one cycle of in vitro fertilization is $12,400, and many couples find they need multiple rounds of what can be a grueling regimen. Plus, it tacks on tens of thousands of dollars to the $233,610 it costs to have just two children.

Reproductive Rights Allow More Women to Choose

Infertility is a growing issue among couples who are actively trying to conceive, but it’s not common enough to fully explain the halving of the birth rate. The centering of reproductive rights, however, shows real insight into who is having babies and when, and despite the doom and gloom of most reporting on the birth rate, it’s a good thing.

Data today shows that fertility rates among American women in their late 30s and early 40s are actually increasing while rates are falling among teenage girls and women in their 20s. In other words, women are planning their pregnancies and choosing to become mothers later when they feel it’s time.

Fewer unplanned teenage pregnancies, improved education about birth control and family planning, protections against pregnancy discrimination in the workplace, and greater freedom to choose to become mothers later are all significant victories for women. However, when you dig deeper, there are still some limits to true bodily autonomy. In fact, a significant amount of American women say they would like to have more children, but they can’t afford to do so.

In other words, women increasingly have the option to plan their pregnancies — but the structure of the economy still gets in the way of one’s ability to choose when and how often they can get pregnant.

The Environment is Playing a Role

There are already a lot of valid reasons why women choose not to have children even when they might otherwise prefer to become mothers. They worry about the risks of having children, particularly as maternal morbidity and mortality climbs both in the U.S. and around the world. Then, there’s the economic aspects that we covered above and the issue of affording the increasing costs of caring for a child with stagnant wages.

As strange as it sounds, the environment is also playing a role in both couples’ ability to conceive and their choice to do so. New research from UCLA actually found that high temperatures make it difficult for couples to conceive. On top of that, there are also people who worry about bringing children into an increasingly precarious world as the prospect of runaway climate change threatens to make their children’s lives harder.

Some people also see having children as having a negative impact on the environment. Although these people may make daily decisions to limit their footprint, like going plastic-free, they still see the addition of new lives to the planet as something that is irreconcilable.

The bottom line is that there’s no single cause of the so-called ‘global fertility crisis.’ It’s not a matter of women choosing not to get pregnant to avoid the toll it takes on their bodies. Nor is it solely the issue of increasing infertility. There are political, economic, social, and environmental factors at play, and if we want more women to choose to have children, then we need an equally comprehensive approach to supporting fertility.


Magnolia Potter is a muggle from the Pacific Northwest who writes from time to time and covers a variety of topics. When Magnolia’s not writing, you can find her curled up with a good book.

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