Could the Declining Birth Rate Affect Female Autonomy?

Image via the Financial Times

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When “The Handmaiden’s Tale” came out during the midst of the Trump presidency, alarm bells went off in the minds of many Americans. The bleak and totalitarian future Margaret Atwood painted was by no means unimaginable. It seemed aligned with the theories of writers such as Paul Ehrlich, who wrote “The Population Bomb,” a novel arguing that one day the world’s population will collapse because the world will be unable to support it. But while Ehrlich was worried about overpopulation, the main concern now is the opposite: the declining birth rate. 

From the years of 2007 to 2022, the birth rate fell about 23%. When the pandemic first began in 2020, many hoped that the forced quarantining could reverse the downward trend. In the early stages of the lockdown, the birth rate dropped, but rose in the later months of 2020 when unemployment declined and the government fast-tracked their federal assistance programs. However, it did little to reverse the downward trajectory of the birth rate percentage at a macro level. 

Replacement level fertility” is the average number of births developed countries require to produce a population size that will facilitate a stable society. It can vary based on the infant mortality rate and other factors. However, the replacement rate is typically 2.1 births per woman. America’s current birth rate is 1.67 births per woman, well below what’s required to repopulate. This decline in the amount of children being born can be a negative indicator, signaling the current child-rearing couples are producing a population smaller than their own generation’s numbers

At first glance, these societal changes could have positive influences. For one, women may feel more comfortable not molding to the traditional child-bearing role they’ve historically been expected to fulfill. There has been a correlation between women gaining more independence and lower birth rates. Since the traditional role of homemaker has been expanded to any desired profession, women are not constrained to simply having children; they can rather have careers in any field they want. Along with this, studies find that when women are given proper contraceptive methods and a wider knowledge of safer reproductive habits, fertility falls. The global contraceptive usage was measured to be around 65% in 2022, and is only expected to grow, especially due to the fact that it is becoming more common to use personal contraceptives. There is also a growing sentiment among women who do not necessarily want to have children due to fears of lack of support and change. Some are upset that, even in light of said fears, they still feel the need to explain why they don’t want kids. 

This declining rate raises a lot of eyebrows, mainly due to the economic implications it could have. With fewer children being born, this places the elderly portions of the population in a position that requires them to bear the brunt of America’s workforce. When they are gone, who will be able to support our economy? States that have lower birth rates and aging populations are at higher risk to economic and fiscal threats. While these issues have not truly begun to show in our economy, possible policies have been introduced as a response, such as cutting Social Security

What is possibly most terrifying about the declining birth rate is that there is truly only one person who can have the blame pinned on them: women. It seems obscene to suggest that a situation similar to “The Handmaiden’s Tale” could ever manifest itself in our world. I digress.

China enforced their one-child policy; what’s to stop them from doing the opposite? Taiwan is currently offering people money to have children to boost their birth rate. Crazier actions have been taken for less legitimate concerns, such as the mass sterilization that occurred during WWII.

If women are viewed as detrimental to the flourishing of a society, a government may take the necessary actions to ensure they reproduce enough to keep the balance of our economy. Some may laugh because it is not a pressing issue right now; but unless the birth rate ticks upward, there is truly no saying how this issue will be handled. 

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This article was edited by Natalia Gaitan.