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The Birth Control Pill’s Consequences

Posted by Curt on Friday, 21 May 2010

I know I’m a little late for the 50th anniversary of the birth control pill (which was about two weeks ago), but its effects are an ongoing issue so I feel that it’s timely enough to talk about.

Feminists far and wide have been celebrating the pill’s 50th anniversary, and with good reason.  Prior to the pill’s availability in 1960, the only widely available means of contraception was the use of a condom, which many men did not like because the rubber has the effect of slightly reducing sensitivity, and thus sexual pleasure for the male.  The result is that a lot of married couples forsook the use of a condom and the crude birth rate did not change significantly (the majority of births historically have been in wedlock).

The pill’s availability was a blessing for both women and men.  For men, it meant that it was possible to have sex without reducing sexual pleasure while not having to worry about a significant risk of impregnating the woman.  For women, it allowed her to control when and where she will become pregnant and thus not having to bear the burden of dealing with pregnancy after pregnancy until her fecundity goes down the gutter.  Clearly, this miracle pill would have a positive effect for many individuals’ lives and of course feminists want to celebrate that.  I think this is great as well.

At the same time however, we must be mindful of the less positive effects the pill has had on our society.  A couple being able to determine exactly how many children they want and when they want them had a profound effect on the makeup of many families.  Most parents would opt for fewer children given that children not only cost money to the family in an urbanized society, but also that most people tend to prefer having fewer but closer bonds with their children than having more but more distant bonds.  Therefore it is no surprise that not long after 1960, the peak of the baby boom, the crude birth rate would fall drastically to where it is today.

Granted, this isn’t all attributable to the pill.  Roe v. Wade legalizing abortions throughout the entire United States in 1973 had an impact on this, as well as women opting for higher education and marrying later in life in greater numbers, limiting the window of opportunity they have to reproduce.  But the pill, in any case, is one piece of puzzle.

These next graphs are simple ones I obtained off of Google Images.  I cannot vouch for their accuracy, but the trends they express are more or less consistent with my studies on US demography and that is what I am concerned with.  The graph below shows the US’s declining crude birth rate since 1950 (as well as Wisconsin’s):

These statistics shouldn’t surprise anyone; lower birth rates since 1964, the end of the baby boom, are common knowledge.  Consequently, these lower birth rates would have an impact on the number of children per household, as shown in the graph below:

This graph is somewhat alarmist because if it were to represent the y value (children per household) starting at 0, the drop wouldn’t look nearly so drastic.  But there was a drop in the number of children per household since the 60s nonetheless; these claims are not controversial.

So what does all this mean?  Simply put, the fewer children we have, the less population growth we will enjoy.  The CIA World Factbook ranks the United States’ 2009 total fertility rate (the number of children a given woman can expect to give birth to in the course of her life) at 2.05, just short of the replacement level (infant mortality raises it slightly above 2.0).  This means that if the United States were to close its borders completely, its population would decline as more people are dying than are born.  The United States is dependent on immigration to keep its population growing.  This stands in stark contrast to other Western counties, former Soviet or Warsaw Pact countries, and Japan whose populations, even with immigration included, are in the decline, with a lopsided population pyramid as shown for Germany below:

A population pyramid is simply a series of bar graphs representing a country’s population, divided by many age groups and by sex.  They are called population “pyramids” because usually the youngest generations are the largest and the oldest are the smallest, creating a pyramid-like image (this is now only true in the third world).  Using it, one can make a variety of analyzes about that population, such as, in this topic, how hard hit it will be if a certain generation hits the age of retirement when that country has a social security type of plan for retirees.  Compare Germany’s population pyramid to that of the United States’, which thanks to a slightly higher birth rate and more immigration is not nearly so bad:

The upshot of all of this is that declining populations are not sustainable, and this will be a major problem developed countries are going to face in the near future.  Beyond the obvious contracting economy that would result in this, in the United States, the social security scare of the baby boomers retiring (starting next year in 2011 and lasting until 2029) is rooted in this.  As more and more individuals hit retirement age, the more the younger generations still working are going to have to foot this bill.  The United States won’t have it nearly as bad as Germany and others will, but we will all feel the increased strain in our social security taxes nevertheless.  This burden has the potential to be very catastrophic, especially if our government has a tendency to mishandle the social security fund.

So what should we do about this?  Hell if I know.  At this point I don’t see any solution other than grit our teeth and bear it the best we can.  The government, seeing this problem coming well in advance, acted by giving tax benefits to marriages to encourage more of them, noting that there was a correlation between how early a woman marries and the number of children she would give birth to.  Of course, that did not really work – individuals do not appear to factor in the tax benefits they would receive so much when making important life decisions like when or if to marry (big surprise there, huh?).  Easing on immigration requirements, as well as giving a blind eye to illegal immigration, seems to have been another solution the federal government made.

Funny how all this is related to the birth control pill, isn’t it?  Who would have thought that a capsule the size of your fingertip filled with hormones and other chemicals could impact society, even if only as a single factor, in such a profound way?  I did not create this post to advocate something like banning the pill – I personally think its positives are worth the negatives.  However, the important thing to bear in mind is that for every effect, whether good or bad, branches off into a series of many other effects, some of which are good and some which are not so peachy.  The birth control pill is no exception.  Celebrate the good all you’d like, but neglect the bad at your own risk.


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