America’s Baby Bust Should Be by Design, Not Disaster
It shouldn’t take a pandemic to slow our population growth
When the COVID-19 pandemic started, some people predicted that with so many couples stuck at home we were headed for a quarantine baby boom. But by December, we were nine months into the pandemic and births were down 8% compared to the same month the previous year. This baby bust is an acceleration of a decades long trend. In the last ten years alone, the U.S. population grew at its slowest rate since the 1930’s. It’s estimated that in 2021 the nation will see 300,000 fewer births.
Although politicians often sound the alarm about lower birth rates, there are benefits to slowing population growth, like easing pressure on healthcare systems and the environment and making communities more resilient to weather the inevitable next crisis. But the trend should be driven by empowerment and choice, not disaster and fear, as it was for many in 2020.
Surveys released during lockdown reveal how the pandemic is changing people’s pregnancy plans. In one, more than a third of women said they planned to delay pregnancy or have fewer children because of the pandemic. That number was even higher for people who didn’t already have children. Another survey found that more than a quarter of people who once considered pregnancy weren’t sure they wanted kids at all anymore.
The pandemic also increased concerns about being able to access prenatal health care. And with one in three women reporting trouble getting birth control or reproductive healthcare, those worries are justified.
But COVID-19 isn’t the only crisis changing the way people think about their future families. A national survey conducted by the Center for Biological Diversity, where I work, found that one-third of Americans feel that climate change may compel people to have fewer children. That’s consistent with a 2018 New York Times poll that found that 33% of young adults plan to have fewer children because they’re worried about the climate.
A recent study by the University of Arizona found three common concerns in those who say they’re factoring climate change into their decision to have a family: how future children would contribute to climate change, increasing population pressure, and the uncertain future the children themselves would face.
A declining birth rate isn’t bad news if it happens for the right reasons. After all, people put an enormous amount of stress on the planet. As our population grows, so too do our demands for water, land, trees and fossil fuels. 2020 was one of the hottest years ever recorded, driving a record-setting hurricane season and historic wildfires.
Our growing population and consumption are also driving a wildlife extinction crisis — a tragedy that could deprive future generations of the wonder of a world rich in biodiversity and threaten crop pollination, decrease water purification, increase disease exposure and diminish sources of food, medicine, and cultural and spiritual connections.
We need to create a world where everyone is able to raise their families in a safe, healthy environment. We also need universal access to reproductive health care, where there is no unmet need for contraception and people are able to plan the families they want.
That world is possible. We can remove barriers to ensure everyone has affordable and equitable access to health care. We can make sure everyone has education and economic opportunities to begin to address wealth inequality. And we can take steps like shifting to 100% renewable energy, transforming the food system, and protecting nature to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
When the basic rights of bodily autonomy and healthy, just communities are met, people tend to delay having children and have fewer children overall, a scenario that’s good for people and the planet.
The decision to delay pregnancy or have fewer or no kids is a choice every person should be able to make, and it is one we need to ensure is never forced upon them by a crisis.
Stephanie Feldstein is the population and sustainability director at the Center for Biological Diversity.