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Unplanned Pregnancies Are a Global Issue

JANUARY 9, 2011

Sometimes I find myself feeling sorry for Thomas Robert Malthus. You remember Malthus, he was the one who argued that humanity was destined to remain in poverty because every time their standard of living improved families simply responded by having more children. It wasn’t that Malthus didn’t like children. He just didn’t like the children of the poor, and at the time he was writing (late eighteenth century) the poor in England were many.

There isn’t much to pity Malthus for (after-all he earned economics the name the “dismal science”) except that no sooner had this theory, which aptly described thousands of years of human fertility, gone to press did it cease to be true. With the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, the relationship between fertility and standard of living Malthus described came to an end. Despite unprecedented improvements in standard of living in the first half of the nineteenth century, fertility began to decline in the United States and England. This period is called the demographic transition and economists have applied considerable effort to understanding the declining fertility over this hundred year period.

So here is the issue. Economists believe that fertility is a choice; families chose the optimal number of children they will have based on the costs and benefits of having children. It is a pretty tidy way of thinking and there are some good economic stories to be told if you believe that people choose their children the same way they choose their shoes. The problem is that really there are two types of fertility: the children you plan and the children you don’t. This is an important distinction for those who hope to use economic policy to control world population growth.

New research suggests that while the number of unplanned pregnancies is falling, the estimated number of births to women who did not wish to have that child is staggering.*

The number of babies born globally in 2008 as the result of an unplanned pregnancy is equal to the population of my country, Canada—33 million. The number of unplanned pregnancies that ended in abortion is equal to the combined population of the states of New York and Ohio—41 million. Add to that the number of unplanned pregnancies that ended in miscarriage and we have 86 million unplanned pregnancies that year: 41% of all pregnancies.

By my calculations, if the world population continues to grow at the 2008-2009 rate of 1.1%, then by 2050 there will be 10.75 billion people on the planet. If women had only given birth to children they planned the population growth rate would have been only 0.6% and at that rate the world population in 2050 would be about 8.75 billion—two billion less than with planned and unplanned births. One more thought: If there were no abortions, then the population would have increased by 1.74%. At that rate by 2050 the world population would be an incredible 13.75 billion—three billion more than without abortion and five billion more than without any unplanned pregnancies.

One thing that hasn’t changed since Malthus is that it is still the poor that are having the children; 185 out of the 208 million pregnancies in 2008 were in developing countries. Interestingly, the share of pregnancies that were unplanned is higher in the developed than in the less developed world: 47% compared to 40%. This reflects the fact that the number ofplanned pregnancies is much lower in the developed world and that in North American, Europe and Latin America couples are struggling to keep their families small.

The lesson here is this: Policy makers who think that economic tools, such as increased female education and labour force participation, can be used to decrease fertility have that only half right (well, about 60% right). The other 40% is factors that influence unplanned pregnancies.  But, if you are paying attention, this story isn’t just about the availability of contraceptives either. Contraceptives are freely available in North America, along with sex education, and the share of unplanned births here is almost identical to that in Africa (21% compared to 23%).

I don’t have the answer. I do think, though, that as countries industrialize the story of population decline will be less about choice and more about control.

This post originally appeared on my blog Dollars and Sex at Big Think.

* Singh, Susheela, Gilda Sedgh, and Rubina Hussain (2010). “Unintended Pregnancy: Worldwide Levels, Trends, and Outcomes.” Studies in Family Planning. Vol . 41(4).

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