It is impossible for me to think about Easter without thinking about estrus – the peak of female sexuality that takes place when a woman is most fertile. It should be our favourite time of the month and it is good that we honour that every year with this excellent weekend in celebration of fertility. Hard boiled eggs, chicks, bunnies are not things that I think about mid-cycle, but for those who are trying to reproduce (as opposed to desperately trying not to reproduce) these are apt symbols.
So Easter is a good time to talk about fertility, a subject that has fascinated economists ever since Malthus pointed out in the 1780’s that breeding like rabbits was not in the best interests of humanity. As most of us know, fertility is currently at an extremely low level with most of the developed world countries, and in some of the developing world countries, people are not having enough children to sustain the population. What you may not know though is that this fall in fertility is not the result of the introduction of the birth control pill in the 1960’s, but is rather the continuation of a trend that began 200 years ago – before contraceptives were even available.
Before we begin, here is a brief history of contraceptive technology. Before the cervical cap introduced around 1838 there was no real technology that could be used to prevent pregnancy. Sure, Casanova was rumoured to have encouraged the use of hollowed out lemons to prevent pregnancy but I can’t imagine that many woman thought that was a “fun idea”. In the 1850’s, thanks to the efforts of Charles Goodyear to vulcanize rubber, condoms became available that were fairly inexpensive and effective at preventing pregnancy. Diaphragms went on the market in 1882 followed by the IUD in 1909. The queen of all birth control was invented in the early 1950’s but didn’t become legally available in the US until the mid-1960’s and only then thanks to the tireless efforts of Margaret Sanger who fought to have oral contraceptives legalized.
Why this timeline is interesting is that fertility began to decline around 1800, long before contraceptives became available. In the US, for example, fertility fell every decade between 1800 and the beginning of the baby-boom at the end of the 1930’s; from seven children per woman in 1800 to two children per woman in 1940. European countries experienced similar declining fertilities with France, surprisingly, leading the pack. (Ironically, France is a modern poster child for how government policy can effectively be used to raise fertility rates)
So how did women accomplish this decline in fertility without contraceptives? First of all they delayed getting married until their mid to late twenties, cutting their reproductive years short, or didn’t marry at all. They practised coitus interruptus which, when faced with few alternatives, is surprisingly effective. Means for abortions were available and widely used as was infanticide. Sodomy and intercourse without ejaculation were also used to control fertility but these methods were apparently more popular within prostitution than within marriage.
What makes this an economic story is that all of these fertility control methods were available pre-1800 meaning that families in the past could have controlled their fertility more effectively – they didn’t need to wait for the availability of contraceptives – but they chose not to. It is when the Industrial Revolution arrived with increased urbanization, reduced agricultural employment and higher wages for educated workers that families began to reduce their size in response to these economic changes.
Contraceptives when seen in this light are not the catalyst for social change and family sizes are not smaller today because contraceptives are available. Contraceptives are available because people wanted smaller families and contraceptives made it possible to achieve that goal at a lower cost. The fact that the expected number of children born per woman in her child-bearing years in the US today is almost exactly the same level today as it was in the mid-1930’s demonstrates that achieving the current level of fertility was possible even without the birth control pill.
Murphy, Tommy (2010). “Old Habits Die Hard (Sometimes): Can département heterogeneity tell us something about the French fertility decline?” Università Bocconi Working Paper 364.
Greenwood, Jeremy and Ananth Seshadri (2002). “The U.S. Demographic Transition” American Economic Review, vol. 92(2) pages 153-159.