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Childless by Choice: Scotland Leads the Way

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Late last year some fascinating figures came out of Scotland: “31.2% of Scottish women born between 1960 and 1963 do not have children, and … if the current trend continues, 40% of women born between 1970 and 1973 will not have children.” It is estimated that only about 7 per cent of those suffer from medical problems that meant this wasn’t an active choice.

The referenced article is typical of the response – spluttering incomprehension, then an assumption that the women must have just stupidly “forgotten” to have children. People – or at least journalists, doctors and health officials – seem to have a lot of problems believing that women are adults who do make choices for themselves.

Dr Gillian Penney, who carried out the research, went back and double-checked the numbers. “I was very surprised to see these figures, I thought there must have been a mistake,” she says. “A third of women not having had a child seems so high. I would have thought around 10% would have been realistic. But more than 30%? I was very surprised.”

Even more puzzling for Penney was the women in the next age bracket she studied, those born from 1970 to 1973. “If that line keeps following the path it is on, it is quite startling,” she adds.

“One of the things that seems clear is that for the majority of these women it is not infertility stopping them having children: it is choice. Some have made that decision as a positive choice, but for others they will have thought to themselves ‘one day, one day’ and keep putting it off until it is too late.”

But that of course is an active choice. Not wanting to have a child “now” – women do know that may mean never, even if they won’t admit it to social researchers and friends because they will make a big fuss or express disapproval about it.

The comparable figure for the whole of the UK is about 20 per cent, and rising. I couldn’t find any figures – anyone know of any? – but I’m sure that would be considerably swayed by the high fertility rate of immigrant women. If you took the figures for women born in the UK (Scotland has relatively few immigrants) I suspect they’d be similar to the Scottish ones.

While many don’t realise it, we’re actually heading back towards historical norms. The post-Second World War period saw historically extraordinarily high levels of marriage and childbearing, but it was these that were out of step with the general norm. For example, in London in 1911, 19 per cent of women in their mid-forties had never married (and it is reasonable to assume that nearly all of those had not had children). (S. Inwood, City of Cities: The Birth of Modern London, Macmillan, 2005, p. 11)

(There’s a summary of a sensible-looking study of the issue here, that makes the point this is by no means an “alternative” choice.)

I’m not in any way saying there is anything wrong with having children – at least a moderate number of them – but it is really about time that it was recognised that childlessness is a reasonable choice that women are making, which should not be a cause for surprise or disapproval.

Breaking news:The latest Carnival of Feminists has just been posted on Reappropriate. There’s a brilliant range of posts, with a particular focus on the issues around race and gender.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.
  • Nancy

    Very interesting post! This reminds me of a much earlier survey in the US, in which a substantial number of respondents stated that if they had to do it again, they would NOT have had kids (both men & women). I wonder how much of this is actually a subliminal biological species response to overpopulation?

  • You do realize this is bad news for the human race in general. I do not have the numbers with me at present, but we have in general topped our peak, and net human growth rates are declining for the first time in history. We will probably top out at 10 billion, max.

    Also, incindentally, this problem is even worse in Japan, where, I believe, women are choosing not to marry or have children – apparently due to the poor quality of Japanese men, they believe.

    Less is more

  • Nancy

    It may be an improvement to have women “choose” to refrain from breeding & overpopulating, thereby culling out & cutting down on our numbers, instead of the current system of culling by violence and war as practiced for millenia by men. There have been some really interesting ‘sociological’ studies of overcrowded rat populations’ responses that are similar (alas! homo sapiens most closely resembles the rat in terms of behavioral responses; not saying much for HS, is it?).

  • Unfortunately, historically speaking, declining populations are less adaptable, less expeansionary, and more prone to crisis.

    The inverse of the Tragedy of the Commons, as it were.

  • Nancy

    Explain/enlarge on that comment, please. What do you mean, and give examples. Thanks.

  • History does not always repeat itself – just because declining populations may have suffered in the past doesn’t mean that will be the case in the future – we’ve come a long way since mass muscle power meant anything at all.

    And what is the alternative? To keep numbers going up until we have a massive Malthusian crash?

  • As a species, we’re already draining this planet of its natural resources. (Granted, most of that drain is coming from Westernized societies where the logic is “if 1 is good, 10 is better.”) Even though we have the capacity to feed the world’s population, we’re not.

    The problem is, it’s the industrialized societies that are seeing population loss. That’s not true of the Third World. (Well, they do have a population loss, but it’s not due to birth rates. It’s due to famine, rampant disease, war, and high infant mortality.)

    This brings up the whole Gaia Hypothesis thing: That the world is a living system that will defend itself against a rapidly growing threat. Maybe the human species is a self-correcting system? Perhaps we’ve reached a point where it’s either decrease the population or suffer the consequenes, particularly new virulent disease.

    Of course, that’s probably all bad science. I don’t have any evidence to back up the claim that we’re a self-correcting system, nor any evidence to prove the Gaia Hypothesis one way or the other. Just random ramblings, I guess.

  • Nancy

    But interesting ones. I subscribe to the Gaia, myself. Or the Overcrowded Rats. Either one seems to be working.