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The term childlessness refers to a lifetime of being childless and can be applied both to couples that have never borne a child and to single women or men. Most research, and hence most available data, focuses on women. In some populations the proportion of women experiencing childlessness has been as low as 2 or 3 percent, and in others it has been ten times this minimum level. In the twentiethcentury United States, for instance, the level of childlessness for women born in the first decade of the century (and bearing children during the depression of the 1930s) and for those born in the 1950s (and bearing children during the century’s last three decades) was approximately 20 percent. By contrast, it was approximately 10 percent for U.S. women born in the 1930s (and bearing children during the baby boom of the 1950s).
There are four dominant paths to childlessness. First, persons can decide at a young age that they want no children and maintain this position over their lifetimes. Second, persons can intend to have children but postpone childbearing to an age when they are unable to have children, because of subfecundity or infecundity (i.e., limited ability or inability, for biological reasons, to conceive and carry a birth to term). Third, persons who desire and expect children but who are willing to have them only if they are married or in a stable union may become childless as a result of failing to establish such unions. Finally, persons can be unable to bear children due to infecundity present from a young age. The prevalence of each of these reasons for childlessness varies across time and place. In the United States and Europe in the early twenty-first century, the second and third reasons are most prevalent.
There have been many attempts to distinguish voluntary from involuntary childlessness, but this distinction is problematic. Voluntariness is ascribed to those who deliberately choose childlessness and involuntariness to those who are infecund due to congenital abnormalities, malnutrition, or disease. Note that only the first and fourth pathways described above neatly conform to this distinction. The second pathway (postponement followed by infecundity) combines a period of voluntary childlessness with an involuntary period. The third pathway (childlessness due to non-marriage) is in some sense involuntary but is due to a social constraint (the pressure to establish an appropriate union) rather than something biological.
Subfecundity and infecundity, both major contributors to childlessness, have two sources. First, reduced fecundity can occur at any age due to a large number of diseases. For instance, many sexually transmitted infections can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease that results in scarring of the fallopian tubes, thus inhibiting the release of ovum in females. This particular problem may be solved by assisted reproductive technology (ART), which encompasses techniques such as in vitro fertilization. In the United States in 2005, 1 percent of all births resulted from in vitro fertilization. The second cause of infertility is senescence-related (i.e., due to aging). From the time women are in their mid- to late twenties, fecundity declines at an increasing rate with increasing age. ART can overcome some of these senescence-related problems, but technologies still cannot overcome many of them.
Childless adults face a stigma, although its degree varies by time and place. Stigma is greatest in contexts where there are few or no life-course alternatives to marriage and parenthood. In these contexts being unmarried or childless places one outside acceptable adult statuses. The consequences for women are often more severe than for men. Childlessness can lead the husband to take another wife or can provide justification for divorce or abandonment of the wife. In the late twentieth century many societies experienced feminist social movements and assertions that parenthood and childlessness are equally legitimate lifestyle choices.
While childbirth is the dominant pathway to parenthood, the permanently childless may become parents through adoption. Like childless adults, adopted children face a stigma that varies across time and place.
- McFalls, Joseph A., Jr. 1990. The Risks of Reproductive Impairment in the Later Years of Childbearing. Annual Review of Sociology 16: 491–519.
- Rindfuss, Ronald R., S. Philip Morgan, and Gray Swicegood. 1989. First Births in America: Changes in the Timing of Parenthood. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Sobotka, Tomá°. 2004. Postponement of Childbearing and Low Fertility in Europe. Amsterdam: Dutch University Press.
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