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May: Mother’s Day and ‘the pill’

It is probably something of an irony that we just celebrated Mother’s Day this past Sunday, and that we do that every May. I’ve used the word “irony” because the Food and Drug Administration gave approval to Enovid, the first long-term oral contraceptive, in May 1960. So May should also be known as the “Pill Month,” and the pill was developed more than 50 years ago to prevent motherhood.


In 1967, the total fertility rate (TFR) of the country was 3.5, meaning that — on average — each woman would bear 3.5 children during her reproductive years. U.S. population was about 200 million. Using Bureau of the Census data at that time, the nation’s population would swell to perhaps 438 million by 2010.


That growth was projected because a population with a constant TFR of 3.5 will double every 70 years. But, the U.S. would have grown even more quickly because of our positive rate of immigration. However, that never happened. Population was held in check by drastically lowering our total fertility, for the most part because of the development and legalization of the birth control pill.


It should be noted that there were countervailing forces working against the concept of family planning and population control. Those who opposed limiting the number of births, either on the basis of religion or national security, invoked the Comstock Act. In 1873, postal inspector and social reformer Anthony Comstock convinced Congress to pass a law prohibiting the distribution of “obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious” materials through the mail, including pornography and contraceptive devices. And, for decades, nobody really challenged that restriction. After all, it fit with the mores and the technology of the times.

Sanger and ‘the pill’


During the early part of the 20th century, Margaret Sanger was growing up in New York, where she became a nurse and worked with underprivileged women in the slums. She witnessed, too, many unwanted pregnancies ending with illegal and dangerous abortions, so she developed the modern concept of birth control.


During the 1950’s, she distributed her pamphlets, “What Every Young Girl Should Know” and “What Every Mother Should Know” and operated a birth control clinic in Brooklyn. Although she was harassed and arrested, she kept fighting for women’s rights to control their own fertility until the Comstock Act was struck down in 1965 by the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Griswold v. Connecticut. By that time, however, more than 1.5 million women in the United States were already using the pill. Unlike any previous method of contraception, it provided close to 100 percent effectiveness.

Social changes


As old laws and customs tumbled during the decade of the 1960s, the American stage was set for dramatic changes. Virtually every aspect of our society, from religion to politics, was affected by the advent and acceptance of the birth-control pill.


One of the most immediate and noticeable outcomes of effective birth control was a steady increase in the median age of first marriage for women. In 1960, the median age of marriage for women was 20, meaning that half entered marriage before age 20 and half after that age. By 1990, the median age at first marriage had gradually crept up to 24, and by 2016 it was close to 28. A change of eight years over half a century may not seem important, but to understand the overall effect, we need to multiply that difference by the tens of millions of women who experienced the phenomenon.


Of even greater significance is the effect that the new freedom had on the American family. In 1970, a little more than 10 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 30 had never been married. By 1990, that soared to 38.4 percent, a change of 266 percent over two decades. Today, about half of all women in that age category are unmarried.


Since 2005, the majority of all U.S. households have not been headed by married couples. So, if you think of the traditional American family as being composed of a husband, wife, and their immediate children, then your vision of the typical family no longer exists. A 2016 study by the Pew Research Center found that only 45 percent of children under age 18 are living in a home with married heterosexual parents in their first marriage. In 1970, that was 73 percent.

Love and marriage


The norm for our culture used to be this: people met, fell in love, got married, and had children, in that order, and that was considered to be the “typical family household.” As of 2000, the most common type of household in the United States has been the single-person household. In 1960, there were fewer than 6.9 million persons living alone in this country. By 2016, the figure exceeded 35.9 million.


Moreover, in 1960, only 2.3 percent of children were born to unmarried mothers. Until that time, it was a social taboo to have a child out of wedlock. Today, 40 percent of American babies are born to an unmarried mother. However, most of the time that mother is cohabiting with a more-or-less permanent partner. Just as the percentage of married-couple households declined over the past half century, the percentage of unmarried-couple households skyrocketed by more than 400 percent.

Future slow growth


Because of these and other changes, U.S. population grew to 324 million by 2016 (more than 100 million fewer than was projected when our TFR was 3.5). The drastic decline in births has cut our TFR virtually in half, to 1.8 in 2016. That is below replacement level (TFR = 2.1) and theoretically will lead to a stable population that will eventually shrink in size. We can see that happening in Europe, where immigration has not been a significant factor until the recent influx of refugees.


Overall, Europe’s present population of 740 million will increase to 744 million by 2030 and then shrink to 728 million by 2050. That’s because of two factors: Europe’s population is relatively old (slightly more people are over 65 than are under 15) and it has a TFR of only 1.6. And some countries, like Greece, Poland, and Spain, have a TFR as low as 1.2. Because the population of the U.S. is significantly younger, with nearly one-fifth of the population not yet in their reproductive years, our country will grow to 359 million by 2030 and close to 400 million by mid-century. So, we’ll still have lots of Moms to celebrate during future “Pill” months.


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Jim Glynn is a professor emeritus of sociology. He can be contacted at j_glynn@att.net.