If nearly half of U.S. pregnancies are unplanned, then how can the economy alone be blamed for the recent decline in births? Maybe a bad economy is so sobering for Americans that they become more careful in their sexual activity, so that there are fewer planned and unplanned births. Or maybe the depression of losing jobs and money just results in less sex. But it is also possible that more than just the economy is at work. 

That was the counterpoint reaction I gained overnight from Wendy Hellerstedt, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, to news reports about the economy prompting another annual decline in U.S. births from 2010 to 2011. Minnesota mirrored the national trend, with an annual decline in births in 2011 that was much smaller than the declines in the prior three years.

Hellerstedt studies the relationships between social indicators and reproductive health. She didn't dismiss the economic impact, but said it is probably only one of several factors. Globally, a decline in births is more often tied to gains in education and job opportunities for women, she said. A key is knowing whether new mothers intended to get pregnant or not:

"The latest national data (on pregnancy intent) we have is from 2006 or so. From that data we know that about 40 percent of all pregnancies -- including those that end in abortion, miscarriage, and childbirth -- are either mistimed or unwanted. This tells us that a considerable percentage of pregnancies in 2006 were unplanned. So it is possible that we are seeing a decline in what would have been unplanned childbearing. In the last few years, we have seen fewer restrictions in sexual health education and more concentration on contraceptive availability. It's plausible, then, that the political environment has shifted enough so that individuals are better able to plan childbearing when and if they want to do so. Parenting is a very individual matter, and the decline could thus be attributable to many things: economic concerns, expanded opportunities for educated women, global population concerns, or better contraceptive practices."


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