From “Don’t Say Gay” to Abortion Bans, a New Pronatalism Is Here

From “Don’t Say Gay” to Abortion Bans, a New Pronatalism Is Here

From “Don’t Say Gay” to Abortion Bans, a New Pronatalism Is Here

To understand the conservative fervor around abortion, contraception, and LGBTQ rights, we have to understand the impact these relatively new rights have on the labor market.


Lately, two conservative policy pushes have been sweeping the nation in tandem: abortion bans (with related threats to contraception) and anti-LGBTQ laws, including bans on gender-affirming care for transgender minors and increased action to ban books and other speech that affirms LGBTQ lives. While these are generally discussed as separate issues, both liberals and conservatives nonetheless view them as linked—either as issues of personal autonomy, or of, as conservatives might say, morality. Less recognized, but also a fundamental connection, is the shared core effect of both abortion access and same-sex love: fertility control—i.e., the ability to plan and limit one’s family size that both LGBTQ rights and the rights to contraception and abortion confer on individuals.

To understand the conservative fervor around abortion, contraception, and LGBTQ rights, we have to understand the impact these relatively new rights have on the labor market—including both historically paid and unpaid labor dynamics, both of which are shifting quickly.

For millennia, heterosexuality has been compulsory in the West, with a steady stream of babies resulting. Up until less than a century ago, pregnancies often began early in a woman’s life and continued until menopause. Because humans are born helpless, those babies required much tending. Under patriarchy’s gendered work-assignment system, that care was considered “female” and organized to exclude women from civic life. With minimal education and no money of their own to influence change, women had very little say in the rules of the society they steadily reproduced.

Before birth control, most births were unplanned, though predictable. Only since Charles Goodyear’s vulcanization of rubber (in 1839), which revolutionized barrier contraceptives, and, more recently, the development of hormonal birth control by Margaret Sanger and Gregory Pincus (in 1960), followed by the widespread legalization of abortion in the United States (in 1973) and elsewhere), have women (and men) around the world been able to reliably determine when or if they would procreate, while having active hetero sex lives. It’s an evolutionary change, one might argue, though through external means, and it’s introduced enormous transformations in society as well as in women’s lives.

Unsurprisingly, the US fertility rate has fallen steadily over the period, though with a moment of marked rise after World War II that, not coincidentally, also pushed women out of the workforce, giving their jobs to the returning soldiers (Figure 1).

But that decline in births doesn’t mean the number of workers or the amount of work done fell commensurately. Instead, it occurred alongside a decline in childhood deaths and increase in longevity: Improved public sanitation and focus on disease control across the 19th century and after meant that more infants survived, so fewer births were needed to sustain a family into the next generation or to fill demand for workers; and it meant that people lived—and worked—longer, lowering employers’ need for replacement hires.

The birth rate fell as the suffrage movement and the women’s education movement spread and grew in power, as more women refrained from or delayed marriage and/or children, exercised more of a voice in the bedroom, and moved into paid work. Over time, educated women and their daughters have increasingly filled jobs that their unborn sons would have filled previously, since fewer kids and improved appliances meant less care work to do at home.

That blurring of old gender lines has meant a huge gain in labor force efficiency and a parallel gain in women’s civic status. In mitigating the rate of population growth, birth control has also slowed the pace of humanity’s growing burden on the planet (from 2 billion people in 1928 to 7 billion in 2000—another side effect of expanded longevity). Imagine the extent of climate change by now without contraception!

Since 2007 we’ve seen another steep change in birth patterns, reflecting the introduction of even more effective birth control (known as long-acting reversible contraception) backed up by Plan B, developments that together have fueled a decline in fertility rates overall by 19.3 percent. That’s a big fall in 15 years, and that change includes most notably a 67 percent fall in births to teen moms (and dads) (from 41.5 births per 1,000 US women aged 15–19, to 13.9). This decline also reflects the fact that same-sex relationships are now much more common (a change also involving gendered labor shifts). Per a recent Gallup poll, LGBT self-identification has grown from 2.6 percent among baby boomers to 21 percent of Gen Z youth (50 percent of those identifying as bisexual).

These enormous changes in our fertility patterns have rippling effects, and principal among them, I suggest, are two radical transformations: First, the movement of women into civic life in significant numbers over the past 30 years for the first time in Western recorded history, bringing with them demands for major labor policy changes (like free childcare and wage equity).

We can clearly see the impact of the ability to control fertility on women’s role in civic life by looking at women’s representation in Congress (see Figure 2). Even after women’s suffrage, in 1920, less than 5 percent of members of Congress were women, until the late 1980s. Voting rights alone were clearly not enough to guarantee women’s civic participation. Their representation in Congress began to shift notably upward only after the Pill and abortion rights had been available long enough to allow sufficient numbers of women to delay or forgo having kids, to progress through law school, local political offices and/or policy jobs, and to begin to be reflected in federal-level elections. Women’s political representation today is a direct effect of the delay of childbirth enabled by reliable fertility control.

The second transformation springs from the reduced work pressure on young people who don’t have babies to feed, allowing them to continue their schooling, learn on the job, and generally expand their human capital in young adulthood in ways they could not later. Births deeply affect the near- and long-term workforce participation of new parents. The pressure to keep unplanned arrivals fed, clothed, and housed has historically led many teens into low-wage jobs—often locking them into a lifetime of such work. But teens without kids can instead continue their educations and/or hold out for better wages, which can allow them to raise children in better circumstances later, if they so choose. High school graduation rates for young women rose between 2006 and 2016 (the latest data available), particularly notably for Black women (from 83.9 percent to 95.5 percent) and Latinas (76.6 percent to 91.3 percent). There are still many pressures on young workers, but they’re different now.

Both transformations are good news for the individuals involved, giving them access to more education and better jobs. But they’re less welcome to employers or state legislators counting on parental desperation to introduce young people into low-wage work and then hold them there for decades, in order to bring in profits or, relatedly, to make their state attractive as a “low cost of living” environment, to attract businesses and workers across state lines. The plunge in teen births, with its concurrent lowering of the level of young workers’ family-support desperation, undoes the cheap workforce ripple effect of unplanned fertility.

While there are many factors in play in recent improvements in US child poverty rates (trending down from 17.5 percent in 2012 to 11.4 percent in 2019, before pandemic distortions), in household income levels (trending markedly up since 2008) and in access to state-level health benefits (only 10 states still deny their citizens access to the federal Medicaid benefits they pay for, down from 18 in 2015), the bargaining power created by reduced fertility plays an important role in all.

The new muscle of young people who are not parents also plays an important role in the recent conservative push to ban abortion. Last week, Idaho Republican Senator Chuck Winder made news by connecting abortion rights to shortages of cheap labor, saying, “We complain that we don’t have enough service workers, we don’t have enough of this, we don’t have enough people to do this. Well, I think there’s a reason, it’s not just low birth rate. It is the number of abortions that have occurred.” To which Idaho Democratic Representative Lauren Necochea replied, “I’m very surprised to hear Senator Winder say that forced pregnancy is a way to solve our workforce woes.”

Winder’s phrasing, among other things, implies that the shortfall of low-wage workers stems from a shortage of people born to fill these jobs. But the near-term effect on the “workforce woes” that he and his crowd anticipate from an abortion ban isn’t more babies but more parents, desperate to take any job available.

Likewise, female policymakers’ advocacy for expanded family-support infrastructure threatens old economic models that depend on women doing the work of bearing and rearing the workforce, largely on their own, and largely for “free.” Such practical and efficient changes would challenge centuries-old patriarchal structures, so it’s not surprising that conservatives would try to head off the transformation now on the horizon.

Though advocates don’t describe them this way, anti-abortion policies clearly aim to push women both into more unplanned pregnancies and down the ladder of civic power. Likewise, anti-gay and anti-transgender policies aim to push the growing group of young people who identify as LGBTQ back into the closet, and into heterosexual relationships and more pregnancies, planned and unplanned. It’s not a surprise that we found that in Texas, after the state imposed a six-week abortion in 2021, the 2022 teen birth rate (and specifically the rate of births to non-white teens) rose for the first time in 15 years, though slightly, while fertility rates for Hispanic women 25–44 (ages with greatest likelihood of inability to travel for an abortion due to having children already at home) rose markedly—foreshadowing post-Dobbs 2023 birth (and poverty) data to come, in Texas and many other states as well.

These are not the issues we usually hear explored when pundits decry fertility rate declines. But they should be, if we want to address the real factors in play. Such discussion is necessary in order to develop a more equitable economy that doesn’t depend on widespread desperation at the bottom of the work pyramid but provides a decent life to all contributors.

To begin with, we can follow the lead of activists like Crystal Eastman, who from the beginning of the post-suffrage era understood that the next step for inclusion of women in civic life required a restructuring of the economics of care work. Many woman leaders since have made the same point.

A universal sliding-scale childcare system, for instance, would allow the millions of women of all races and ethnicities who currently work not at all or part-time because of the lack of affordable childcare (or after-school programs) to take full-time jobs—growing the workforce across industries, including creating thousands of new childcare jobs. Both the new childcare workers and the moms newly employed in other industries would pay taxes and spend their earnings in local businesses—generating a multiplier effect, circulating value, decreasing their dependency, and growing the economy. Expanding childcare access would expand human capital and address one of the major reasons fertility rates have declined: the unaffordability of childcare.

Another concern often cited by young people for declining interest in having children is climate change—they fear both leaving kids to face its miseries and increasing the environmental damage by bringing them into the world in the first place. It’s long past time to begin an honest dialogue involving everyone with a stake in the outcome, and to include caregivers’ insights in these discussions—about how to innovate to build a thriving future on a stable planet, in a real democracy—instead of trying to reimpose a past that exploited and abused so many, at huge cost to our people and our biosphere.

There’s much to work through, and the time is short. Birth control, including freedom to choose one’s partners and access to both reliable contraception and abortion, will be essential to every step of this process.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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