Originally published in Ms. Magazine.
Like many, I got teary-eyed watching the first people get their COVID-19 vaccine. The vaccine will help prevent COVID cases and related deaths, signaling a light at the end of the tunnel. But as a scientist who studies fertility, I can’t also help but think about the pandemic’s extensive social and economic disruptions—including on Americans’ decisions about whether to have a child.
Throughout the pandemic, I have been frequently asked if there will be a COVID-19 Baby Boom. The assumption is that with so much time at home, people might not only be binging on Netflix, but also having more sex—resulting in more births.
The reality looks very different. Past patterns and emerging evidence suggest we are going to see a COVID Baby Bust.
Before COVID, U.S. birth rates were already declining.
The U.S. birth rate was already on a steady downward slope, and COVID could become an avalanche that sweeps it down the mountain even faster. With the birth rate declining for decades, the 2008 recession increased the ongoing decline even further. But even when the economy improved, the birth rate never recovered and 2019 marked the lowest birth rate on record.
Unlike the past, the current economic crisis comes with a public health crisis and substantial social disruption. Taken together, the impact on fertility is likely to exceed what we saw with prior recessions.
How long will the “Baby Bust” last?
The COVID pandemic is a public health crisis that impacts people’s private lives. When the future is uncertain, people worry if it’s a good time to make long-term decisions, like having a child.
In a study we released early in the pandemic, one in three U.S. women said that because of COVID-19, they wanted to delay having a child or have fewer children. Nine months into the pandemic, those early changes in women’s preferences are starting to show up in delivery rooms. Some states are reporting declines in births during the same month compared to prior years. Google searches for terms like “pregnancy” and “morning sickness” are way down.
The fact that there is going to be a Baby Bust seems clear. But how long will it last and how big will it be?
Right now, we don’t know. We do know that the social disruptions due to the pandemic have already lasted longer than we imagined back in March. The impacts on family life, the economy and people’s health are all still unfolding. Many of these effects won’t go away quickly, even with a vaccine. This means that the Baby Bust will likely be more than a short disruption.
COVID’s widespread impacts are not equally felt.
This pandemic is hitting people of color harder than others. Black and Hispanic women are more likely than white women to report that they wanted to get pregnant later or have fewer children than before the pandemic.
Some families are struggling economically or grappling with the disruption to their children’s schools. Child hunger is rising as parents have lost jobs and economic supports have been cut. It’s hard to think about having another child when you are worried about taking care of the child you already have.
Unfortunately, although women are increasingly deciding to delay pregnancy, the pandemic has disrupted access to contraception—with some states more affected than others. Emerging data from the Guttmacher Institute shows that one in three women reported that because of the pandemic, they had to delay or cancel visiting a health care provider for sexual and reproductive health care, or had trouble getting their birth control. And barriers to timely care were more common among Black, Hispanic, queer and low-income patients.
Making contraception accessible is always important, but even more so now that that the pandemic has shifted if and when people want to get pregnant.
Focus on individual needs, not only national birth rates.
While some are worrying about the public impact of a COVID Baby Bust, I worry about the personal challenges of not getting pregnant if you don’t want to be right now. That’s why we need policies that support everyone—people who want kids and people who don’t.
We need federal and state policies to support people economically, socially and in their ability to decide if and when to be pregnant. Pandemic or not, people should have the resources and health care they need to achieve their fertility goals. Access to contraception and abortion are essential health care. Policymakers should treat them as such. Policies should support everyone at all times, not just during a public health crisis.