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1 in 5 adults choosing to be "childfree," MSU study finds

People who said they're actively choosing not to have kids outnumbered those who said they didn't have children for other reasons (like feeling ambivalent, being undecided, putting it off, or being unable to have them.)
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People who said they're actively choosing not to have kids outnumbered those who said they didn't have children for other reasons (like feeling ambivalent, being undecided, putting it off, or being unable to have them).

If you don’t want kids, you’re not alone.

About 1 in 5 people in Michigan are actively choosing not to have kids, according to a new study from Michigan State University, and most of them made that choice when they were in their teens and twenties.

“Doctors will oftentimes deny the request of women to receive voluntary sterilization, especially when they're younger … with the idea that ‘Well, it’s irreversible, and you might change your mind,’” said Jennifer Watling Neal, a psychologist at MSU and one half of the husband-and-wife team that published the study this month in the journal Scientific Reports. “Our study is suggesting that is pretty misinformed and paternalistic, given that many women are making this decision early in life and stick with it, and they know what they want.”

Even though birth rates in the U.S. have been declining for years (they fell off drastically in the beginning of the pandemic, with a slight rebound in 2021), researchers say they still don’t know that much about “childfree” people — the term for those who actively choose not to have kids, versus those who are ambivalent, undecided, or want kids but don’t have them yet. That’s because big research studies have typically used fertility demographic data (whether or not somebody has kids) to compare childless people to parents, which lumps everyone without kids into the same broad category.

“What's unique about this study is in our research, we've really tried to disentangle childfree adults (who are actively choosing not to have children) from other types of adults that don't have kids,” Watling Neal said. “And what we've done is we've focused on whether people want children, so we actually measure that directly.”

The study looked at 1,500 responses from the 2021 Michigan State of the State survey, which were weighted to reflect the population of Michigan — a state with similar demographics to the U.S. population overall, the study’s authors said. Among those who don’t have children, people who said it’s because they’re actively choosing not to have them far outnumbered other groups (the undecideds, the ambiguous, those who want kids but have been unable to have them, and those who are putting it off).

When childfree adults were asked how old they were when they decided they didn’t want kids, more than half said it was in their teens and 20s. And the average age for women who said they decided not to have kids early on was 38 years old, suggesting that “early articulator women are older and report that they made the decision to be childfree at least 18 years ago.”

Watling Neal said that data conflicts with the notion that younger women who request sterilizations (the most common form of birth control in the U.S., according to the CDC) may regret it later on. More women are seeking out sterilizationsince the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, removing federal protections for abortion rights and resulting in the procedure becoming illegal in some states. But 18 states allow medical providers to refuse to provide sterilization services, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

“There are definitely issues with women receiving voluntary sterilization from doctors,” Watling Neal said. “It is a mistake for a doctor to talk about ‘You might change your mind, so we're not going to grant you this procedure.’”

There’s limited research into whether, and how many, women who receive surgical sterilization regret their decision. The U.S. has a long, dark history of using forced sterilization against Black women in particular. Even today, Black and Native American women are twice as likelyto have undergone tubal sterilization as white women. Researchers have found that women are more likely to regret sterilization if they feel pressured into it,if they undergo it for medical reasons, or if they do it because they believe they can’t afford (more) children.

Karina Shreffler, a professor at the University of Oklahoma who has done several studies on sterilization, said Watling Neal's assessment of the study's implications partially matched her own. “Doctors do see many women who regret their sterilization (particularly those in new relationships), so I'm not sure I would say it is misinformed," she said. "But I do think it could be characterized as paternalistic. Sometimes we all make decisions that we might regret later, but I wouldn't want to lose my freedom to make that choice even if I regret it later, if that makes sense.”

Abortion restrictions could also force “many people to have children despite not wanting them,” Watling Neal said. “Also, there have been questions about whether birth control might become harder to access. And if that's the case, it could also make it difficult for childfree people to avoid becoming pregnant in the first place.”

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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