Childlessness is the condition of having no children. Childlessness may have personal, social and/or political significance. There are two types of childlessness, voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary childlessness, also described as being childfree, occurs when one decides not to reproduce. To be childless, but not by choice, is involuntary childlessness.
From 2007 to 2011 the fertility rate in the U.S. declined 9%, the Pew Research Center reporting in 2010 that the birth rate was the lowest in U.S. history and that childlessness rose across all racial and ethnic groups to about 1 in 5 versus 1 in 10 in the 1970s.
Reasons for childlessness include, but are not limited to, the following.
- Celibacy, that is, abstention from sexual intercourse.
- Personal choice, that is, having the physical, mental, and financial capability to have children but choosing not to (that is, voluntary childlessness).
- Infertility, the inability of a person or persons to conceive, due to complications related to either or both the woman or the man. This is regarded as the most prominent reason for involuntary childlessness. Biological causes of infertility vary because many organs of both sexes must function properly for conception to take place. Infertility also affects people who are unable to conceive a second or subsequent pregnancy. This is called secondary infertility.
- The death of an infant or child either before, during, or shortly after birth. Infant death can happen for any number of reasons, usually being medical or environmental. Death can be attributed to factors such as, inadequate access to proper medical care, biological malformations, maternal complications, and/or accidents and unintentional injuries. An unsuitable environment with little to no resources may also play a role in infant mortality.
- Medical or gynaecological problems, including a lack of maternal medical care before or after birth and damage obtained from a previous pregnancy.
- lack of appropriate resources, such as finances, adequate medical care, communal/family support, etc.
- environment, this is related to availability of resources, whether emotional, physical, or biological.
- lack of a partner, or lack of willingness from partner.
- social infertility.
Options for involuntary childlessness
Those that, for whatever reason, are affected from involuntary childlessness do have options available to them. A person or persons that have the necessary components to reproduce, but may have a low sperm count or problems with ovulation could look into options such as artificial insemination or intracytoplasmic sperm injection(ICIS). Artificial insemination is the process in which sperm is collected via masturbation and inserted into the uterus immediately after ovulation. Intracytoplasmic sperm injection is a more recent technique that involves injecting a single sperm directly into an egg, the egg is then placed in the uterus by in vitro fertilization. In vitro fertilization (IVF) is the process in which a mature ovum is surgically removed from a women's ovary, placed in a medium with sperm until fertilization occurs and then placed in the women's uterus. About 50,000 babies in the United States are conceived this way and are sometimes referred to as "test-tube babies."  Other forms of assisted reproductive technology include, gamete intrafallopian transfer (GIFT) and zygote intrafallopian transfer (ZIFT). Fertility drugs also may improve the chances of conception in women.
Due to complex organ complications some individuals can not produce a biological child; for those individuals an option may be surrogacy or adoption. Surrogacy, in this case a surrogate mother, is the process in which a woman becomes pregnant (usually by artificial insemination or surgical implantation of a fertilized egg) for the purpose of carrying the fetus to term for another woman or couple. Another option may be adoption; to adopt is to take voluntarily (a child of other parents) as one's own child.
All forms of contraception have played a role in voluntary childlessness over time, but the invention of reliable oral contraception contributed profoundly to changes in societal ideas and norms. Voluntary childlessness, resulting from contraception has influenced women's health, laws and policies, interpersonal relationships, feminist issues, and sexual practices among adults and adolescents.
The availability of oral contraception during the late 1900s was directly related to the women's rights movement by establishing, for the first time, a mass distribution of a way to control fertility. The so-called "pill" gave women the opportunity to make different life choices they may not previously been able to make, such as for example, furthering their career. This led to monumental changes in the current gender and family roles.
Margaret Sanger, an activist in 1914, was an important figure during the reproductive rights movement. She coined the term "birth control" and opened the first birth control clinic in the U.S. Sanger collaborated with many others to make the first oral contraception possible, these persons include: Gregory Pincus, John Rock, Frank Colton, and Katherine McCormick. The pill was approved by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) for contraceptive use in the year 1960 and although it was controversial, it remained the most popular form of birth control in the U.S. until 1967 when there was a rise in publicity about the possible health risks associated with the pill; consequently sales dropped twenty-four percent. In the year 1988 the original high-dose pill was taken off the market and replaced with a low-dose pill that was considered to have less risks and some health benefits.
For most individuals, for most of history, childlessness has been regarded as a great personal tragedy, involving much emotional pain and grief, especially when it resulted from a failure to conceive or from the death of a child. Before conception was well-understood, childlessness was usually blamed on the woman and this in itself added to the high level of negative emotional and social effects of childlessness. “Some wealthy families also adopted children, as a means of providing heirs in cases of childlessness or where no sons had been born.” The monetary incentives offered by westerners desire for children is so strong that a commercial market in the child laundering business exists.
People trying to cope with involuntary childlessness may experience symptoms of distress that are similar to those experienced by bereaved people, such as health problems, anxiety and depression.
Specific instances of childlessness, especially in cases of royal succession, but more generally for people in positions of power or influence, have had enormous impacts on politics, culture and society. In many cases, a lack of a male child was also considered a type of childlessness, since male children were needed as heirs to property and titles. Examples of historical impacts of actual or potential childlessness include:
- Elizabeth I of England was childless, choosing not to marry in part to prevent political instability in the kingdom, which passed on her death from the House of Tudor to the House of Stuart.
- Henry VIII of England divorced his first wife Catherine of Aragon, to whom he had been married for more than 20 years, because she had not produced a male heir to the throne. This decision set in train a break between the English and the Roman churches that reverberated across Europe for centuries.
- Queen Anne had seventeen pregnancies but none of her children survived so the throne passed from the House of Stuart to the House of Hanover.
- Napoléon’s first wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais, did not bear him any children so he divorced her and married another in order to produce an heir.
- The lack of a male heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne in Japan brought the country to the brink of a constitutional crisis.
Socially, childlessness has also resulted in financial stress and sometimes ruin in societies which depend on their offspring to contribute economically and to support other members of the family or tribe. “In agricultural societies about 20 per cent of all couples would not have children because of problems for at least one of the partners. Worry about assuring the desired birth rate could become an important part of family life … even after a first child was born. … In agricultural societies up to half of all children born would die within two years … (Excess surviving children could among other things, be sent to childless families to provide labour there, reducing upkeep demands at home.) When a population disaster hit – like war or major disease – higher birth rates might briefly be feasible to fill out community ranks.”
In the 20th and 21st centuries, when control over conception became reliable in some countries, childlessness is having an enormous impact on national planning and financial planning.
In a society that encourages and promotes parenthood, with its current social norms and culture, childlessness can be stigmatizing. The traditional idea that couples should reproduce and want to reproduce is still widespread in North America. Childlessness is considered deviant behavior in marriage and this may lead to adverse effects on the relationship of the couple, as well as their individual identities when pertaining to the lack of children being involuntary. For persons that assume that becoming parents was a critical process of their adult family life, a "transition" as Rossi deems it must take place. This transition is from the anticipated parenthood to an unwanted status of nonparenthood. Such a transition may require the individual to readjust their perspective of self and/or relationship role with their significant other.
Possible Positive Impacts
- Education: Childless persons tend to have higher educations than those that do have children. Due to their higher education these childless couples also tend to have professional and managerial positions.
- Finances: As a result of their higher educations, higher paying jobs, and dual income, childless couples tend to have greater financial stability as compared to those with children. On average, a childless couple spends 60 percent more on entertainment, 79 percent more on food and 101 percent more on dining out. Childless couples are also more likely to have pets and those that do tend to spend a good deal more money on them.
- Quality of Living: Childless persons typically eat healthier than those with children, consuming more meats, fruits, and vegetables. Happiness may also play a distinctive role in the comparison to people with children and those without. Different studies have indicated that marital happiness dramatically decreases after a child is born and does not recover until after that last child has left the house. A study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that working outside the home and receiving less support from extended family, as well as other factors, has increased the level of stress associated with raising children and decreased overall marital satisfaction as a result. Childless couples were more likely to take vacations, exercise, and overall live a healthier life style than those that have children.
- List of international adoption scandals
- Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day
- Reproductive technology
- Tax on childlessness
Guthrie, Gillian (2012) Childless: reflections on life's longing for itself Leichhardt, N.S.W.: A&A Book Publishing ISBN 978-0-9870899-7-7
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- An example is obstetric fistula which has left many women rejected by their husbands and communities and unable to bear further children. The Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital is the only hospital of its kind in the world dedicated exclusively to women with obstetric fistula. It was founded by Doctors Catherine and Reg Hamlin.
- Social infertility is a term that has been used to describe homosexuality or single life as factors of infertility. Sexual Function and Sexuality: Social infertility In extended use, it also includes couples where the husband spends a lot of time away from home, such as in the armed forces, or for those who simply put other goals, such as a career, before having children, resulting in infertility from advanced maternal age.
- Hammond, P., et al. (2009) In vitro fertilization availability and utilization in the United States:A study of demographic social, and economic factors: 1630-1635.
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- Nikolchev, Alexandra (7 May 2010). "A brief history of the birth control pill".
- Stearns, Peter N. (2010). Childhood in world history. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon; New York. p. 33. ISBN 978-0-415-59808-8.
- Lechner, L.; Bolman, C., van Dalen, A. (10 October 2006). "Definite involuntary childlessness: associations between coping, social support and psychological distress". Human Reproduction 22 (1): 288–294. doi:10.1093/humrep/del327. Check date values in:
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- McCurry, Justin (6 September 2006). "Baby boy ends 40-year wait for heir to chrysanthemum throne". The Guardian.
- McCurry, Justin (4 November 2005). "Bring back concubines, urges emperor's cousin". The Guardian.
- Stearns, Peter N. (2009). Sexuality in world history. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon; New York. p. 18. ISBN 978-0-415-77776-6.
- Toshihiko Hara (November 2008). "Increasing Childlessness in Germany and Japan: Toward a Childless Society?". International Journal of Japanese Sociology 17 (1): 42–62. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6781.2008.00110.x.
- Miall, Charlene (April 1986). "The Stigma of Involuntary Childlessness". Retrieved 2013-02-03.
- Matthews, Ralph (August 1986). "Infertility and Involuntary Childlessness: The Transition to Nonparenthood". Retrieved 2013-02-03.
- Gilbert, D.T. Stumbling on Happiness. New York Vintage Books, 2007.
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