Sir Johnny Porritt Bt. CBE

All hail the power of the pill!

Just at the time when people are at last waking up to the near impossibility of securing dignified, free and genuinely sustainable lives for the 9 billion people who will inhabit the planet by 2050, along comes one of the men who might justifiably claim to have done as much to liberate women as any other to repent of his wicked, ungodly genius. So let’s try and get the balance sheet straight here. If I was Karl Djerassi, I would like my epitaph to include reference to the number of unwanted births that had been averted through the use of the Pill over all these years. That would remind people just how much we have to thank Karl Djerassi and his colleagues for.

Hmm. Not quite as many births as our Johnny might think actually.

Ninety percent of the differences across countries in total fertility rates are accounted for solely by differences in women\’s reported desired fertility. Using desired fertility constructed from both retrospective and prospective questions, together with instrumental variables estimation, it is shown this strong result is not affected by either ex-post rationalization of births nor the dependence of desired fertility on contraceptive access or cost. Moreover, despite the obvious role of contraception as a proximate determinant of fertility, the additional effect of contraceptive availability or family planning on fertility is quantitatively small and explains very little cross country variation. These empirical results are consistent with theories in which fertility is determined by parent\’s choices about children within the social, educational, economic, and cultural environment that parents, and especially women, face. They contradict theories that assert a large causal role for expansion of contraception in the reduction of fertility.

So if contraception is only 10% of it, what\’s the other 90%? Err, economic growth actually. Growth in its wider sense, not just money. Longer life spans, vaccines, reduced child mortality, these lead to a lowering of desired fertility.

Put it another way. When we\’re rich enough to stop children dying like flies then women don\’t have to spend their entire (and short) adult lives having them in order to have a reasonable chance of passing on their own genes. Which is, as Darwin pointed out, the meaning of life. As they don\’t have to spend their entire and short adult lives doing so, they don\’t.

Put it yet another way. Contraception is just fine and dandy, but you\’ve got to want to use it before you will use it.

2 comments on “Sir Johnny Porritt Bt. CBE

  1. A very important part of it too is secure property rights.

    In the past in poorer parts of the world people had many children to make sure someone cared for them in their old age.

    They could not do this with money because it may be inflated away by the government (and frequently was). Often they couldn’t do it with property because that would be taxed or confiscated. So they did it with people.

    Now the other possibilities of saving are available people are using them.

    Why are there secure property rights and more sound money? Because of those nasty neoliberals and that nasty Milton Friedman.

  2. That “the pill” would have only a comparatively
    slight effect on fertility should come as no surprise. Birth control is exactly as old as the recognition of the connection between sexual intercourse and birth.

    It’s not even too much of a stretch to make the same discovery underpin civilizatin itself: the practice of unrestrained baby-making would have been liable to produce populations at all times at the limit drawn by availability of the natural resources on which life depends.

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