This spring, COVID-19 stay-at-home orders have meant that couples across the country—and the world—have spent months cooped up inside and looking for ways to pass the time. Soon enough, some were speculating that we could see a baby boom in nine months or so, similar to popular anecdotes of mini baby booms that have occurred nine months after blizzards and major power outages. However, history tells us that the opposite outcome is far more likely—at least in places where contraception is readily available.
The reality is that between social distancing, the high cost of childcare, and the economic concerns due to a recession that stay-at-home orders have plunged us into, most people aren’t exactly looking to become pregnant right now. In fact, in the developed world, we’re far more likely to be facing a baby bust.
History offers some clues
The fertility patterns following the 1918 Flu Pandemic and the 2008 Great Recession are likely to be mirrored following COVID-19.
In 2007, the U.S. birth rate was 69.1 births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44; by 2012, it had dropped 9%, to 63 births per 1,000 women—resulting in 400,000 fewer babies born than would have been, had the birth rate remained steady. This pattern was even more pronounced when looking at state-level comparisons of economic downturn and birth rates, specifically comparing unemployment rate and birth rate changes.
During the 1918 Flu Pandemic, spikes in mortality were accompanied by declines in births. Drops in mortality led birth rates to return to normal, but not to overshoot to make up for lost time.
Of course, there are many distinct differences between the Great Recession, the 1918 Flu Pandemic, and the current COVID-19 pandemic, such as age groups most affected and the status of the economy before the events. Yet, the main lesson remains—far fewer people are looking to conceive right now, and the predictions point to a baby bust in our near future.
Some places could see a baby boom
However, the option to avoid pregnancy is a luxury afforded to those with reliable physical and financial access to contraceptives—and the appropriate education to use them properly and to manage any side effects. In countries where health care services have been disrupted by the pandemic, and where reproductive health funding has been shifted over to the pandemic response, we’re far more likely to see unintended pregnancy rates rise.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) reported in April that 47 million people might lose access to contraceptives in the countries they serve if the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions remained for six months—resulting in about seven million unintended pregnancies.
One country taking action to prevent a surge of unintended pregnancies during the pandemic is Indonesia. The country’s National Population and Family Planning Body has ramped up the distribution of contraceptives and messaging around preventing pregnancy—even going as far as to ride around and announce reminders to use contraception via loudspeaker. Indonesia already struggles with high rates of childhood stunting and child malnutrition, which would only worsen with increased rates of unintended pregnancy and births during this time.
This pandemic is likely to further widen the health and development gap between high- and low-income countries, and reinforces that reproductive autonomy is still very much a privilege when it should be a right for all.
The need for contraceptives and reproductive health care doesn’t go away during a global pandemic. Ensuring that care can continue uninterrupted is vital to saving lives, protecting people’s livelihoods, and preventing a baby boom of unintended births nine months from now.