Divorce and Diapers

Anxious about the long-term effects of depressed fertility, demographers are pondering unexpected questions these days. One of these questions—might divorce actually foster fertility?—recently received attention from a team of demographers from Sweden, Canada, and Austria, countries that all share the dubious characteristic of sub-replacement fertility, with Austria reporting the lowest fertility. Acutely aware that “during the last century, virtually every wealthy society experienced long-term declines in fertility,” the researchers certainly recognize that divorce can depress fertility. After all, when a couple divorces, that virtually guarantees that they will have no more children together. On the other hand, when a divorced woman remarries, she and her new husband will often choose to have a child to affirm their identity as a (re)married couple. “The value of a shared child is unique,” the researchers remark, “signaling the couple’s status as a family and their commitment to each other.” The researchers thus see divorce both depressing and stimulating fertility. “Declines in union formation and union stability,” they write, “have made it more difficult for individuals to attain their desired number of children in a single union while increasing the probability of additional children in a new union. The balance between these two opposing effects may make the difference between above- or below-replacement fertility.” To determine whether divorce does more to depress or to stimulate fertility, the researchers use data for French women born in the 1930s through the 1970s to develop microsimulation models “to generate hypothetical populations of women with different union and childbearing histories.” These models do, in fact, confirm the reality of a “stepfamily effect” on fertility. In other words, “women whose children were born in a single union have lower birth rates than women who have had children with a previous (
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