The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

The Pill=More Nonmarital Births?

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

When Margaret Sanger first sought to develop an oral contraceptive, her announced goal was to help poor women avoid unwanted motherhood. Such women—and Sanger was focusing most on married women—were already burdened with too many mouths to feed in the urban slums, and they needed a mechanism to avoid further increasing their already heavy workload. So, enlisting the aid of scientist Gregory Pincus, Sanger set about to develop the world’s first oral contraceptive, a pregnancy preventative that would be foolproof and almost effortless for women.

Alas, in the almost 70 years since the pill first came on the market, the nonmarital birth rate has skyrocketed. In addition, numerous scholars have documented the ever-widening gap between America’s wealthy and poor women, with married childbearing becoming an almost unattainable dream for working-class women. Now, researchers Andrew Beauchamp and Catherine R. Pakaluk from Wright State University in Ohio and the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., respectively, seek to understand whether the pill had anything to do with these trends.

As the authors point out, the nonmarital birthrate has “increased rapidly after 1960, from roughly 5% to 40% of all births . . . and has been tightly entangled with poverty.” Lower socioeconomic class (SES) women are still the most likely to have an unmarried birth, and the children born to unmarried mothers are far more likely to grow up in poverty and repeat the cycle themselves. Thus, Beauchamp and Pakaluk seek to understand “whether the pill played a causal, if paradoxical, role in the rise of nonmarital births, particularly among working-class and minority women.” They find that yes, it did, and suggest two possible paths for this occurrence. The first is that pill access lowers the cost of nonmarital sex, thus increasing the amount of nonmarital sex. Because no contraceptive is perfectly effective 100% of the time, some women do, in fact, become pregnant. The second path is an indirect one, whereby “marriage combined with childbearing became less common for those women with the least economic and social bargaining power.” In other words, the pill reduced the occurrence of so-called “shotgun marriages,” but also weakened the desirability of lesser-educated women as marriage partners. 

To conduct their analysis, the researchers drew data from the National Vital Staistics System and the National Survey of Families and Households on nonmarital childbearing and also the “policy regime” that governed access to the pill at the times these unmarried births occurred. 

First, the researchers discover that even though the pill was first legalized for and marketed to married women, by the time the Supreme Court granted access to all women regardless of marital status, nonmarital use was already one in five women. In other words, legislation permitting only marital access to the pill was ineffective, and any rises in the nonmarital birthrate during this period should be considered.

Second, and strikingly, Beauchamp and Pakaluk find “robust evidence that changes in marital access to the pill increased the nonmarital birth rate by between 15% and 18%,” corresponding to roughly one-third of the rise in nonmarital births. Equally notable is that “the effects of contraceptive access on nonmarital childbearing were also concentrated among women from less-educated households and minority women.” Women whose fathers had less schooling had more nonmarital births after legalized access to the pill than did women with more eduated fathers. Furthermore, “marital pill access [which, as had already been demonstrated, meant access for all women] substantially lowered the probability that a woman obtained a high-school diploma, consistent with the increase in nonmarital births,” while the rate of post-secondary educational attainment seems to have been unaffected by access to the pill.

The researchers understand that many other factors have also been posited as accounting for the rise in nonmarital births, specifically an increase in blue-collar unemployment and also the expansion of welfare benefits to single-parent households.  They find no impact of blue-collar unemployment on the nonmarital birth rate, and find a negative relationship between increased benefits and nonmarital births.

In summary, then, legal access to the pill had a significant effect on the rise in nonmarital births, concentrated in working-class and minority women. Also, “marital access to the pill significantly decreased women’s likelihood of graduating high school, with no evidence that it lowered bachelor’s degree attainment.” 

“Taken together,” write Beauchamp and Pakaluk, “these findings suggest that the pill has had not one but two effects on the lives of American women. The first effect may have been to improve the educational and career outcomes of women in the middle to upper socioeconomic brackets,” which led to declining marital family sizes. “The second effect was to increase the likelihood of a nonmarital birth among women of lower SES.” The “paradox of the pill,” then, is that it represents “historic gains for some women, and discouraging losses for others,” and has contributed to the widening gap between America’s classes. 

In closing, the researchers suggest several potential policy ramifications for their study. First, they recommend that policymakers who seek to reduce nonmarital births should “prioritize efficacy in real use in various populations, and not ideal use.” Second, they suggest that fertility awareness methods coupled with use of birth control may have greater effect in some populations than the pill alone.

(Andrew Beauchamp and Catherine R. Pakaluk, “The Paradox of the Pill: Heterogeneous Effects of Oral Contraceptive Access,” Economic Inquiry 57.2 [2019]: 813-31.)