The Alarming Fertility Decline Among American Catholic Women

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It is no secret that birth rates have been plummeting in developed countries worldwide for the past several decades. Even a BBC headline referred to this global baby crash as “jaw dropping.” The United States is no exception. After rebounding a bit between 1997 and 2007, the birth rate has dropped steadily—4 percent just between 2019 and 2020. It is now lower than at any time in over 100 years. Both national and worldwide declines are expected to continue.

It would be unrealistic to expect American Catholics to completely defy this powerful trend. However, given Catholic teaching on artificial birth control, the purposes of matrimony, and the sanctity of life, we would expect that Catholics would at least be doing better at withstanding this movement toward steeply declining births. Sadly, this does not appear to be the case. At least in the United States, the facts show sharp drops in fertility among Catholic women overall, and among those who have ever been married, similar to what we find among Americans as a whole. This is accompanied by the overwhelming majority of ever-married Catholic women using artificial birth control, including shockingly high levels of abortion and use of the so-called “morning after” pill. 

Figure 1 below shows the number of children for ever-married Catholic women between the ages of 40 and 65 for each decade combined in the General Social Survey (GSS) since 1972. Of course, the final numbers would end up a little different as some of those 40 and over continue to have children, but this works as a good comparison. Notice that the percentages having four, or five or more, children declined dramatically over the past five decades, while the percentages having only one or two children increased significantly. In fact, the percentage of those having five or more children was more than triple in the 1970s compared to the past decade.

Figure 1: Number of Children for Ever-Married Catholic Women by Decade, General Social Survey

How did Catholic women in this marriage and age category compare to other major Christian groups—whose doctrines allow for the use of artificial birth control—and to those of no religious affiliation (so-called “Nones”)? As Figure 2 shows, in the 1970s, Catholics were less likely to have larger numbers of children (four or more, or five or more) than Black Protestants but more than the other groups. But especially among those having five or more children—except for continuing to have lower percentages than Black Protestants—there were less differences between Catholics and others in the last decade. Their percentages having four or more children were about the same as Evangelical Protestants though higher than Mainline Protestants and Nones. And as for having five or more children, they were slightly lower than evangelicals and only slightly higher than the other two groups. 

Figure 2: Number of Ever-Married Women in Various Religious Classifications Having Four or More, and Five or More, Children, 1970s versus 2010s, General Social Survey

Figure 3 looks at this a bit differently, using the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) surveys of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This survey never went beyond age 44 until recently, so here I looked at ever-married Catholic women ages 35 to 44, in several survey time periods from 1976 forward. Obviously, as women often have children beyond age 35 and even beyond age 44, the final numbers will be higher. But this works as a comparison. Instead of just looking at how many children women had, I focused a bit more narrowly on how many pregnancies these women had that ended in live birth. 

Figure 3: Number of Pregnancies Ending in Live Births for Ever-Married Catholic Women Ages 35 to 44, Various Years from 1976 to 2019, National Survey of Family Growth

Notice that despite the different measurements and survey source, the trends basically match what we find in the GSS. Ever-married Catholic women having four, or five or more, live births between ages 35 to 44 plummeted, while those having just one or two births increased sharply. For example, the percentages of those who had five or more live births dropped more than six times between 1976 and the most recent NSFG.

When one looks at the percentages of Catholic women using contraception today, despite Church teaching, we are not surprised. Let’s look at this in detail combining the last three cycles of the NSFG to get large samples of ever-married women. These included all ages from 15 (very few of whom had ever married) to age 44. 

Figure 4 shows all who had ever used any type of artificial contraception, including male partners who used condoms or had vasectomies. This includes the so-called “morning after” pill. Other methods included “the pill,” diaphragms, IUDs, birth control patches and injections, and so on. These did not include natural family planning methods such as tracking ovulation and such (which are often used to improve the odds of getting pregnant anyway). In Figure 5, I show all ever-married women who had ever used any of these methods but did not include whether or not their partners had used condoms or had vasectomies. As these figures clearly show, very few ever-married Catholic women have never used artificial contraception. In this regard, Catholics do not stand out as especially different from the others.

Figure 4: Ever-Married Women Ages 15 to 44 Who Have Ever Used Artificial Contraception Including Male Partners with Condoms and/or Vasectomies, Combining the Last Three Survey Cycles 2013–2019 of the National Survey of Family Growth

Figure 5: Ever-Married Women Ages 15 to 44 Who Have Ever Used Artificial Contraception NOT Including Male Partners with Condoms and/or Vasectomies, Combining the Last Three Survey Cycles 2013–2019 of the National Survey of Family Growth

Figure 6 looks at current use for currently married women. That is, any use by married women in the past 12 months. This did not include having partners using condoms or who had vasectomies. Notice that about a third of married Catholic women had used such artificial birth control in the past year. They did not stand out as especially different from the other religious affiliation groups. 

Figure 6: Currently-Married Women Ages 15 to 44 Who Used Artificial Contraception in the Past 12 Months NOT Including Male Partners with Condoms and/or Vasectomies, by Religious Affiliation, Combining the Last Three Survey Cycles 2013–2019 of the National Survey of Family Growth

Moreover, as shown in Figure 7, 19 percent had used a condom the last time they had sexual intercourse with their husband. This was actually the highest percentage of all the religious groups being compared here. And 9 percent admitted that their husband had a vasectomy. This was lower than any other religious group (Evangelical, 12 percent; Mainline Protestant, 13 percent; Nones, 11 percent) except Black Protestants (4 percent), but it still did not stand out as especially low. Further analysis showed that 20 percent of married women whose husbands had not had a vasectomy used a condom the last time they had sex. Three percent of those whose husbands did have a vasectomy also used a condom the last time they had sex.

Figure 7: Currently-Married Women Ages 15 to 44 Whose Male Partners Used Condoms at Last Intercourse or Had Vasectomies, by Religious Affiliation, Combining the Last Three Survey Cycles 2013–2019 of the National Survey of Family Growth

Finally, a bit of even more disturbing news for orthodox Catholics. First, as shown in Figure 8, the percentages of Catholic women using the so-called “morning after” pill is quite high: among those who have ever had sexual intercourse, 25 percent have; 32 percent among never-married Catholic women ages 15 to 44. 

Figure 8: Women Ages 15 to 44 Who Have Ever Had Sexual Intercourse and Have Ever Used the “Morning After” Pill, by Religious Affiliation, Overall and Never Married, Combining the Last Three Survey Cycles 2013–2019 of the National Survey of Family

Let us be clear here—even beyond the notorious “Ella”—the morning after pill (often called “Plan B” or “emergency contraception”) is potentially abortifacient. Slick marketing and redefinition of “abortion” are used to confuse consumers on this point. Preventing implantation of a fertilized egg is taking a life after conception, as the Vatican has made abundantly clear.

Figure 9 shows the percentages of women who have ever been pregnant who admitted to having an abortion. Though Catholics were about the same as Evangelical Protestants and did better than the other religious affiliation groups, the results are still discouraging. 

Figure 9: Women Ages 15 to 44 Who Have Ever Had Sexual Intercourse and Have Ever Had an Abortion, by Religious Affiliation, Overall and Never Married, Combining the Last Three Survey Cycles 2013–2019 of the National Survey of Family

It gets worse. Given what we know from survey validation research, these percentages are very low estimates of the percentages of these respondents who actually had an abortion. Women are quite reluctant to admit to having had abortions on even the most professional and anonymous surveys. Moreover, there is good reason to believe that the more they live in moral communities that disapprove of it, the less forthcoming they will be. In fact, the National Academies of Sciences estimates that at least in earlier versions of the NSFG, up to half or more of all abortions were not reported by women who had them. This type of survey error is often called “selective recall bias.” If applicable here—and I am sure it is—even being very cautious, it is reasonable to estimate that as many as a third or more of Catholic never-married women who have ever been pregnant have gotten at least one abortion. That is tragic, no matter how they compare to unbelievers or other Christian denominations.

However, I would be remiss if I did not consider religious commitment. After all, self-identified Catholics include many who rarely darken the door of their churches.

In Figure 10 below, I look at various critical outcomes by whether the Catholic respondents attended religious services regularly. Then, in Figure 11, I do so again by whether they considered their religious faith to be “very”—as opposed to only “somewhat” or “not”—important to how they live their daily lives. 

Figure 10: Catholic Women Ages 15 to 44, Various Outcomes on Using Artificial Birth Control, Morning After Pills, and Abortion, by Attendance at Religious Services, Combining the Last Three Survey Cycles 2013–2019 of the National Survey of Family

Figure 11: Catholic Women Ages 15 to 44, Various Outcomes on Using Artificial Birth Control, Morning After Pills, and Abortion, by Self-Identified Importance of Religious Faith to Everyday Life, Combining the Last Three Survey Cycles 2013–2019 of the National Survey of Family

Though results are still discouraging to Catholics who take Church teaching seriously, they do show that those who are more committed do much better in most of these areas than those who are less committed. However, even when we consider that some—like so many we know and many of those reading this—engaged in these behaviors prior to committing or recommitting to a more serious Catholic walk of faith—those who attend church regularly and who consider their faith to be very important can certainly still do a whole lot better. 

Regardless of how discouraging statistics like these can be, we are all better off with a more accurate picture of reality. Only then can we know how urgently focused teaching, encouragement, admonishment, and ministry is needed and where it is needed the most. 

Particularly in the area of morning after pills, there is good reason to suspect that many Catholic women are fooled by claims made by manufacturers, progressive organizations, and government agencies about what these pills actually do, or at least what they can do. Many Catholic women are probably also unaware not only of natural family planning (NFP) methods but just how effective they can be. And, though there are certainly no guarantees, many married couples also report that the process of following NFP actually brings them closer together

With regard to abortion, many assume that most Catholics know why and to what extent orthodox Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular, decisively condemns it. However, one has to wonder how many Catholics rarely hear sound, thorough teaching on this—especially that details what abortion actually involves, the facts about fetal development, and so on. 

Beyond this, it seems that more teaching on sex, procreation, marriage, and the sanctity of life, and on the larger theological framework within which Church teaching on these issues rests, is needed. Church teaching on these matters does not just teach the faithful about rules they sin against by breaking, but it teaches about the deepest aspects of the created, social, and sacred order.

Statistics like this should also remind us of the millions of Catholic women—in fact, women across Christian groups—in need of confession, repentance, and healing. I imagine that few know just how many post-abortive women are in their parishes. For example, how many are now married with families but haunted by what they have done, reminded year by year of the anniversaries of their abortions or their aborted babies’ original estimated delivery dates. The Church needs to be there for them as well, reminding them of the gracious Savior who is always willing to forgive, heal, and comfort.

[Photo Credit: Shutterstock]

By

David Ayers is Professor of Sociology in the Department of Economics and Sociology at Grove City College, where he has also served previously as Dean of the Alva J. Calderwood School of Arts and Letters, and as Interim Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs. He is author of two textbooks with Cengage, and most recently of Christian Marriage: A Comprehensive Introduction (Lexham, 2019). His book Beyond the Revolution: Sex and the Single Evangelical will be released later this year. He resides in Grove City, Pennsylvania, has been married to Kathy since 1982, has six children, three son-in-laws and six grandchildren. He holds his Ph.D. in Sociology from New York University, his MA in Sociology from American University, and his BA in Psychology from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.

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