Birthing a Nation: The Effect of Fertility Control Access on the 19th Century Demographic Transition

Joanna Lahey

NBER Working Paper No. 18717
Issued in January 2013
NBER Program(s):Aging, Children, Development of the American Economy

During the 19th century, the US birthrate fell by half. While previous economic literature has emphasized demand-side explanations for this decline--that rising land prices and literacy caused a decrease in demand for children--historians and others have emphasized changes in the supply of technologies to control fertility, including abortion and birth control. In this paper I exploit the introduction during the 19th century of state laws governing American women's access to abortion to measure the effect of changes in the supply of fertility technologies on the number of children born. I estimate an increase in the birthrate of 4 to 12% when abortion is restricted, which lies within the ranges of estimates found for the effect of fertility control supply restrictions on birthrates today. The importance of legal abortion in reducing 19th-century birthrates helps to account for a previously unexplained portion of the demographic transition. This paper posits that there has long been a demand, often unmet, for fertility control that should be considered in future demographic research as well as in policy formulation.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w18717

Published: in The Journal of Economic History, Volume 74, Issue 02, June 2014, pp 482-508

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