Laura Chyu Ph.D.

Population Health Chronicles

A Coronavirus Baby Boom or Baby Bust?

COVID-19 may reduce desire to have children while limiting contraception access.

Posted Jul 16, 2020

This post was co-authored by Kate Choi.

After shelter-in-place orders came into effect, there was considerable speculation that a “coronavirus baby boom” might emerge nine months later.1 A hypothetical “corona baby” cohort would grow up to be “quaran-teens” and have the unique collective experience of being conceived during an infamous pandemic. The idea of couples resorting to sexual activity under circumstances that confine them to close quarters and impose limitations on other activities is an alluring one, but is this a realistic speculation? Will we see a baby boom or a baby bust?

Demographers have long been interested in the fertility consequences of natural catastrophes and economic downturns.2-6 According to this body of work, fertility tends to change little in response to short-term and less extreme events, but tends to decrease following longer-lasting and deadly catastrophes.2-6 For example, fertility changed little nine months following the 1965 Blackout, which left New York City without electricity for 10 hours.2 In contrast, fertility decreased nine months after the 1918 influenza pandemic and the 2015 Ebola epidemic.5-6 The COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be similar in magnitude to the catastrophic events in the latter category, with more than 13 million confirmed cases and more than 586,000 deaths worldwide.7

Fertility shifts are driven by changes in (a) fertility preferences and (b) the ability to actualize those preferences. Potential parents may be daunted by the prospect of having a child during a pandemic. For starters, they may not wish to bring children into the world when they perceive risk of morbidity and mortality to be significantly higher. Potential parents may also wish to postpone having a child to a time when they can count on reliable, in-person prenatal care and can give birth without worrying about a shortage of medical personnel, services, and supplies.8 For those using assisted reproductive technology, carefully laid out fertility plans were halted when the American Society of Reproductive Medicine issued guidelines to suspend new, non-urgent fertility treatments.9

Then, there is the anticipated economic downturn, which some forecast to be the first depression in many of our lives. The U.S. now has tens of millions out of work and many more people are concerned about future employment.10 Because raising a child is expensive, couples generally postpone childbearing in times of high and prolonged economic uncertainty.11-12 For example, fertility decreased significantly during the Great Depression in the 1930s, the Oil Shocks in the 1970s, and the Great Recession in 2008.11-13 A coronavirus baby boom seems highly unlikely at a time when an economic depression may be looming around the corner.

This pandemic, however, differs from prior catastrophes in that it has drastically reduced access to contraception. As hospitals divert resources to the care of COVID-19 patients and minimize in-person patient-provider interactions, women may have difficulty meeting with reproductive health care providers, obtaining prescriptions for oral contraceptives, or scheduling procedures to insert long-acting reversible contraceptives.14 Over the counter (OTC) contraceptives may also be in short supply. COVID-19 lockdowns have forced a major condom manufacturer to temporarily halt production.15 Furthermore, the disruption of global supply chains for materials and pharmaceutical ingredients for different contraceptives could result in prolonged shortages. This in turn will disproportionately limit birth control access for individuals with low income.16 

Some politicians have also set restrictions on abortion during the pandemic. Nine U.S. states declared abortion a non-essential medical procedure and placed a temporary ban on abortions.17 Combined, the shortage of contraception and bans on abortion suggest that a higher portion of pregnancies conceived during this pandemic will be unplanned.

In sum, if the fertility consequences of COVID-19 follow historical trends, a baby boom is highly unlikely. Yet, how unlikely it is depends on the duration of the pandemic, the severity of the ensuing economic downturn, the impact on supply chains for contraception, and the pervasiveness of anti-abortion measures. If a baby boom does occur, it will largely be composed of unplanned births disproportionately among the socioeconomically disadvantaged.

References

1. Yuhas, A. (2020, April 8). Don’t expect a quarantine baby boom. New York Times.

2. Udry, J.R. (1970). The Effect of the Great Blackout of 1965 on Births in New York City. Demography, 7(3): 325-327

3. Rodgers, J. L., John, C. A. S., & Coleman, R. (2005). Did fertility go up after the Oklahoma City bombing? An analysis of births in metropolitan counties in Oklahoma, 1990–1999. Demography, 42(4): 675-692.

4. Stones, L. (2020, March 11). Will the coronavirus spike births? Institute of Family Studies Blog.

5. Evans, R., Hu, Y., & Zhoa, Z. (2010). The Fertility Effect of Catastrophe: U.S. Hurricane Births. Journal of Population Economics, 23(1): 1-36.

6. Hertelieu, C., Richmond, P., & Roehner, B. M. (2018). Deciphering the fluctuations of high frequency birth rates. Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and its Applications, 509: 1046-1061.

11. Livingston, G. & Cohn, D. (2010). U.S. birth rate decline linked to recession. Pew Research Center: A Social and Demographic Trends Report.

12. Jacobsen, L. A. & Mather, M. (2010). U.S. economic and social trends since 2000. Population Reference Bureau, 65(1): 1-20.

13. Curry, J. and H. Schwandt. (2014). The short and long-term effects of unemployment on fertility. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(41): 14734–14739.

14. Anna, C. (2020, April 9). Lockdowns mean millions of women can't reach birth control. CTV News.