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The Impact of Unintended Childbearing on Future Generations

Isabel V. Sawhill, Joanna Venator, and Quentin Karpilow

Summary
Out of wedlock births are increasingly becoming the norm for much of America, particularly for less advantaged young Americans. Many of the women who have children out of wedlock report that they did not plan to have the child and that the child is in fact either mistimed (i.e., came earlier than they would have preferred) or wholly unwanted. Nonmarital childbearing and unintended pregnancy are associated with many adverse outcomes for both the mother and the child, but it has been difficult for researchers to tease out any causal relationship between a mother’s fertility intentions and her child’s later life outcomes. In this paper, we try to trace the effects of reducing unintended childbearing on children’s success in later stages of life by using the Social Genome Model to simulate two “what-if” scenarios:

  1. What if we could prevent all unwanted births?
  2. What if we could prevent all unwanted births and delay all mistimed births to match the mother’s fertility intentions?

Though the impacts of improving women’s control over their fertility are small for the population as a whole, there are significant and important improvements in the lives of mistimed children if they are instead born when their mothers are older and more prepared to be a parent. These findings suggest that increasing access to and awareness of high-quality, easy to use contraception (such as long-acting reversible contraception) combined with policy interventions during subsequent stages of a child’s life could begin to close the growing gaps in opportunity.

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