ONS And Childfree Intentions

by @edent | # # | 2 comments | Read ~339 times.

I've written before about the difference between a person being childless and being childfree. It is a simple matter of intention. Those who want children but don't have them are childless - whereas those with no desire to procreate are childfree.

This is quite an important distinction - and yet it is almost completely absent from the recent Office of National Statistics' report saying "one fifth of women are childless at age 45."

They recently put out these data as an infographic on Twitter.

Looking at the real data, we can see that the pattern seems to be regressing to the mean.
Graph showing Childlessness among women at age 45

The press release is rather sparse on the details, but I find the language rather confusing. The report is specifically called "Cohort Fertility". To my mind, this isn't looking at fertility. There may very well be those who are childless who have fertility issues - but there will be many who may be perfectly fertile yet choosing not to breed.

The full statistical bulletin makes a single mention - in a footnote - of people being childfree.

Basten, S (2009). Voluntary childlessness and being Childfree. The Future of Human
Reproduction: Working Paper #5.

One of the other papers quoted, mentions the numbers of childfree-by-choice adults,

Fertility expectationsNCDSBCS70
Fertile and open to having more children44.6%58.3%
Fertile and categorically not want children20.9%13.9%
Fertile and don't know intentions32.2%23.6%
Infertile/partner infertile2.4%4.2%

..and yet it fails to address this in its conclusion. Merely stating:

... [W]e can expect a rise in the numbers experiencing ‘ambivalent’ childlessness is likely to occur. This group of people have been termed 'perpetual postponers' elsewhere in the literature – a group (of women) who maintain a latent desire for children but do not act upon this either at all, or until it’s too late (Berrington 2004).

Failing, of course, to mention the men who may delay - or have no desire for - procreation.

I - along with several other people - queried the ONS's infographic, and wording:

We got back these rather lacklustre replies.

Is This A Problem?

Semantics are important - in this case, the distinction between childlessness and childfreeness reveal several interesting questions.

  • Is there a biological fertility problem? That is, are people who are willing to breed but unable to do so?
  • Are there political and social problems which are convincing people to delay pregnancy?
  • Are these problems driving the desire not to reproduce?
  • Do men and women differ in their attitudes and desires?
  • What impact (if any) does the increasing acceptance of homosexual relationships have on the desire to bear children?
  • Finally, are they over-counting by failing to measure those who get pregnant unintentionally?

But, no. We just get a tabloid-friendly moral panic that women (and only women) are failing in their patriotic duty to lie back and think of England.

2 thoughts on “ONS And Childfree Intentions

  1. Terence,

    Thank you for your interest in this release from my team. I would just like to comment on a couple of specific aspect to help clear up any confusion.

    Your blog post states " ... The report is specifically called "Cohort Fertility". To my mind, this isn't looking at fertility. There may very well be those who are childless who have fertility issues - but there will be many who may be perfectly fertile yet choosing not to breed."
    I apologise for the confusion here; in a demographic context fertility is used to show the actual number of births a woman has, rather than her ability to conceive (as the term fertility is commonly used), This link gives a reference that explains it fairly simply : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fertility.
    I think this is a case of us using language and not explaining the context / specific meaning to users, so we will take this on board for future releases.
    On the distinction between childlessness and child free, ONS uses Childless to refer to women who have not had a live birth; this is in line with accepted demographic terminology. I understand 'child free' to denote a lifestyle choice, and as this release does not examine the difference between voluntary and involuntary childlessness, it is not appropriate to use 'child free'. The data sources available to my team do not allow us to examine the reasons why women have not had a child by any given age. If this data were available it would undoubtedly provide an interesting resource for analysis.

    "...But, no. We just get a tabloid-friendly moral panic that women (and only women) are failing in their patriotic duty to lie back and think of England."

    ONS is not making any comment on childless women, we are just presenting the available data on the proportion of women who have had births by given ages, and how this has changed over time.

    The criticism that the release focuses on women is one we had attempted to take steps to address in the stats bulletin. The analysis presented, especially for the proportion of women remaining childess relies on the use of information on previous children provided at birth registration. This information is collected for the mother only, and so it is not possible to produce comparable statistics for men. The ONS has no agenda with regard to the reporting of this, and the release attributed childlessness to women solely due to data availability being limited to women and our need for a reference point. Our goal was to provide information, but acknowledge that the analysis is limited by our data. It would not be accurate for the release to discuss "couples delaying childbearing" , as we do not have sufficient information on the underlying patterns of partnership or reasoning behind the fertility patterns. The statistical unit available to us for analysis is women / births not couples, as these are not necessarily stable over time , and so this determines what we can examine.

    I hope this helps, please send any further queries to Fertility@ons.gsi.gov.uk

  2. There needs to be a neutral word describing the set of all people without offspring (regardless of cause or choice) and 'childless' is it - it (alone) doesn't apply a value judgment.

    I understand the use of a different word - childfree - to describe not wishing to have children, but an insistence on its use in all cases introduces the issue of 'why' into places it's not relevant... like these ONS numbers.

    It's also clumsy to group all the 'others' (the 'non-childfree'?) into a single group too. There are many different reasons and - if anything - it is these groups that lack neat descriptors.

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