Remembering that non-motherhood has been common for some time — a minority experience, but hardly a rare one — matters not only as a reminder that women without children today are not alone, historically speaking. More critically, it matters because ongoing efforts to limit access to abortion and contraception are at times framed as a necessary reaction to women’s decisions to limit the number of children they bear.
For instance, Matt Schlapp, the head of the influential Conservative Political Action Coalition, reportedly suggested last May that he supported abortion restrictions not just on moral grounds but also out of concern for America’s population numbers. “If you say there is a population problem in a country, but you’re killing millions of your own people through legalized abortion every year, if that were to be reduced, some of that problem is solved,” he said. (According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2020, the most recent year for which such data is available, more than 620,000 legal abortions took place in the United States.)
So when Senator Vance and the pope — among many others, of course — express concern about women today not having children, they aren’t comparing us to a past that actually existed. They’re really telling us what they want us to do — or what they would force us to do — in the present.
Before women had access to hormonal birth control, Planned Parenthood clinics or the protections that Roe v. Wade offered for nearly half a century, they knew ways to try to limit births, and they used them. In ancient Rome, women used things like beeswax, olive-oil-soaked cloth or even halved lemons to block their cervices before having sex. Members of the modern anti-abortion movement often cite the Hippocratic oath, which in previous versions apparently included a prohibition against abortion, but what they don’t mention is that the Greek physician for whom it is named once recommended that an unhappily pregnant woman perform strenuous exercise until she miscarried. From medieval Europe to colonial America, women would have used an array of herbs to attempt to end pregnancies.
Across race and class, American women drastically reduced their fertility in the 19th century, with some groups averaging half as many babies at century’s end as their great-grandmothers had at its start. Nearly 16 percent of white women and 13 percent of Black women born in 1870 had no children; of all American women born between 1900 and 1910, 20 percent never did. Some of them may have experienced infertility. Some of them may have avoided heterosexual sex. But not all of them. Some of them, maybe even many of them, were actively avoiding having children.