An extensive literature documents the effects of birth order on various individual outcomes, with later-born children faring worse than their siblings. However, the potential mechanisms behind these effects remain poorly understood. This paper leverages US data on pregnancy intention to study the role of unwanted fertility in the observed birth order patterns. We document that children higher in the birth order are much more likely to be unwanted, in the sense that they were conceived at a time when the family was not planning to have additional children. Being an unwanted child is associated with negative life cycle outcomes as it implies a disruption in parental plans for optimal human capital investment. We show that the increasing prevalence of unwantedness across birth order explains a substantial part of the documented birth order effects in education and employment. Consistent with this mechanism, we document no birth order effects in families who have more control over their own fertility.
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We follow the demographic definition of an unwanted birth as a birth in excess of total desired fertility. The broader notion of unintended birth includes both unwanted and mistimed births. Given our purposes, we do not consider mistimed births.
See Kessler (1991) for additional early references.
The indicator is not defined for those who reported being out of labor force for the entire year.
Children who result from mistimed pregnancies, particularly when these occur before marriage, may also have negative effects on outcomes later in life. See, for example, (Nguyen 2018)
Joyce et al. (2002) find that prospective and retrospective reports of pregnancy intention provide the same estimate of the effects of being an unintended child on various prenatal outcomes once they control for selective pregnancy recognition using an IV procedure. Further, they show that the extent of unwanted fertility was the same regardless of whether the assessment was during pregnancy or after birth. They show this for a subsample of women for whom pregnancy intention was assessed both prospectively (during pregnancy) and retrospectively (after birth).
In principle, since we are looking at families with two and three children, the number of first-born and second-born children should be the same. In practice however, our number of second-born children is slightly smaller than the number of first-borns because they are more likely to have missing information on our outcome of interest, completed education.
However, it is of interest to explore whether the pattern of increasing prevalence of unwanted children across birth order holds in 4-child families. Since we only know whether the first, last, or second to last child in a family was unwanted, we cannot tell whether a second-born child in a four-child family was unwanted. But we can still look at first-, third-, and fourth-born children in those families. Consistent with the patterns in Table 2, we find that in four-child families, the incidence of unwanted children grows from 16% among first-borns, to 27% among third-borns to a whopping 53% among fourth-borns.
These are families for which we identify at least one unwanted child or families for which information for pregnancy status is missing for at least one child.
We follow the religion taxonomy in Evans (2002) and classify the following religions as having a more strict attitude against abortion: Roman Catholic, Protestant, other Protestant, other Non-Christian, Latter Day Saints, Mormon, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Greek/Russian/Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Christian, Christian Science, Seventh Day Adventist, Pentecostal, Jewish, Amish, and Mennonite. Mothers reporting these religions are more likely to be pro-life and less likely to use abortion to terminate unwanted pregnancies. We then classify Baptists, Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Unitarians along with Agnostics and Atheists as having a less strict attitude towards abortion.
In the pooled specification, the effects for the third child are statistically significantly different from each other across the two tables.
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We thank Janet Currie, Joe Doyle, Martha Bailey and seminar participants at the University of Michigan for helpful comments. Lin acknowledges research support from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant No.71573004) and the Key Laboratory of Mathematical Economics and Quantitative Finance (Peking University), Ministry of Education. During work on this project, Sun was supported in part by the George Katona Economic Behavior Research Award funded by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. All errors remain our own. The authors would like to thank the anonymous referees for helpful comments and suggestions.
Wanchuan Lin acknowledges research support from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant No.71573004) and the Key Laboratory of Mathematical Economics and Quantitative Finance (Peking University), Ministry of Education. Shuqiao Sun was supported by the George Katona Economic Behavior Research Award, funded by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.
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Lin, W., Pantano, J. & Sun, S. Birth order and unwanted fertility. J Popul Econ 33, 413–440 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00148-019-00747-4
- Birth order
- Unwanted births
- Fertility intentions