Provocative studies have reported that in the United States, marriages producing firstborn daughters are more likely to divorce than those producing firstborn sons. The findings have been interpreted as contemporary evidence of fathers’ son preference. Our study explores the potential role of another set of dynamics that may drive these patterns: namely, selection into live birth. Epidemiological evidence indicates that the characteristic female survival advantage may begin before birth. If stress accompanying unstable marriages has biological effects on fecundity, a female survival advantage could generate an association between stability and the sex composition of offspring. Combining regression and simulation techniques to analyze real-world data, we ask, How much of the observed association between sex of the firstborn child and risk of divorce could plausibly be accounted for by the joint effects of female survival advantage and reduced fecundity associated with unstable marriage? Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY79), we find that relationship conflict predicts the sex of children born after conflict was measured; conflict also predicts subsequent divorce. Conservative specification of parameters linking pregnancy characteristics, selection into live birth, and divorce are sufficient to generate a selection-driven association between offspring sex and divorce, which is consequential in magnitude. Our findings illustrate the value of demographic accounting of processes which occur before birth—a period when many outcomes of central interest in the population sciences begin to take shape.
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Dahl and Moretti (2008: table 2) attempted to distinguish selection-driven versus counterfactual channels. They looked at births that happened at a time when there was still substantial variation in the use of ultrasound technology for prenatal care; they proposed that this variation can be treated as a natural experiment. It is important to note that the validity of that natural experiment rests on assumptions of no associations among the use of nonstandard prenatal medical intervention, parental circumstances, pregnancy survival, and the sex of the pregnancy. Those assumptions are nearly identical to assuming that the difference in curly braces in Eq. (2) is zero. Therefore, interpreting the ultrasound patterns as evidence of a specifically counterfactual effect of having daughters on risk of divorce represents the logical fallacy of begging the question. It is a test of the key assumption, which itself relies on the very assumption it is supposed to be testing.
More detailed discussion of the evidence is available in Online Resource 1, section B.1.
More detailed discussion of the evidence is available in Online Resource 1, section B.2.
Details on the study, including documentation of sampling and attrition, can be found online (http://www.bls.gov/nls/nlsy79.htm).
The analogy is not perfect. For example, the study design in Nepomnaschy et al. (2008) probably captured acute stress but not chronic hyperstimulation of the stress system. Nonetheless, the comparability in these relative risks arguably indicates that our putative association is plausible.
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The ideas in this article have benefited from comments of Elizabeth Ananat, Tim Bruckner, Ray Catalano, Jennifer Beam Dowd, Elizabeth Frankenberg, V. Joseph Hotz, Christopher McKelvey, Alberto Palloni, Elizabeth Peters, and Duncan Thomas, as well as Pamela Smock, three anonymous reviewers, and our co-participants and attendees at session 161 (“Unions, Fertility, & Children”) at the 2013 annual meeting of the Population Association of America. Research described in this study was financially supported in part by the Center for Demography of Health and Aging at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The authors are solely responsible for all content.
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Hamoudi, A., Nobles, J. Do Daughters Really Cause Divorce? Stress, Pregnancy, and Family Composition. Demography 51, 1423–1449 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-014-0305-x
- Mortality selection
- Sex ratios
- Fertility and fecundity