Fertility and Motherhood: How to Tell Whether You Will Ever Give Birth

New research shows more women than ever are remaining childless. Anneli Rufus on 15 statistics that could shape whether you will be one of them.

After soaring to a two-decade high in 2007, the national birth rate began sinking again in 2008, and it's sinking still—mirroring the economy's downward plunge, researchers say. According to a recent Pew Research study, teen birth rates are down, as are those for women in their 20s, the prime childbearing years. But the rate for women aged 40 to 44 increased by a surprising 4 percent. On top of that, more American women than ever now remain childless all their lives: 20 percent, compared with 10 percent 40 years ago. Who does and doesn't procreate these days, and where do you fit in? The Daily Beast compiled 15 eyebrow-raising trends and talked to experts about what’s driving them.

1. If you have a college degree of any kind, there's a 24 percent chance that you will never have a child.

"People who have more education tend to wait longer before trying to get pregnant," says Daoshing Ni, coauthor of The Tao of Fertility. "They were studying, and they made a conscious choice to delay." And with advancing age, the ability to conceive drops.

Social and Demographic Trends, Pew Research Center

2. If you've never finished high school, there's only a 15 percent chance that you'll never have a child.

In other words, if you’re a high-school dropout, there's an 85 percent chance that you will give birth someday. Part of the reason may be that the less education you’ve had, the less sex education you’ve had—and thus the less you know about birth control. And again, it's a matter of the ticking clock. Not finishing high school means having lots of free time during life's most fertile years: Between puberty and age 20, Ni says, females who have unprotected sex have a whopping 90 percent chance of becoming pregnant during any one menstrual cycle.

Social and Demographic Trends, Pew Research Center

3. If you're 44 and still childless, there's only a 0.18 percent chance that you will conceive before your childbearing years are over.

Women who haven’t had a child by age 44 can safely assume they never will. There are many reasons for this, the most obvious of which is that if you hit 44 and you haven’t had a kid, it’s probably because you don’t want to or, for whatever reason, can’t. Despite this, however, more women this age are getting pregnant than ever before with the help of technology.

Social and Demographic Trends, Pew Research Center

4. If you live in Utah, you're nearly twice as likely to conceive than you would be if you lived in New Hampshire.

Utah's fertility rate is 21.0 live births per 1,000 women of childbearing age. New Hampshire's is only 10.9. The national average is 14.2. Vermont and Maine have the nation's second- and third-lowest birth rates. Some scholars suggest that these figures reflect the states' relative religiosity: Religion is "a deterrent to fertility decline" around the world, writes Lisa Marie Jordan, an assistant professor of geography at Florida State University who studies this subject. "High fertility among Mormon populations has been evident for some time."

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The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation

5. If you're a teenage girl who lost your virginity before the age of 15, there's a 46 percent chance that you'll get pregnant before turning 20.

Among those who wait until after 15 to have sex, the likelihood drops to 25 percent. "Very young people tend to use less-reliable forms of birth control," says Harvard University Medical School professor of obstetrics Alice Domar, coauthor of Conquering Infertility. "They're more likely to rely on things like the rhythm method, and even if a teenage girl gets a prescription for [birth-control] pills, she's less likely than an adult to use it consistently." Hormones raging, a pubescent girl "might also be having sex more frequently—with a boyfriend who's young and immature and might refuse to use condoms, and she'll do anything to keep him."

Suellentrop, Katherine & Christine Flanigan (2006). Pregnancy among sexually experienced teens. Science Says, 23.

6. Whether you're of Asian heritage and have a college degree, or if you're of Hispanic heritage and never finished high school, your chances of having a child are exactly the same: 87 percent.

These two seemingly disparate groups display the same fertility rate—and it's a remarkably high rate. In both cases, culture plays a role. "Hispanics tend to marry earlier and have children earlier," Ni says, while Asians are traditionally family- and child-oriented.

Social and Demographic Trends, Pew Research Center

7. If you're married and never finished high school, there's a 91 percent chance that you will have a baby by the time you're 44.

Americans who are married but only minimally educated are the demographic sector most likely to give birth. This entails two key factors: Many more babies are born in wedlock than out of it. Also, dropping out of high school means potentially being unmonitored and independent while also being spectacularly fertile. And then there are those who drop out of high school because they got pregnant.

Social and Demographic Trends, Pew Research Center

8. If you're a 15- to 17-year-old girl and your sexual partner is six or more years your senior, you're nearly four times more likely to become pregnant than a 15- to 17-year-old girl whose partner is two years older or less.

Why do older guys tend to impregnate teenage girls more often? Domar speculates that a relationship between a teen and an adult "is a more controlling relationship, in which he wants you to prove that you love him—and the older the man, the more likely he is to expect sex." (Granted, in most states he's also a sex offender committing statutory rape.) "A 15-year-old boy might think he's lucky if he just gets to second base," Domar says.

Darroch, Jacqueline E., et al. (1999). Age differences between sexual partners in the United States. Family Planning Perspectives, 31(4), 160–7.

9. If you're a woman with a Ph.D., there's a 34 percent chance that you'll never have a child.

When it comes to degrees, size matters. Because by the time a woman completes that dissertation, she might be well into her 30s or early 40s. Fertility drops precipitously with age, sinking to 50 percent by age 30 and 5 to 15 percent by age 40, "so the longer you wait, the more fertility challenges you have," Ni says.

Social and Demographic Trends, Pew Research Center

10. If rising housing values in your area have recently increased the value of your home by $10,000, you're 1.2 percent more likely to have a child than if the value of your home had dropped or stayed the same.

"Housing wealth shocks," as these bursts of income are known, make the addition of a child suddenly seem more affordable. "This is a small but positive effect," says Michael Lovenheim, an assistant professor in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management at Cornell University who studies this subject. He notes that the opposite is also true: A 10 percent drop in income is associated with a 0.03 percent decline in childbearing likelihood over a lifetime.

Lovenheim, Michael & Kevin Mumford (2010). Do family wealth shocks affect fertility choices? Evidence from the housing market boom and bust. Working paper.

11. If you never get married, there's a 44 percent chance that you'll still have a baby at some point in your life.

Then again, there's a 56 percent chance that you won't. Marriage raises the likelihood of childbirth. This might also explain why Utah is the state with both the highest marriage rate and the highest birth rate.

Social and Demographic Trends, Pew Research Center

12. But if you never get married and you have a college degree, the chance that you'll have a child drops to 15 percent.

Add in the education factor, and college-educated never-marrieds are the Americans least likely to procreate.

Social and Demographic Trends, Pew Research Center

13. If you smoke, you're 30 percent less likely to conceive than a nonsmoker.

This is a reflection of smoking’s health effects, not any kind of social trend. "Smoking ages your eggs," Domar explains. "A 25-year-old smoker is as fertile as a 35-year-old nonsmoker—and in fertility terms, 10 years is like death. People think that if they quit smoking, they can turn around and get pregnant right away." No such luck. Aged eggs can't turn back the clock. "Nicotine has been found in the fluid where eggs develop," Domar says.

The Unofficial Guide to Having a Baby, by Ann Douglas and John R. Sussman. New York: Wiley, 2004: page 36.

14. If you're a teenage girl who is in a relationship with a gang member, you're nearly twice as likely to become pregnant than teenage girls who are not involved with gang members.

The study that produced this statistic also found that girls' being gang members themselves had no effect on pregnancy rates. "There are some cultures in which, for a man to be accepted as a man, he has to get a girl pregnant," says Domar. In those realms, she says, "the credo is that a true man knocks up his girlfriend."

A.M. Minnis et al (2008). Gang exposure and pregnancy incidence among female adolescents in San Francisco. American Journal of Epidemiology, 167 (9).

15. If you live in Arizona, you're 4 percent less likely to have a baby now than you would have been last year.

Arizona was the state with the largest change in birth rate between 2007 and 2008. Interestingly, of the 25 states included in a Pew study linking birth rates to the recession, Arizona also showed the second-largest decline in per-capita income from 2006 to 2007. By contrast, North Dakota, which had the nation’s largest growth in per-capita income, was also one of only five of those states whose birth rate increased.

Social and Demographic Trends, Pew Research Center

Anneli Rufus is the author of Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto and the Nautilus Award-winning Stuck: Why We Don't (or Won't) Move On, and the coauthor of still more, including Weird Europe and The Scavengers' Manifesto. In 2006, she won a Society of Professional Journalists award for criticism.