"If I want to hear the pitter-patter of little feet, I'll put shoes on the cat."
Bumper stickers like this one, found via the Childless by Choice Web site, may be the sign of the future.
Childlessness is growing in America, the Census Bureau stated in a report issued last month. In 1976, 10 percent of women in their 40s said they had not had a child. Two decades later, their number had nearly doubled to 19 percent.
The no-baby trend, which analysts say has no signs of declining, is welcomed by groups such as No Kidding!, whose Web site features a trio of grim-looking tots and the suggestion: "Got Norplant?" Then there's the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT), whose motto is, "May we live long and die out."
"Each time another one of us decides not to add another one of us to the burgeoning billions already squatting on this ravaged planet, another ray of hope shines through the gloom," said Les U. Knight, a VHEMT leader in Portland, Ore.
"Making fewer polluting consumers can only have a positive effect on the environment," said Jerry Steinberg, the "founding non-father" of No Kidding!, an international social club for singles and childless couples.
The Internet abounds with "child-free" Web sites for those who loathe "ankle biters," "crib lizards" and "unruly, ill-mannered yard apes."
Some analysts, however, see social upheaval ahead if childlessness continues to grow.
Italy, Japan and several other developed countries have average birth rates of slightly more than one child per couple, resulting nationally in dwindling populations, said Allan C. Carlson, president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society in Rockford, Ill.
"These are aging populations, dying populations . . . and their welfare state systems will become increasingly difficult to sustain," he said.
It is likely that foreign workers will be brought in to do the necessary tasks, he said. But that changes the nature of the country, he added, and whether that's desirable or not "depends on your perspective."
Statistically, it takes 2.1 births per couple to naturally replace a nation's population. The U.S. birth rate falls slightly below replacement levels, with 2.0 births per couple. Native-born Americans average fewer births - 1.8 births - than foreign-born women, who average 2.2 births.
Childlessness is expected to rise here, said Census Bureau analyst Amara Bachu, author of "Fertility of American Women: June 1998," issued in October.
Among U.S. women of childbearing age, 15 to 44, around 35 percent were childless in 1976, she said. By 1998, 42.2 percent of women in this age group were childless.
Maryland and Virginia have childless rates close to the 42.2 percent national average, but the District leads the nation in childless women at 61.5 percent.
The reasons for the District's No. 1 ranking aren't completely clear, but they are probably linked to the following demographic characteristics, laid out in a 1999 paper by Ms. Bachu:
* White never-married women have the highest childless rates, compared with other ethnic groups.
* Women with high educational degrees, in managerial or professional jobs, or who come from wealthy families have the highest levels of childlessness.
* Women living in the Northeast and the West have the highest levels of childlessness, regardless of marital status.
Researchers who study childlessness divide people into three categories: those who want children but can't have them, those who expect to have children but are postponing it, and those who choose to forgo parenthood.
The third category - the childless by choice - has attracted a lot of attention because it used to be rare. During the 1970s, for instance, studies found that less than 3 percent of married women were voluntarily childless. …