Is Latin America Starting to Retreat from Early and Universal Childbearing?

Article excerpt

Abstract

The 2000 censuses show that the proportion of women below age 30 who are mothers has dropped substantially in most Latin America countries, suggesting that the social imperative of early motherhood, which has long prevailed in the region, is weakening. Surveys conducted in 14 Latin American countries in 2006 also show a strong link between childlessness and higher education across several cohorts. We discuss whether the recent increase in childlessness among young women reflects a shift towards later childbearing, a novel trend in the Latin American context, and also whether it may signal an emerging retreat from universal childbearing in the region.

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1. Introduction

Latin America is quickly approaching fertility replacement levels. Although the pace of fertility decline has been uneven across countries4 (Guzmán et al. 1996), recent data show that more than half of the 20 Latin American countries had total fertility rates (TFR) close to or below replacement levels by 2005 (Population Reference Bureau 2007). This group includes the four largest countries in the region: Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, and Argentina; as well as five countries with populations that have already crossed the replacement threshold (with TFR lower than 2.1): Uruguay, Chile, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. Fertility patterns and trends at these low levels may be strongly determined by women's behavior in entering maternity; that is, by rates of first births and age schedules. If motherhood continues to be almost universal and early, it seems unlikely that the region will eventually reach the very low fertility levels observed in several European and East Asian countries (Kohler, Billari, and Ortega 2002). Conversely, if larger proportions of Latin Americans opt to have their first child at older ages, or to remain childless, the region could reach very low fertility levels sooner rather than later.

Until now, a distinctive feature of the process of fertility decline in Latin America was that it took place without major changes in the onset of family formation, as indicated by fairly stable rates and ages at first union and first birth (Rosero-Bixby 1996, 2004, Mensch, Singh, and Casterline 2005). It seems, however, that Latin America has entered into a new stage of the fertility decline process in recent years. The proportion of women under 30 who have made the transition to motherhood has dropped significantly in most Latin American countries in the past decade. In Costa Rica, for example, the estimated proportion of women who would be mothers by age 30, according to the rates of the study year, fell from above 80% to about 65% from 1995 to 2005. Drawing on the European experience, this article discusses whether this reduction in rates of motherhood among young adults reflects a novel shift in the starting age of childbearing, an emerging retreat from universal childbearing, or a combination of both.

The study of childlessness among younger groups adds a complementary perspective to earlier research. Previous studies on childlessness in developing countries have been traditionally confined to the end of the reproductive span; i.e., among women in the oldest reproductive age groups, usually over age 40. Based on the assumption that the desire for children is practically universal in developing countries, childlessness has been typically attributed to involuntary infecundity. The comparison of data from the World Fertility Surveys and the Demographic and Health Surveys reveals that permanent childlessness has diminished in Latin America since the 1970s (United Nations 2004). However, the proportion of childless women aged 25 to 49 has recently increased in several countries of the region (Rutstein and Shah 2004), suggesting that childbearing is intentionally postponed (or foregone) by an increasing proportion of young adults.

This article documents the levels and trends of childlessness among young adult women in 16 Latin American countries between 1970 and 2000 with data from four waves of population censuses. …