Academic journal article Demographic Research

Fertility Intentions: An Approach Based on the Theory of Planned Behavior

Academic journal article Demographic Research

Fertility Intentions: An Approach Based on the Theory of Planned Behavior

Article excerpt



To discuss issues and concerns in the application of the theory of planned behavior (TPB) to the decision to have a child.


We review the basic structure of the TPB, its principles, and its assumptions as they apply to fertility decisions. Among other issues we consider attitudes, subjective norms, and perceptions of control as antecedents to the decision to have a child; the expectancy-value model for understanding the formation of these antecedents; and the role of background factors, such as institutional policies, societal values, and personal characteristics. We illustrate key elements of the TPB using results from a multinational research project and end by considering a number of open questions for TPB-guided fertility research.


We conclude that the TPB can usefully be employed to further our understanding of fertility decisions. By examining behavioral, normative, and control beliefs about having a child we can identify important considerations that influence this decision. The information obtained can also guide adoption of policies or interventions designed to encourage (or discourage) couples to have more children.

(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)

1. Introduction

Fertility intentions are central to discussions of family planning and fertility rates in developed countries. Whether implicit or explicit, behind the emphasis on fertility intentions is the assumption that, at least in developed countries with readily available contraception, having a child is the result of a reasoned decision. That this issue is more complicated than may appear at first glance is indicated by the fact that, even in developed countries, a large number of pregnancies are unintended and result in abortions or unwanted deliveries (e.g., Ventura, Curtin, Abma, and Henshaw 2012; see also Morgan and Bachrach 2011).

1.1 Intended versus actual family size

Demographers study fertility intentions for at least two reasons (see Philipov 2011). First, they use intentions to help predict fertility rates in a given population. Early research suggested that these predictions tend to be quite accurate at the macro level: Realized fertility rates were found to correspond quite closely to mean family size intentions (e.g., Bumpass and Westoff 1969; Hagewen and Morgan 2005; Schoen, Astone, Kim, and Nathanson 1999; Westoff, Mishler, and Kelly 1957). For example, in the 1930s, the mean intended family size in a sample of about 300 U.S. couples was 2.7; twenty years later, the actual family size was 2.6 (Westoff et al. 1957). In a later study (Bumpass and Westoff 1969), mean desired family size among couples with 2 children was 3.3, and actual completed family size was also 3.3.

However, at the individual level, this research documented considerable over- and under-estimates of completed family size. For instance, Bumpass and Westoff (1969) reported a correlation of 0.56 between women?s intended and actual family size. Similarly, in the first wave of a survey of white women with one child (Schoen et al. 1999), the correlation between intentions to have another child and giving birth to a child in the following five years was 0.98 at the aggregate level but only 0.46 at the individual level. The contrasting findings regarding aggregate- versus individual-level correlations are explained by the fact that the number of unwanted children tends to be balanced by the number of unrealized intentions. Thus, in the Bumpass and Westoff survey, 30% of the women had more children than intended, while an equal percentage had fewer children than intended.

More recent research in developed countries has revealed a consistent "fertility gap." Although the desired family size varies greatly across European countries, the ideal number of children in the completed family usually exceeds the actual number (Coleman 1996; Goldstein, Lutz, and Testa 2003). In 2006, for example, the mean desired number of children in Ireland was about 3, while the actual fertility rate in that country was slightly less than 2 children per woman. …

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