Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Do Fertility Intentions Affect Fertility Behavior?

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Do Fertility Intentions Affect Fertility Behavior?

Article excerpt

We examine the relationship between fertility intentions and fertility behavior using a sample of 2,812 non-Hispanic Whites interviewed twice by the National Survey of Families and Households. Time I fertility intentions are strong and persistent predictors of fertility, even after controlling for background and life course variables. The effect is greater when the intentions are held with greater certainty. In contrast, the expected timing of births has a much more modest and short-term effect. Only marital status has an effect with a magnitude that is comparable with that of fertility intention.s. Fertility intentions do not mediate the effects of other variables but do contribute additional predictive power. The substantive importance of intentions emphasizes the salience of individual motivations and argues for a redirection of fertility research toward studies of the interactions between the individual and society.

Understanding what underlies fertility behavior is one of the central questions in demography, and there is a sizeable literature on the determinants of fertility. Important variables include structural factors such as race and ethnicity and social class, economic factors such as income, and individual characteristics such as age, marital status, and parity. In particular, it is well established that individual intentions about future fertility are significant predictors of future behavior (Bumpass, 1987; Rindfuss, Morgan, & Swicegood, 1988; Thomson, 1997; Westoff & Ryder, 1977). What is not clear is whether fertility intentions add to what is known from other established predictor variables or whether intentions simply mediate their effects.

The difference is important. If fertility intentions only mediate other variables, then they add little to our understanding of behavior. However, if intentions contain significant additional information, then they need to be included in fertility analyses. Omitting a significant predictor is known to be a source of bias in estimating the effects of other predictors. Substantively, fertility intentions reflect the salience of individual agency and purposive human behavior, theoretically crucial elements that are easily lost in aggregate demographic studies. The more new information contained in fertility intentions, the more the determinants of those fertility intentions become legitimate objects of study, opening new and potentially promising lines of inquiry.

A widely held view is that fertility intentions are transient period phenomena whose principal value is to reflect the level of "unintended" fertility (Brown & Eisenberg, 1995; Westoff & Ryder, 1977) or the process of couple decision making (Miller & Pasta, 1995; Thomson, 1997: Thomson, McDonald, & Bumpass, 1990). Intentions are frequently seen as simply mediating the effects of other variables. Of particular importance in this regard is the study, First Births in America, by Rindfuss et al. (1988). The authors of that landmark work found that the same factors that predict fertility behavior predict fertility intentions. After examining a tabulation of the percentage of men and women having a first birth by timing intention, Rindfuss and colleagues argued that timing intentions play the primary mediating role between background and adult role variables and the transition to parenthood. Although that finding has been seen as a demonstration of the mediating role of intentions, mediation was, in fact, only inferred. Rindfuss and colleagues did not present an analysis that showed how the effects of other variables changed when intentions were added as a predictor. Moreover, an analysis by Trent and Crowder (1997) failed to find that birth intentions exerted a significant mediating effect, though their study was limited to nonmarital births.

Here, we examine the question of mediation using a more recent data set. We look at births of all orders and recognize the effects of marital status. …

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