Research Direction

The scientific study of fertility is well advanced. We define an advanced science as one with agreed upon strategies of measurement and analysis, widely accepted frameworks for organization and interpretation of data, and widely accepted characterizations of phenomena that are "explained." In this chapter we have discussed each of these elements.

A logical way to conclude this discussion is to identify some important unanswered questions and to identify the ones most important to address in the next few decades.

For countries beginning or in the midst of the fertility transition, one is unsure whether to expect a more rapid or a slowed transition to low fertility. Studies of these transitions are key for refining our theories of fertility decline and because new phenomena could fundamentally alter the process. One argument holds that countries with currently high fertility are selected for their resistance to fertility decline. Perhaps they have pronatalist institutions that are especially resistant to change. Alternatively, reduced concern about population increase could reduce international aid, such as support for family planning programs, directed toward population concerns. This reduced aid could arrest ongoing fertility declines. Finally, new factors could alter the decision context making fertility control less acceptable (HIV/AIDS for instance). Or demographic differences could be politicized and linked to group identity and political disadvantage and thus perpetuated or exaggerated. Such a dynamic may account for Muslim-non-Muslim fertility differences in Asian countries with Muslim minority populations (see Morgan et al. 2002: 534). Such intergroup processes could emerge and operate at the international level, fueled by international events that foster pan-Islamic identity.

Other evidence suggests that recent declines have been more rapid than those begun in earlier decades, leading to the prediction that the pace of current and future declines will be the most rapid of all (Bongaarts and Bulatao 2000: 76-77). This expectation is linked to the importance of the diffusion of ideas and technology conducive to low fertility. The current globalization of trade, communication, and travel promotes these diffusion processes (Bongaarts and Watkins 1996).

Among low-fertility countries the key issue, as discussed earlier, is How low will fertility go? This question begs another (addressed by Morgan and King 2001): Why do couples have children in the 21st Century? Evidence that parenting is a powerful, life-defining event is widespread; most persons, men and women, desire and expect to have children. But substantial variation exists in intended family size, and we need to know more about the intensity of preference (Do persons strongly desire two or does a response of "two children intended'' imply relative indifference in the one to three range?). The same question holds at the international level, where evidence suggests widespread mean desired family sizes of approximately two (Bongaarts 2001; 2002). More intensive study could reveal a general willingness in some countries to have fewer than this number. Such a finding may portend lower future fertility.

Nevertheless, the key contemporary question is: Can countries and will countries create environments where men and women can have the children they intend and also pursue careers and valued leisure activities? Or will competition among these valued life domains lead to decisions to postpone and forego childbearing? Covariation of institutional contexts with fertility levels shows that very low fertility is not inevitable (Morgan 2003). However, this claim leaves us a long way from precise answers to the question: What mix of societal institutions produces an environment conducive to replacement-level fertility? Answering this question tops the low fertility research agenda. The richness of future analyses will be aided by more (and more non-Western) societies to study as low fertility spreads (Morgan 2003).

Finally, future technology may alter the characteristics and experiences of pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting and thus contribute to making the future trends and differentials uncertain. For instance, postponed childbearing increases the risk of sub-or infecundity. But these risks can be partly offset by assisted reproductive technologies. Will new innovations and discoveries make this technology less intrusive, more effective, and more acceptable and thus virtually eliminate infecundity as an antinatalist factor? Also, genetic engineering, techniques that allow parents to choose the genetic makeup of their children, could have far reaching effects on reproduction, the family, and society (e.g., Silver 1998). But it remains unclear whether such technology will become available and whether it will be widely used. The debates over these new technologies will be among the most interesting and important of the coming decades.

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Pregnancy Guide

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