The Links between Optional Parenthood and Reproductive Rights

The Links between Optional Parenthood and Reproductive Rights

Last summer, Time magazine published a cover story declaring “Childfree Adults Are Not ‘Selfish,'” in which recounts her decision to not have children:

“This should not seem that radical. But 52 years after the advent of the birth control pill, and more than a century after the word ‘feminism’ was first coined, a woman’s decision not to have children remains fraught. It is also very public, relentlessly scrutinized by psychologists, politicians, statisticians and the media, who gather to discuss what it may mean — for women, for the funding of Social Security, for Western civilization as we know it. This past winter, a pair of Newsweek writers — of the dude persuasion — went on a gloom-and-tirade (sic) about declining birth rates and the self-involved young adults that are causing them.”

As a historian and a voluntary non-parent, I found the Newsweek article to be achingly familiar.  The authors argue that the rise of “postfamiliasm” in developed and even some developing countries is causing an economic disaster “as boomers hold onto life and onto the pension and health benefits promised by the state while relatively few new children arrive to balance their numbers and to pay for those promises.”

Aging baby boomers clinging to life?  This reminds me of the dystopian sci-fi film Logan’s Run (1976), based on a novel of the same name.   Logans_run_movie_poster

Set in the year 2274, the film depicts a decadent society of young people who live in a domed city that protects them from the devastation of the post-apocalyptic outside world. The residents are free from work and other cares because their lives are run by a computer that takes care of their every need, including reproduction. The catch is that at age 30, each person must undergo a ritual called “Caroussel” [sic] in which they are vaporized and “renewed.”  In an interesting twist on the popular 1960s catch phrase, “don’t trust anyone over 30 — kill them!” — the film focuses on Logan, a “Sandman” hired to track down and kill “runners” who try to escape their fate.  Eventually Logan  becomes a runner himself, joining with an underground resistance group that destroys the computer and sets the residents of the domed city free.

Like Soylent Green (1973) and Z.P.G. (1972) , Logan’s Run reflected the era’s anxieties about the environmental costs of world overpopulation. The film Z.P.G. took its title from the organization Zero Population Growth (ZPG). Co-founded in 1968 by population biologist Paul R. Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, Zero Population Growth warned of the catastrophic effects of unchecked population growth on the biosphere. At the first Earth Day celebration in 1970, Ehrlich predicted that “[i]n ten years all important animal life in the sea will be extinct. Large areas of coastline will have to be evacuated because of the stench of dead fish.” Unlike the film Z.P.G., which made reproduction illegal for a generation, the organization promoted voluntary measures such as birth teach-in-office_4471_600x450control and abortion to limit world population growth.

As I describe in my book, Student Bodies, ZPG held teach-ins on college campuses, prompting students to create dozens of ZPG college chapters around the country. Several of the self-help birth control books that students at this time created were prompted by ecological concerns. For example, during Earth Week in April 1970, students at Duke University compiled and distributed “A Guide to Contraception and Abortion.” The UNC publication “Elephants and Butterflies” was likewise sponsored in part by the student conservation group ECOS. Ecology groups at other campuses soon followed this example.

Yet the alliance between student birth control advocates and the population movement was an uneasy one. Planned Parenthood President Dan Pellgrom told University of Connecticut Biology Professor Nancy Clark, that given the controversial nature of ZPG, and population groups more generally, it was “essential” that Planned Parenthood provide leadership at the ZPG’s teach-ins, and use it as a way to increase student interest in forming campus chapters of PPFA. Pellegrom warned of the dangers of affiliating with ZPG, however. Based on his experience working with black community groups, he had “personal problems” with ZPG, “one, because their rhetoric could be taken by the black communities as genocidal and two, because they seem to be often politically inept.”

White students also challenged the racist assumptions of the more extreme population control advocates. James Trussell, for example, said his experience working with impoverished blacks in the Muscogee County, Georgia Health Department family planning clinics led him to remark, “When all the programs are aimed toward the poor blacks, it’s not difficult to understand why some of them think that family planning is an attempt at genocide.” He added, “there just aren’t enough poor people to cause that big of a population problem . . . these programs have to reach the middle class as well, and every college student should be aware of the fact that his third child is going to expand the problem.”

The efforts of Trussell and other students to persuade middle-class Americans to limit their fertility were tremendously successful: the average number of children per woman fell from 3.8 in 1957 to 1.8 in 1987. Not only did this activism bring an end to the postwar “baby boom,” it also inspired some couples to opt out of parenthood altogether.  In 1972, the National Organization for Non-Parents (NON) was founded in Palo Alto, California by Shirley Radl and Ellen Peck. In her controversial best-selling book The Baby Trap (1971), Peck declared “I’m grown up and I want my life now, thank you” — an adult life, not “a second childhood vicariously.” Peck criticized the “baby sell” and “mother come-on” used by manufacturers, who presented women with “idealized mother-baby images in order to sell their products.” Peck and other members of NON aimed to provide support for themselves and others who were childfree by choice. In 1973, the organization decided to pick August 1 as a day to celebrate those who chose non-parenthood. They held a pageant where they selected a Male National Non-Parent of the Year and a Female National Non-Parent of the Year.

The winners were Stewart Mott, a 35 year old bachelor and philanthropist and Mrs. Anna Silverman, a 25 year old teacher nonparentsofyearand co-author (with her husband Arthur) of The Case Against Having Children (right). The Non-Parents of the Year rode down 5th Avenue in New York on August 2, 1973 in a special open top cab, and presided over a “Consciousness Raising Social” at the Institute for Rational Living.

For those interested in learning more about the history of NON and the childfree movement, contact Yale graduate student Jenna Healy. She gave a paper entitled “Rejecting reproduction: The National Organization for Non-Parents and reproductive rights activism in 1970s America” at the 2012 meeting of the American Association of the History of Medicine.  As the title suggests, NON and other childfree activists deliberately linked their movement to those advocating birth control and abortion.

In order to emphasize its links to other pro-choice activism, NON changed its name to the National Alliance for Optional Parenthood, or NAOP. They aimed to “educate the public on non-parenthood as a valid lifestyle option, support those who choose not to have children, and promote awareness of the overpopulation problem.” NAOP was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation. In its 1981 annual report, the Hewlett Foundation described NAOP as an organization that “encourages young people to make thoughtful and responsible decisions about parenting by trying to reduce the impact of societal pressures that equate success or growing up with parenthood.”

Since the childfree movement was so closely linked to Second Wave feminism, it didn’t take long for conservatives to attack the movement as “selfish.”  Meanwhile, some population experts claimed the movement to control population growth had gone too far, at least in the developed world.  In his book, The Birth Dearth: What Happens When People in Free Countries Don’t Have Babies, Senior Fellow Ben Wattenberg of the conservative American Enterprise Institute warned that plummeting birth rates in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe would lead to the decline of Western democratic values and diminish the military power of the free world. As Susan Faludi wrote in her bestselling book, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women, “the women’s movement served as the prime scapegoat” for the “birth dearth.” Faludi describes how Wattenberg’s work was soon adopted by conservative social theorists and political candidates who, like President Theodore Roosevelt in the early twentieth century, claimed that the declining birthrate among white, educated, middle-class women compared with immigrants and poor women of color was leading to “genetic suicide.”

Although there are more of us voluntary non-moms around than ever before, we still get flack for making this choice. When I was younger, I would get asked at every baby shower, “when are you going to have a baby?” My reply, “never,” was met with disbelief or shock, even at showers for my friends in Women’s Studies who should know better!

As a guide to the clueless, diehard pronatalists out there, the Huffington Post came up with a list of things you should never say to a childfree woman (many of which I’ve heard myself). I hope all women — but especially those who claim to be pro-choice — will read and learn from it. I also suggest they read Laura S. Scott’s book Two is Enough: A Couple’s Guide to Living Childless by Choice and watch her documentary, The Childless By Choice Project. Maybe then more people will acknowledge that voluntary non-parenthood is a legitimate choice, not an aberration.


Heather Munro Prescott is Professor of History at Central Connecticut State University. She is the author of The Morning-After: A History of Emergency Contraception in the United States, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2011.