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In Virtue/Vice, Dr. Christine B. Whelan blogs about news, books, scientific and psychological research and her general musings about virtue and vice in our everyday lives.


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February 19th, 2011

Trying, Not Trying and OK Either Way?


trying-or-not-flashChildbearing outside marriage is on the rise, with some 40% of all births to unwed mothers. And more than half of unplanned pregnancies occur among women who were not using any form of contraception the month they conceived. Were all of those women just being careless?


According to new research, led by Julia McQuillan at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, some women are trying to conceive, others are trying not to conceive — but a significant proportion of women, both unmarried and married, don’t fall into either category: They’re OK with either outcome. And to understand the new realities of American fertility means learning more about these women and their choices.

McQuillan and her coauthors, Arthur L. Greil of Alfred University and Karina Shreffler of Oklahoma State University, found that women who plan pregnancies tend to married–and a bit older, wealthier and more educated than the average American woman. Those who are trying to avoid a pregnancy tend to be in a cohabiting relationship, or have several children and/or step-children already.

Using data from nearly 5000 women ages 25-45 collected by the National Survey of Fertility Barriers, the researchers, whose findings are forthcoming in Maternal and Child Health Journal,  found that 6% of women were trying to get pregnant, 71% were trying to avoid pregnancy and 23% were OK either way.

First Comes Love, Then Comes Marriage, Then Comes the Baby in the Baby Carriage… Right?

The traditionalists among us would assume that married women are more open to chance conception — more likely to be OK either way — than unmarried women, but the data doesn’t bear that out (all puns intended): About a quarter of married women and cohabitating women are OK either way.

To be clear, that means that in about 24% of all cohabitating couples, the woman is neither trying to prevent nor trying to achieve pregnancy.

Indeed, the percentages aren’t really that different for any of the three conception attitudes between married and cohabitating couples. Six percent of women in cohabitating couples are actively trying to achieve a pregnancy, compared with 7% of women in married couples.

Researchers did find that women who were OK either way tended to be more religious and wanted bigger families than the average woman in the sample, and that this cohort tended to share attitudes with women who were trying to conceive more than with those who were trying to avoid.

The data also suggests that race matters when it comes to conception choices, especially in cohabiting couples: Black and Hispanic cohabitating and single women are more likely to be ambivalent about pregnancy prevention than white cohabitating and single women. Approximately 30% of black and Hispanic women are OK either way, compared with 18.5% of white cohabitating women. And only 2.6% of cohabitating white women are actively trying to conceive, compared with 10.1% of black cohabitating women.

“The ‘okay either way’ category seems to exist across race and relationship groups, with some fairly minor variations,” says McQuillan. “What we do not know yet – but are working on – is how stable this attitude is, and if that stability varies by race. For example, at least some women are likely to vary from pregnancy to pregnancy in their attitude – at some points in their life they might try not to get pregnant, later they might try to, or they might be okay either way.”

Why does all this matter?

First, researchers tend to think of women as either trying to conceive or trying to avoid. But if nearly a quarter of women fall into that “other” column, we can’t make binary assumptions about fertility.

Second, this is important information for health-care professionals as they advise women on early pregnancy health, folic acid requirements and the like. Says McQuillan

“If health-care providers only ask women if they are currently trying to get pregnant and women say no, then the assumption is that they are trying not to get pregnant,” McQuillan said. “Clearly, many women are less intentional about pregnancy. Yet this group should be treated as if they will likely conceive and should therefore get recommendations such as ensuring adequate folic acid intake and limiting alcohol intake.”

Third, this is yet more evidence that our linear social model of marriage-then-babies is on the decline. Marriage has become less associated with childbearing, especially among minority women. And, since women who have children outside of wedlock are five times as likely to live below the poverty line (PDF), this is cause for concern.

As McQuillan and her team continue to explore changes in fertility intentions, this is sociological research worth watching.

The Author : Christine B. Whelan
Dr. Christine B. Whelan is an author, professor and speaker. She and her husband, Peter, and their dictator cats, Chairman Meow and Evita Purron, live in Pittsburgh. Her book "Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women" is available in stores or at the Halo Store.
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  • Leslie Palma

    This is a very interesting study, but I’m wondering if it delves into abortion attitudes at all. Specifically, I’m curious about the women who say they are fine with a not-quite-planned pregnancy. Did all those in the study go on to have their babies, or did some of them abort?

    The pro-life movement recognizes a “contraceptive mentality,” that is, an acceptance of abortion as the logical follow-up to a contraceptive failure. I’m curious to know if this study taps into that at all.

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