How Many Children Do U.S. Women REALLY Want?

Harte, Mary Ellen | October 25, 2018 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

The author and the one child she chose to have, 30 years ago. Concern about overpopulation was a factor in her choice.

“How many children do you want?” is a question that simply has not been asked of women in the United States. And even similar questions are not likely to yield an accurate answer. Consider the following scenario: it’s evening, dinner’s brewing, and Gallup Poll or General Social Survey, the two most respected, least biased U.S. polling organizations, call, asking, “What do you think is the ideal number of children for a U.S. family to have?” How often does a U.S. woman even consider this question – and, given probably less than a minute to answer, how likely is she to produce a thoughtful answer?  Yet this is the closest question these two organizations have posed to U.S. women that might possibly indicate their personal preferences on the number of children they themselves desire.

This serious dearth of current data on U.S. women’s personal desires for family size has become fertile ground for some to infer answers through misleading rationalization. For example, in a non-refereed analytical blog  on a right-wing funded website, a cited European study of 2011 data on the desired number of children within a family indicates polled national ideals closely correlate with personal preferences. Can we assume the same for U.S. women? Ultimately, the blog author does, equating ideal with desired fertility, and notes that intended fertility drops well below desired fertility after 2013. He concludes that women are now settling for roughly 0.3 fewer children than they desire.

This tenuous string of assumptions about U.S. women’s desires has started permeating  more mainstream media such as the New York Times, where this same author asserts a gap between U.S. women’s desired and actual fertility, without citing any refereed, factual study. More recently, another New York Times author, discussing how economics affects the fertility choices of U.S. middle class women, also claims an uncited gap.

If there is a gap between desires/ideals and reality, intentions track the compromise between them. Now, the question becomes: “How many children do you intend to have, considering the real-world conditions that affect you and the child you might create?”  Numerous studies worldwide indicate that women’s intentions are being thwarted significantly: roughly half the pregnancies in the world, including U.S. pregnancies, are unintended. Such levels can be directly correlated with lack of easily accessible and affordable, highly effective contraceptives.

In the meantime, can U.S. women agree on any answer to the question of how many children women want? Assuming that most women want the best future for the children they have — or even the first child they might want — one can ask how many children in a family will fulfill that wish.

Here, a wider picture emerges of the various factors shaping that future. On a global scale, humanity has already exploded to unsustainable levels, with consequences that are degrading the future of all our children, both present and future, as illustrated for example in the world scientists’ second warning to humanity. Those unsustainable levels, combined with increasing human consumption, are seriously degrading the air we breathe, the water we drink, the land we farm, the food we raise, the climate we need to survive, and the systems we need to maintain those vital resources.  Our planet is an emerging picture of large scale pollution and destruction of our vital resources. The crash of humanity is ever more inevitable as the crush of humanity escalates. That’s the current future for our children.

Where are the humane solutions to their future?  They lie not in technology, but in ourselves. A transition to clean energy can help, IF it is done fast enough. Conserving and recycling and consuming less can also help.  A thousand more small actions and innovations can add up.

But current social trends show that we are not changing nearly enough to make a dent in the large-scale changes currently underway. Consumption is not declining; the increasing concentration of wealth among the few is ensuring the proliferation of poverty and rate of wasteful consumption associated with it.  Marketing to encourage increased consumption continues to rise with our numbers.  The sharing of resources with those facing increasing catastrophes, whether due to loss of homes, food, or water, is also declining. These are uncomfortable, inhumane facts.

Given that few of us are likely to support increasing numbers of economic refugees – the desperate children, women and men in need — resulting from increasing global degradation and social imbalance, the only humane solution is to embrace a contraction of our numbers in all countries to humanely sustainable levels, beginning with how we view the size of our own families here in the U.S., where the consumptive footprint of one child can equal that of six or more in developing countries.

How many children women may want emotionally is a deliberation rarely connected to how safe a future those children will have, based on such choices throughout our society. How do your choices reflect on your children’s future?  If you and your partner decide to produce two or more children, you are voting, viscerally if not consciously, for the current unsustainable levels of humanity, and the crash that will ensue. And yet, when choice is easily accessible, many choose to have 2 or more children, because the choice is usually based on emotional imagination, rather than reasoning or even rational hopes.

The good news is that some women are recognizing that connection, and basing their choices on it, but far more action is needed on at least two levels. Education is needed for this connection to be recognized and become a deep, heart-felt one that influences far more families and society in general. It is a message that needs to permeate our culture deeply, broadcast from highway billboards to printed and video formats on the array of offline and online venues. Secondly, far greater and easier access is needed, both economic and physical, to family planning information and materials that allow women to make intentional choices. Our children’s future depends on both approaches.

How many children do U.S. women really want?  We simply do not know. The U.S. needs far more data, and far less vague speculation before any accurate picture emerges on the subject.

But we do know that our children’s future depends on U.S. women thinking just as profoundly with their minds as with their hearts when deliberating the answer.


Mary Ellen (Mel) Harte Ph.D. is a biologist who writes on climate change and population issues. She co-authored the free downloadable 2008 book, Cool the Earth, Save the Economy, at Cool the Earth, and produced Climate Change This Week, a weekly series compiling climate change news and solutions worldwide at the Huffington Post from 2012-2017, and the Climate Change Reports blog.


The MAHB Blog is a venture of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to

Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on LinkedIn
The views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.
  • Greeley Miklashek

    Population density stress is killing, men, women, and children NOW, through all of our ubiquitous “diseases of civilization”: heart disease, stroke, cancer, lung diseases, accidents, overdoses, alcoholism, suicide, kidney disease, etc. The pathophysiology has been established for many decades but does not sell expensive new drugs, so it is not publicized. It’s laid out in “Stress R Us” in the MAHB library by an experienced (42 years), retired physician, me. Traditional living sparsely populated hunter-gatherers have NONE of our diseases and live comparable lifespans, although lacking in the heroic extensions we pay so dearly for. Consider the world we bring children into now, where we are already 2,885 times more numerous than our original hunter-gatherer ancestors 12,000 years ago, and they had comparable lifespans, without our 4.3 billion Rx annually. Save the environment, yes, but also consider the quality of life and health of our planned offspring. We owe it to them, just like we owe them an environment at least as healthy as the one we have inherited. Stress R Us

  • Tara Gilbert

    I raised one child who’s mother passed away. I felt and feel that there are so many unloved and unwanted children in the world and that it would be better for everyone on the planet to just do that. I never felt that deep need to procreate, and don’t understand people that do. Not when so many species are disappearing and the planet is so polluted. It is so possible to mother as many children as you desire when you adopt. With so many kids in need all over the world its irresponsible not to.

  • JohnTaves

    “Education is needed for this connection to be recognized and become a deep, heart-felt one that influences far more families and society in general. It is a message that needs to permeate our culture deeply, broadcast from highway billboards to printed and video formats on the array of offline and online venues.”

    There is a flaw in this statement that belies the flawed conventional wisdom on this topic. “that influences far more families” is not correct. It should be: “that is known by everyone”. This is not my opinion. This is not some rah-rah motivational statement. This is based on simple math. Every demographer, every population scientist, and yes everyone on the planet, must know that if my descendants average more than 2, they will cause child mortality. Averaging more than 2 kills children.

    This is so fundamental to demography it is appalling that our demographers don’t know this. Hold subsistence production steady, such that the population cannot grow, then tell me what must happen if we average 3 babies…. 1/3rd of the children must die. We can generalize this: (x-2)/x children must die when we average x babies, where x > 2. (x-2)/x is THE fundamental formula in this field of scientific study, yet it is virtually unknown. Go ahead and show me where this formula is taught, described, or written.

    Notice what I am pointing out here. If there is a group of people that successfully pass along their beliefs to an average of more than 2, they will ensure the population is at the limit and children are dying as a consequence of that group averaging too many babies. That will happen even if everyone else on the planet has zero babies. An obvious example of such a belief is “God wants us to be fruitful and multiply”. The education that the author is suggesting cannot succeed if it hits “far more families”. The successful education must ensure that no beliefs exist that are successfully passed on to an average of more than 2. Everyone must know that averaging more than 2 kills children. Not “far more”, everyone!

    Demographers must pay attention to this. Notice that it makes no mathematical sense to sample and average to arrive at the answer to “How many children do you want?”, Let’s say that there is a group of 1000 people in the middle of Japan that believe that their god wants them to have a lot of children. And let’s say that everyone else wants zero babies. Demographers will sample and average and conclude that nobody wants to have a baby and therefore humans will be extinct in about 100 years. The demographers will be 100% dead wrong. The scientific techniques demographers use, are USELESS! It makes no mathematical sense to average in the ones that choose to have less than 2 babies with the ones that choose to have more than 2. No, I am wrong, those techniques are not useless, they are worse than that. They are misleading. They lie. They supply a bogus view of what is happening.

    A similar mistake happens with income distribution. Averaging too many babies kills children. If disease, war, and accidents are not killing children fast enough, starvation will be the swing producer because we are talking about too many people for too few resources. Starvation is zero income. If just one child dies of starvation related causes, the income differential is infinite. Notice how this fact makes the following statement from this article rather silly:

    “the increasing concentration of wealth among the few is ensuring the proliferation of poverty and rate of wasteful consumption associated with it. Marketing to encourage increased consumption continues to rise with our numbers. The sharing of resources with those facing increasing catastrophes, whether due to loss of homes, food, or water, is also declining. These are uncomfortable, inhumane facts.”

    It makes no bloody difference how much we consume if we average more than 2. Children must die, and therefore there will be an infinite income differential. An increasing amount of sharing will do no good. The best possible sharing will only ensure we are all equally on the verge of starvation. Averaging more than 2 ensures children must die. They are not going to die if they are wealthy. In other words, averaging more than 2 guarantees we have starvation, which means some will be horribly poor. It produces poverty. Poverty cannot be eliminated if we average more than 2. Groups of people suffering starvation related child mortality is exactly what will happen if we average too many babies for too long. We have always had those symptoms, which makes perfect sense because it is not possible to NOT average too many babies without knowing that it kills.

    “On a global scale, humanity has already exploded to unsustainable levels”. This statement implies that the growing population caused the unsustainable levels. Humans have lived sustainably for the bulk of human history only because it is fundamentally impossible to consume resources faster than they renew for long. We have never put in place a mechanism that ensures we produce babies only in response to death, so therefore we have always averaged too many babies. We always were attempting to grow our numbers and the failure to discover ways to increase subsistence production ensured the numbers did not grow for the bulk of human history. In the past few hundred years we have discovered countless ways to increase subsistence production and that enabled our numbers to grow. In addition many of those increases came from consuming resources faster than they renew. Fossil fuels are the obvious example. We use them to refrigerate, ship, harvest many times more subsistence than otherwise possible. In short, our numbers did not “explode to unsustainable levels”. We discovered how to increase subsistence production largely using unsustainable methods allowing our numbers to explode.

    Let me provide an analogy to show how this article misses the mark. Imagine if there is a machine at every entrance to the Pentagon building that shoves another person into the building every second. The Pentagon is analogous to Earth and the machine is analogous to averaging more than 2. This article is discussing the fact that we don’t know how fast women want the machine to run. The article mentions that we don’t distribute people throughout the building evenly. There are some being crushed to death, and some living like kings in their locked offices. (I did not make this analogy have unsustainable resources).

    It makes no bloody difference how evenly we pack people into the building. The machine is a killer. It makes no bloody difference how fast women want the machine to run. It is a killer if it runs faster than people die of natural causes.

    Everyone must know that averaging more than 2 kills only children and only kills children. If we know that, then most likely nobody will want to average more than 2, and not just women, men too.

    • melharte

      I have written elsewhere previously about the need to reduce our population through having fewer children (1 or 0), but what your comment misses (beyond the math: 2 children average still keeps human populations at unsustainable levels) is that the decision of having children is an emotional, not rational one, for most couples. This becomes obvious if you ask people involved in overpopulation studies how many children they personally have, or want to have. They understand the problem, but need to be emotionally invested in the solution. They already “know” plenty – now they have to make an emotional commitment to act responsibly. For the uninformed, it’s both education AND emotional investment. No amount of just knowing is adequate.

      • JohnTaves

        Sorry, I don’t buy the argument that people know that averaging too many babies kills only children and only kills children.

        It is certainly not common knowledge that the groups of people suffering starvation related child mortality is caused by averaging too many babies world wide.

        The definition of “overpopulation” is unambiguous, and obviously humans are blatantly way overpopuated, but there is nearly zero agreement on whether we are overpopulated. Our population scientists don’t really comprehend the definition of “overpopulation” and that it is very useful. (I think they are confusing the term with a second definition and that ensures they fail to comprehend the term).

        The Gates foundation is attempting to minimize child mortality and therefore ensure the birth rate comes down. However, Melinda Gates does not understand the concepts I just wrote above. See In this video she explains that she and Bill had 3 because they could afford to. Clearly she does not comprehend that if we all flawlessly did not create a baby if in the next 20 years we would fail to feed that child, but the rich averaged 3 babies, then 1/3rd of those children would grow up to be so poor they knew they cannot afford to make a baby.

        I am sorry, but there are a set of facts that are simply not known. Of course the decision to have a child is emotional, or rather does not have any limitations. We have near total ignorance on a set of concepts that must be known.