Is birth control ultimately self-defeating?

A couple of times in various posts, I’ve alluded to a theory of mine about birth control, which no one has ever commented on. So I’d like to present it up front for discussion. My theory is this: that eventually, birth control will have a selective effect on the human race, leading to people who don’t want to use birth control.

My theory is based on three premises: (1). Birth control (=contraceptives plus abortion) will eventually become universal, easy to obtain and convenient to use throughout the world. To the point where virtually no woman who doesn’t actively want children will have them. (2). The desire to have children is at least partially biologically based; that is, the decision to have a baby is in part determined by genetically inherited personality factors, and is not purely a psychological or cultural phenomenon. (3). By pure selection then, after multiple generations of birth control, the human race will consist of people whose ancestors wanted children and chose not to use birth control.

It can be argued that for thousands of years women were trapped in cultures where they were expected to be breeders whether they wanted to or not. When women were property and forced marriage/ rape the norm, it was irrelevent whether women had any natural maternal instinct or not. But now the Pill has been available for 2+ generations, and barrier contraceptives for about 4 generations. I find particularly intriguing reports that in recent years there has been a small but noticable upswing in the fertility rate in the developed world after years of steady decline.

In other words, is birth control self-defeating in the same way that antibiotics or insecticides are?

I think your theory has several flaws.

You’re assuming that the Earth has unlimited resources and that they’re accessible to anyone - that is, whoever breeds the most will be the most successful.

Unfortunately, the resources of the Earth are limited, and they’re not universally accessible (e.g. we have a surplus of food in certain areas and a dearth of food in others). Given a static set of resources handed out to each adult, those with the most children have to divide their resources the most, and will suffer. So evolutionary pressure might be applied to the richest, not the most populated, group of people.

Incidentally, off-topic, but your same theory has been proposed often by people who predict doom and gloom for homosexuals (who biologically propagate at a much lower rate than hetersexuals).

I don’t believe women have a natural maternal instinct, or every woman would want to have one. But if they do, and we naturally select it out, and the human race dies out…so? Who cares? That’s the path we’ve chosen, and that’s the way nature works. We’re still only animals, even if we pretend to be better,

I think it could be interesting to see what type of people don’t pass on their DNA, or the ones that do. Rich or poor, black or white, white collar or blue collar…

But as far is birth control self-defeating I don’t know but am happy with out children:)

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That makes it sound like there’s a gene that controls whether or not someone wants to use birth control. I’m fairly certain that some people who come from families that didn’t use birth control end up using it themselves.

Someone posted recently that, in America, rich people actually have the most children, middle class people the fewest, and poor people slightly fewer than rich people. We’d have to search to see the exact numbers and how the categories were defined.

No, because choosing not to use birth control is most likely influenced by culture (and other factors) rather than by genetics.

No, I wasn’t talking competition for resources or dog-eat-dog survival. I’m taking for granted that in a modern society few people actually starve or simply cannot bear and raise children. I was talking about people who choose to not have children not perpetuating their genes. See premise 3.

No, no, I’m arguing that birth control selects FOR the desire to have children.

Please, please, please let’s not let this degenerate into a debate about eugenics or class/race struggle. I meant to limit the discussion to just two types of people: Those who want families, and those who choose to have few or no children.

Not for using birth control, which is a complex intelligent decision. I’m talking about the “I want a baby!” urge which leads some people to place an extremely high priority on having children. I conceded the complexity of human behavior in premise 2. I merely questioned whether the wish to have children is not TOTALLY cultural. In other words, if there’s any genetic component at all, then selection and inheritence comes into play. If it ain’t inborn YET, will it eventually be? And while people who come from families who don’t use birth control end up using it themselves, I’m arguing that the reverse is by definition less likely to happen.

I think the way you want to look at this is not as a biological/genetic type question, but as a cutural one. I think you’d have a hard time proving that contraception is a matter of genetics. OTOH, you’ll have a very easy time proving that certain cultural/religious value systems do put more or less value on large litters, and one could argue that those value systems might be self-defeating. And of course some have argued exactly that vis a vis the ongoing “baby bust” among native Europeans.

It does set up an interesting duel between economics v. genetics, though. For much of human history, it was in both your genetic and economic self-interest to have lots of kids (especially boys). One would assume that the biological urge to spread one’s genes is still intact, but in the modern developed world, kids are no longer neccessarily an economic boon (raising them becoming increasingly expensive, and you can just as easily set up a reliable retirement account as depend on them in your dotage). So it would seem that what’s good for your pocketbook is not the same as what’s good for your genes.

Looking at the birthrates, it seems Marx may have Darwin on the mat. I don’t know, though, that I’d assume he can get the pin.

Your base assumption is flawed. People who use birth control (like my family) have children, just on our own timing. I’d propose that people who don’t use birth control are genetically predisposed to be less educated and thus have, in general, lower income.

Lumpy, birth control has been around for millennia. The Code of Hammurabi outlaws abortion. So you’d expect this selection to have begun already, wouldn’t you? Yet birth control is more popular today than ever before.

And here’s the biggest flaw in your reasoning: birth control is used more by people who WANT to have children than by people who DON’T want to have children.

That is, most folks who use contraceptives do want to become parents eventually: they just don’t want to become parents right now. They want to wait until their lives are stable and they feel that they can emotionally and materially provide optimal conditions for childrearing.

Given that, you’d expect the children of birth-control-using parents to be better-adjusted than the kids of birth-control opponents; as such, if there’s an evolutionary effect, you’d expect it to be in favor of people who are willing to use birth control.

(Note that my theory is entirely unsupported–but then, so is Lumpy’s. I’m mostly offering it to demonstrate that given the paucity of facts, we can draw opposite conclusions without difficulty).


Left Hand beat me to my point- I am both a parent and a birth control user. They are not mutually exclusive.

I don’t think that the OP holds water.

And birth control, in it’s various forms, has been around for a few thousand years already and everything seems to be going along just fine.

The flaw in the theory is that it treats having children as all or nothing. Birth control is more often used to control the number of children, and not to prevent all pregancies for a woman, (although it sometimes does that inadvertantly such as when a woman uses birth control when she’s younger and then is unable to conceve later in life).

Even if the there were a biological component of wanting children, the social and econoical factors concerning the number of children is obviously much greater, as seen by the birthrates in the developed vs. non-developed worlds and accross various religious groups. Genetic components couldn’t change quickly enough to account for the dramatic differences seen.

The theory doesn’t seem to be working in Japan. The birthrate is continuing to drop yearly, with no upswing in sight.

I’d like to expand on the idea put forth by TokyoPlayer.

Contraception is not an all or nothing proposition in most cases, and while I have no imperical data to back up this claim, I feel reasonably safe in assuming that in most cases of permanent contraception, successful reproduction has already occured.

Birth control is much more commonly used to postpone the act of becoming a parent, not prevent it entirely.

If anything, I think a better question to ask is what will the pill do to women’s bodies in say 100 years? Perhaps in that time the female body will begin to figure out what the pill is trying to do and come up with ways to stop it, thus rendering it useless and leading scientists to either up the dosage to stay ahead or vary the amount to keep the bodies guessing.

What mechanism do you propose for this? It sounds like you’ve been reading too much Clan of the Cave Bear.

Evolution doesn’t work that way, certainly not over the course of the five (to be generous) generations that will occur over the next century. Bodies don’t “figure out” anything. The most that could happen would be over the course of many millennia: assuming that:

  1. Birth control pills don’t change; and
  2. women who use contraception have fewer children who reproduce than women who don’t use contraception; and
  3. A series of natural mutations occur that make the Pill not work for those women who experience the mutation; and
  4. Women with this mutation don’t adopt an alternate form of birth control;

Then you might see this mutation spread throughout the population. However, the only one of these assumptions that seems remotely plausible to me is #3, and that one only because I don’t understand endocrinology very well.


That’s not how evolution works.

First, you’d have to have a woman who develops some genetic quirk that makes her resistant to the pill (which one? Let’s just assume all of them for the purposes of this exerise, unlikely as this is), and that she passes on this trait to her children (well, her daughters, but it would be helpful if her sons passed it on to their daughters).

Secondly, you’d have to assume that her lineage is more reproductively successful than women without this trait. As you’ve stated, this is unlikely, since the pill-users will still have some children, and the pill-resistant women can practice other forms of birth control (from abortion and surgical sterilization, right on down to abstinence). And there’s nothing to saw that this lineage even tries to use the pill anyway. But let’s also assume this is true for the purposes of the discussion.

It would still take many hundreds (if not thousands) of generations before this lineage had outbred others and thus spread throughout the human population. By which time I suspectthat technology would have advanced so far that women would have long abandoned hormonal birth control for some alternative with less side effects anyway (or else we’re ruled by apes, in which case its a moot point).

Now, if you’re saying that the daughters of pill-users might show some effects from their mother use of hormonal birth control, you may be right. But we’d be seeing it already, and I doubt that it’d simply be that the pill is ineffective on them. Our bodies aren’t so smart that they can simply ignore a drug because it wants to within a single generation.

I am aware of how evolution works. I (perhaps incorrectly) assumed that since nobody called the original poster of this thread on the three generation evolution thing, that it was assumed that that was controlled for in the original question. I appologize. It was very late and I was simply trying to play devil’s advocate by spinning the original question a bit - that and I was trying to disagree with the original theory in a polite manner.

Hey, no problem, and sorry for implying that you didn’t understand evolution!

However, I think we did call the “three generations” thing into question, by pointing out that birth control has been around for many thousands of years. Even if we hadn’t, though, the mechanism in the OP is at least more plausible than the “women’s bodies will adjust to the Pill” mechanism that you propose, inasmuch as it takes advantage of existing variations in population (i.e., the desire to have rugrats) instead of proposing that a new variation (i.e., resistance to the pill) will develop within a handful of generations.

There are plenty of problems with the OP, but I don’t think the three-generation problem is the most significant.


I think the OP’s assumptions are too binary. It’s not a question of women who want babies vs. women who don’t. I think that many, if not most women who use birth control DO want children. Birth control is not about not wanting children ever but wanting the ability to control the number and frequency of pregnancies.

It’s not like the people who do have children never use birth control.

Even if you get to this point, I’m not sure why this matters. My parents wanted children - and lots of them. But I don’t.

I don’t see how one’s parents’ or ancestors’ choice in birth control really affects my decision to use birth control. Are you saying it’s genetic? Because that would be really, really strange.

I agree that there could be a genetic effect involved but I think defining it only as applying to birth control is too narrow.

People who are using birth control are presumedly people who feel they need to use birth control; people of child-bearing age with no fertility problems who are actively engaging in heterosexual acts. So there’s no genetic reason these people should have less descendants than a control group; the only difference in the birth rate is caused by the birth control.

Now consider why people use or fail to use birth control. Obviously some people are seeking to have children and some are basing their decisions on cultural issues. But overall, if we seperate society into “people who consider the consequences and plan ahead” and “people who jump right in and don’t worry about tomorrow”, we’re going to find more birth control users in the first group.

So on one level, the “prudent” genes will lead to people having fewer children and the “reckless” gene will lead to people having more children. But natural selection isn’t decided on one level; the same gene that makes people “reckless” about birth control is going to make them make other reckless decisions without thoughts of the consequences. And the same “prudent” gene which makes people use birth control will also make them plan ahead in other situations. For every reckless gene person who has an extra kid there will be a dozen other reckless gene people who didn’t bother to store food before the drought or sharpen his spear before going into battle or get an innoculation before visiting some tropical country.