As shelter-in-place orders have been in effect for several weeks, there has been considerable speculation that a “coronavirus baby boom” may emerge nine months later.1 A hypothetical “corona baby” cohort would grow up to be “quaran-teens” and have the unique collective experience of being conceived during an infamous pandemic. The idea of couples resorting to sexual activity under circumstances that confine them to close quarters and impose limitations on other activities is an alluring one, but is this a realistic speculation? Will we see a baby boom or a baby bust?
Demographers have long been interested in the fertility consequences of natural catastrophes and economic downturns.2-6 According to their body of work, fertility tends to change little in response to short-term and less extreme events, but tends to decrease following longer-lasting and deadly catastrophes.2-6 For example, fertility changed little nine months following the 1965 Blackout, which left New York City without electricity for 10 hours.2 In contrast, fertility decreased 9 months after the 1918 influenza pandemic and the 2015 Ebola epidemic.5-6 COVID-19 has proven to be a deadly pandemic similar in magnitude to the catastrophic events in the latter category, with 2,899,830 confirmed cases and 203,044 deaths worldwide.7
Fertility shifts are driven by changes in (a) fertility preferences and (b) the couple’s ability to actualize those preferences. Potential parents may find the prospect of having a child during a pandemic to be daunting. For starters, they may not wish to bring their children into the world when they perceive their risk of morbidity and mortality to be significantly higher. Potential parents may also wish to postpone having a child to a time when they can count on reliable, in-person prenatal care and can give birth without worrying about a shortage of medical personnel, services, and supplies.8
Then, there is the looming economic downturn, which some forecast to be the first depression in many of our lives. The U.S. now has 26 million people out of work and many more people are concerned over the prospects of future unemployment.9 Because raising a child is an expensive endeavor, couples generally postpone childbearing in times of high and prolonged economic uncertainty.10-11 For example, fertility decreased significantly during the Great Depression in the 1930s, the Oil Shocks in the 1970s, and the Great Recession in 2008.10-12 A coronavirus baby boom seems highly unlikely at a time when the first economic depression of our lifetimes may be looming around the corner.
This pandemic, however, differs from prior catastrophes in that it has drastically reduced access to contraception. As hospitals divert resources to the care of COVID-19 patients, women may have difficulty meeting with reproductive health care providers, obtaining prescriptions for oral contraceptives, or scheduling procedures to insert long-acting reversible contraceptives.13 Over the counter (OTC) contraceptives may also be in short supply. COVID-19 lockdowns have forced a major condom manufacturer to temporarily halt production.14 Furthermore, the disruption of global supply chains for materials and pharmaceutical ingredients for different contraceptives could result in prolonged shortages. This in turn will disproportionately limit birth control access for individuals with low income.15 Some politicians have also seized the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to set restrictions on abortion. Nine states declared abortion as a non-essential medical procedure and placed a temporary ban on abortions.16 Combined, the shortage of contraception and ban on abortion mean that a higher portion of pregnancies conceived during this pandemic will be unplanned.
In sum, if the fertility consequences of COVID-19 follow historical trends, then a baby boom is highly unlikely. Yet, how unlikely it is depends on the duration of the pandemic, the severity of the ensuing economic downturn, the impact on supply chains of contraception, and the pervasiveness of anti-abortion measures enacted by local governments. If a baby boom does occur, then it will largely be composed of unplanned births and most likely be observed among the socioeconomically disadvantaged.