True reproductive freedom is not just about birth control and abortion. It also necessitates a welfare state that allows families and single women to have the number of children they wish to have. Only when both factors are satisfied can real reproductive freedom be achieved.
Conservatives denounce both parts of this equation. Welfare (by which they mean government subsidies that don't go to rich people or corporations) is bad, and should be abolished. Abortion is also bad, and should be outlawed (or at least restricted as much as practicably possible). Laws that require health insurance to cover birth control are considered violations of religious freedom.
By contrast, there is wide agreement on the left that abortion should be legal, and near-universal agreement that birth control should be covered as a basic medical necessity. There is also increasing but tentative agreement that the United States needs to seriously beef up its family benefits, with some limited proposals like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's FAMILY Act for 12 weeks of paid family and sick leave — pitiful by Nordic standards, but it's a start.
However, the left has yet to coalesce around a complete child welfare system deliberately designed to allow people to get around the obstacles modern capitalism places in the path of having children.
Remember, the American birthrate continues to fall, year after year. When I checked in on it two years ago, the total fertility rate was estimated at 1.87 (that is, the number of children born per woman, which must contain some guesswork due to many women being in the middle of their childbearing years). The latest numbers show 2017 had the lowest number of total births since 1980, and an estimated fertility rate of 1.76.
There are myriad reasons for America's falling birthrate. But economic obstacles are surely prominent among them.
Because capitalist institutions only distribute income to labor and capital, it creates three basic problems: First, children cost tons of money, but do not work. Second, in modern families both parents generally need to work, but child care is increasingly expensive — so much so that for lousy jobs, one's entire paycheck might not even cover it. Third, the prime childbearing years are when people are young and in the early career track, when they are making less money (and in America especially, often have titanic loads of student debt).
The result in all too many cases is that having a child pushes people into poverty. America's shoddy welfare state — a moral abomination and international humiliation — gives us a child poverty rate of over 15 percent.
What should be done? Here's a sketch of a basic child welfare system: a maternity grant to deal with birth costs, paid leave for mothers and fathers, a child allowance of, say, $300 per child up through age 16, universal pre-K, and some kind of subsidy or direct provision of child care. The point is to create institutions and additional income supplies that allow people to have whatever sort of families they wish.
This thinking still hasn't broadly caught on. One reason, I suspect, is some lingering whiffs of 1970s overpopulation phobia. Many liberals and environmentalists are still somewhat against childbirth, believing it interferes with personal freedom or worsens climate change (a bad argument). In its worst form this is expressed as anxiety that the Wrong People (that is, the poor) are having too many children. Witness the ongoing popularity of the baldly eugenicist film Idiocracy, or the undertone of Catherine Rampell and Isabel Sawhill's arguments about why free birth control can cut poverty (namely, that poor people have too many kids).
Even lefty economist Dean Baker, while he admits that U.S. child benefits are miserable, still scoffs at the low birthrate: "If we have fewer kids because people's priorities are elsewhere, so what?" One can't possibly conclude that priorities have simply changed until people actually have true reproductive freedom — and it is absolutely beyond question that right now Americans are being coerced into having fewer children than they'd like to. Surveys show women would like to have 2.7 children on average, yet will likely have only 1.8 — and the gap has grown substantially since the recession, to the highest level in 40 years.
One doesn't have to subscribe to the most controversial notions of evolutionary psychology, nor the capitalist view of human beings as a mere input to production for private profit, to think that having children is a fundamental human experience that should be open to all. Of course people should be free to go childless. But they should also be free to raise as many kids as they choose.