Contraception and the Demographic Transition


  • We thank the editor of this Journal, Frederic Vermeulen, and two anonymous referees for their valuable input. We acknowledge feedback from participants at various seminars and conferences where this article was presented. Thanks also to Jeff Allen for excellent research assistance. The usual caveat applies.


Inspired by the historical English experience, we modify the Beckerian paradigm of fertility by incorporating costly, societal influence on contraception. Heterogeneous, generationally-linked households choose between ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ contraception. The modern has a higher fixed but lower variable cost of averting childbirths. Initially the rich adopt the modern, which unleashes society-wide diffusion. Eventually everyone switches, lowering fertility further and across households. Hastening the switch is falling child mortality. Quantitative experiments suggest contraception was a vital link between the historical mortality and fertility transitions, though not the latter's proximate cause. Implications for more recent transitions are discussed.