On the Societal Impact of Modern Contraception



This essay focuses on the technological dimension of social change – modern contraception – which is part and parcel of the “second demographic transition”. The mastering of childbirth has been essential for individuals, society but also for the world in total. Conscious behaviour towards smaller families was already observed in the nineteenth century. It later turned into widespread behaviour and led to a demographic transition. Since the 1960s contraception has become safe, efficient, and effective. Without perfect contraception we would have lived in a very different world. However it is absurd to contribute the fertility change towards (far) below the replacement level entirely to perfect contraception. The basic aim was to make sexual relations, particularly inside marriage, less risky and more fulfilling at a time when most couples already tried to limit the size of their families. Couples and individuals have the basic right to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children. Unplanned pregnancies are now easily prevented. With perfect contraception it is more so that contraception, rather than the coitus, has to be interrupted deliberately if a conception is desired. Procreation has become a matter of personal preferences, and the drive to procreate apparently is weak. Rather paradoxically, the novel, unforeseen, and enabling role of modern contraception is reflected in postponement of childbirth, demolition of societal control over sexual behaviour and marriage – increased non-marital cohabitation, postponement of marriage, lower marriage rates, increased union break up, increased extra-marital fertility – and the right to undergo assisted reproductive technologies if a wished pregnancy stays away too long. Increasingly people experience difficulties in reproductive decisions, also because of commitments on the labour and the housing market.


Birth Control Sexual Intercourse Total Fertility Rate Sexual Relation Demographic Transition 
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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of AmsterdamAmsterdamThe Netherlands
  2. 2.Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute (NIDI)The HagueThe Netherlands

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