What in the world do children’s car seats have to do with deciding to have a baby?

It’s certainly a curious question and the seemingly obvious answer is “nothing at all!,” right? But that is not what two scholars, working jointly at MIT and Boston College, found. There is indeed a connection, so much so that they titled their research essay “Car Seats as Contraception.”

Not yet published, the paper explains that while child car seats are wise public policy because they indeed save children’s lives, laws requiring them could also have a serious, but expected downside: Far fewer children coming into the world in the first place. This is simply because having a third child can require a family to purchase a larger car because few cars allow for three child safety seats along the back bench. But could this fact actually limit a family’s fertility? More than you might imagine, these scholars contend.

In fact, they explain, “We document a large and perverse effect whereby child car seat mandates have the unintended consequence of large reductions in birth rates.” They find child safety seat laws prevent between 57 and 141 young deaths a year. Very good news indeed. But that is not the whole story in terms of impact on children’s lives. These scholars ask us to consider the other side of that equation. “We estimate that these laws are currently preventing approximately 8,000 annual births, around 141 times greater than plausible estimates of the number of lives saved in car crashes.”

Thus, given the trade off in life-never-realized, these scientists explain, “we find that the estimated impact of car seat laws on deaths of children below age eight is minuscule.” Specifically, “We find that when a woman has two children below the car seat age, her chances of giving birth that year decline by 0.73 percentage points.” Even though that percentage decline per mother is small, they explain that in real numbers, “this represents a large decline” in an overall number of children each year.

These scholars fully appreciate the dilemma their research uncovers. Does this mean child car seat laws are bad for families and the nation?  Surprisingly, they admit “This enormous ratio presents a considerable puzzle” because “children’s lives are now on both sides of the ledger, yet the cost side is two orders of magnitude greater” against those never being born.

Senator Mike Lee, R-Utah, Chairman of the United State Congress Joint Economic Committee, recently noted this dilemma of competing goods of wise, common-sense child-safety policy over and against a mother and father’s decision to grow their family. His office explains,

This is difficult because people choose to have children for all kinds of reasons, and many of them—matters of culture, religion, or personal choice—are beyond the scope of most policy. However, economic considerations also play an important role. To that end, a commonsense first step would be considering removing regulations that, intentionally or not, create new obstacles for would-be parents.

Could car seat manufacturers create smaller seats that could fit 3 to a bench and still maintain safety? Someone fortunately has already done the math on this and says they already exist and will fit most any car. Such seats should be a consideration for parents who want to add more arrows to their quiver.

How Many Babies Do Women Actually Desire?

Ross Douthat, the most conservative opinion writer at the New York Times has a fascinating essay in the new issue of Plough magazine entitled, “The Case for One More Child: Why Large Families Will Save Humanity.” He explains, “It would make an immense difference to the American future if more Americans simply have the 2.5 kids they say they want, rather than the 1.7 births we’re averaging.” In fact, a great deal of research consistently shows that American women generally report wishing they could have more children than they do. Across the European Union, women place their ideal fertility at about 2.28 children. Unfortunately, their actual fertility is dramatically lower at 1.5.

Douthat properly asks us to consider the questions, “What moral claim does a potential child have on our society? What does it mean to fail someone who doesn’t yet exist?” These are important considerations indeed, for each of us and our collective future.

Given this, it is important that all who champion the ideal of growing and thriving families consider the impact seemingly unrelated policy implementation has upon family life. Is Focus on the Family therefore critical of current child seat safety laws? Of course not. They save precious lives and we encourage their use without question. But while we work to save lives today, we must also be mindful of how such efforts inadvertently prevent lives tomorrow. We can be mindful of both at the same time, and we should.

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