HANNA BROOKS OLSEN first tried to get her tubes tied when she was 19.
"Every year, since I was 19, I've gone to the same Planned Parenthood clinic. And every year, I've asked if I can qualify for a tubal ligation. At 19, the doctor told me I needed to be 21. When I was 21, she told me 25. The last time I went in, she told me I had to wait until I'm 30," says Olsen, who is now 24 and working as a writer and editor in Seattle.
"Birth control is crappy and expensive and at any time it could be voted out from under me. I want to be responsible with my health," says Olsen. "I'm happy with the idea of a life that doesn't involve me ever having children."
Last week, the global population hit seven billion, highlighting the high stakes of reproducing ourselves. Clearly, there is no longer a biological need to pop out children to ensure the survival of the race—but young adults who opt against children face a serious stigma.
Humans have bickered over the morals of not having children ever since 1500 BC, when God killed Onan for spilling his seed during coitus interruptus. Since then, we've progressed a surprisingly short distance—while even the pope no longer considers contraception grounds for smiting, the image of a normal family is one that includes children.
SPREADING THE SEED
The 2010 Census revealed that having a child is becoming less and less a requirement for being a mainstream American family: There are now more American homes with dogs than children. The number of houses with kids under 18 dropped 2.5 percent in America over the past decade, declining in 95 percent of US counties. Locally, Oregon has the 42nd lowest birth rate in the country. Only 25 percent of Portland homes include kids, and that number is declining.
Of course, much of that decline comes from women and couples waiting until later in life to have kids (the average age of a mother's first birth rose from 21 in 1970 to 25 today). And you can also thank both the current years-long recession for the drop—birth rates decline during hard economic times—and increased access to birth control.
But there appears to be an increase in people like Olsen: young people who are redefining the image of a happy family as one that's childfree.
Dating website OkCupid crunched the data from its 3.1 million members and found that a whopping 29 percent of its users under the age of 30 state that they never want children. Olsen is just one of many who are taking permanent steps to ensure they never wind up with a kid.
While the current debate over birth control spirals around temporary and emergency contraception, young people who are certain they never want children encounter numerous challenges on both social and medical fronts when they try to act upon their choice.
"Every urologist I called, once they found out my age and that I haven't had kids, would just hang up on me. They wouldn't even have me in for a consultation," says Lint Bunting, 33, who eventually obtained a vasectomy at age 26.
Doctors are free to turn down patients for voluntary sterilization because it's not a medically necessary procedure. In clinics that do offer the service, federal Medicaid guidelines require doctors to have a counseling session with patients, followed by a 30-day waiting period before the surgery. These requirements for informed consent stem from the sordid history of sterilization—in the 1930s and 1940s, eugenicists forcibly sterilized up to 60,000 Americans deemed unfit to reproduce. But Bunting and other young people in his position see them as discriminatory hoops to jump through.
"I finally found a urologist who would see me, though they warned me beforehand that I probably wouldn't pass the counseling. But I went in there and was pretty firm in my stance and they said okay."
Bunting divides his time between odd jobs in Portland and long-distance hiking—spending six months a year on backwoods trails isn't exactly an ideal lifestyle for raising a child. His quest for sterility stems from his time in nature. On his jacket, Bunting wears a patch with a baby crossed out that reads, "Fewer People, More Wilderness" (there's a matching tattoo on his upper thigh).
"My DNA isn't so important that I need to replicate myself. It would just be selfish," says Bunting. "I don't care how many cloth diapers you use or how many Priuses you buy, having a kid is still a huge, huge carbon footprint."
Bunting caught some flak from his parents when he first told them about his decision to never procreate, he says, but they're okay with it now.
"I don't believe in the idea of the biological clock," says Bunting, bluntly. "I don't eat food to take a shit. I like to have sex. My biological human urge is to have sex, the baby is a byproduct of that."
The motivations of Olsen, in Seattle, are less environmental and more personal. Her parents raised her and two siblings on a cop's salary in Lane County, outside Eugene.
"There were too many of us and not enough of everything that we needed. I never wanted to end up in that situation. It's always seemed to me like there's only two paths: You can have a career, or you can have children," says Olsen, who half-jokingly notes that she read The Feminine Mystique "really early on." Both Olsen's mom and grandma had their first child when they were 20—Olsen decided she would devote herself to her community and career. She is happy with her life now, but birth control is always an issue since she has no health insurance. A low-ball estimate for out-of-pocket costs for getting one's tubes tied is $2,500.
A CHILD IS A CHOICE
Refusing to have children is still not seen as a legitimate life choice, says Portlander Karen Foster, 43, who released a book this year called No Way Baby!
"When someone goes into a doctor saying they want to have a baby, would anyone make them go to counseling and then write a letter saying, 'You know this is permanent?' No, no one would question you," says Foster. "That decision to not have children is still seen as 'Maybe there's something wrong with you.'"
"Your generation is actually sitting back and saying, 'Hey, do I want to have kids?'" says Ellen Walker, 51, another Northwest writer who released a book this year about childlessness, Complete without Kids. "In my generation, nobody thought about it. It's just what everybody did."
Like Olsen and Bunting, friends and family constantly told these two women that they would eventually change their minds about having kids. They never did—but both say they have spoken with numerous young people who have had trouble obtaining tubal ligations and vasectomies. Times are changing, says Walker, in part because the gay-rights movement has opened up the door to mainstream acceptance of nontraditional families.
"People are insisting that their family without kids is no less deserving of respect," says Walker (who, by the way, has three dogs).
Portlander PJ Hazen's path to a sterility has been much easier. Hazen, now 28, went in for a consultation with a doctor at the Southeast Portland Planned Parenthood two years ago. He says he was treated without condescension and scheduled for an appointment with no hassle. On the day of reckoning, he remembers sitting in the clinic's waiting room with a "bunch of nervous guys sitting around tapping their feet." When his turn came, a doctor poked a needle full of anesthetic into his scrotum, made an incision over his right testicle, and pulled out Hazen's vas deferens.
"I'm sitting there watching myself be sterilized and I'm thinking, 'Holy shit holy shit holy shit,'" says Hazen. The pain lasted for a few days, but was manageable. "Remember, if you get a vasectomy, don't forget the ice," says Hazen. "Unless you want to find out what elephantiasis looks like."
The cost of the surgery—roughly $1,000—was completely covered by the Oregon Health Plan, which contributes to vasectomies and tubal ligations costs in patients over 21.
AGE OF CONSENT, AND REGRET
At Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), Dr. Paula Bednarek, director of the family planning clinic, says all patients have to go through consultation and a waiting period before a tubal ligation—but she does treat younger women slightly different.
"We do talk to younger women a little differently than older women. When someone's 45 and they're getting a tubal ligation, it's different than when someone's under 30," says Bednarek.
While studies differ on the specifics, the largest and longest-term study of sterilization tracked the feelings of 11,232 women over 14 years. It found age was a factor in regret: 20 percent of women who were 30 or younger at the time they got their tubes tied expressed some regret over their choice, while only 6 percent of older women did.
"Young women know themselves as well as older women. The thing that's different about younger women is they have a longer time for things to change," says Dr. Bednarek. She says she hasn't seen an uptick in young people wanting sterilizations, but that there have been a handful of under-30 women recently coming in for tubal ligations because they're planning to live and work in countries where abortion is illegal and birth control unreliable.
Lovejoy Surgicenter—Portland's largest abortion provider and considered by many a progressive clinic model—has no age limit for sterilization, but does require patients to wait 30 days and sign waivers acknowledging the procedure is permanent.
"If an adult is absolutely sure they will not be wanting kids in their future, we do not see this as an ethical or moral dilemma. We see this as a parenting decision and we honor all parenting decisions," says Lovejoy Director Kayla Reich, via email.
Planned Parenthood policies on sterilization vary between branches, but the local affiliate only requires patients be older than 15, which is the age Oregon requires for informed consent. Tubal ligation is no longer offered at Portland branches, though, because of the cost.
While having children is an individual choice, it's also one that impacts every romantic relationship. Bunting, Olsen, and Hazen all made their child-free choice with their partners in mind.
Bunting sees his vasectomy as an equality issue.
"It's fucked up—women have to take on the responsibility of taking all these pills, of getting an IUD. Getting a vasectomy was me taking on that responsibility. It's a sexual get-out-of-jail-free card," says Bunting.
Hazen opted to get a vasectomy in part because his long-term girlfriend of five years also did not want kids, but had a bad reaction to hormonal birth controls. Olsen and her partner of four years discussed their childbearing beliefs very early on. They both agreed a happy life together didn't require children.
"I don't dislike little kids. I think I don't just need them myself," says Olsen. "It's a thing that the human body does—but it's not the most important thing that our body does."