Childlessness describes a person (or couple) who does not have any children. The causes of childlessness are many and it has great personal, social and political significance. Specific instances and national trends affect individuals, cultures and nations and have impacted on social, economic and political decisions throughout history.

Reasons for childlessness include:




For most individuals, for most of history, childlessness has been regarded as a great personal tragedy, involving much emotional pain and grief, especially when it resulted from a failure to conceive or from the death of a child. Before conception was well-understood, childlessness was usually blamed on the woman and this in itself added to the high level of negative emotional and social effects of childlessness. “Some wealthy families also adopted children, as a means of providing heirs in cases of childlessness or where no sons had been born.”[3] The desire for children is so strong among some childless people that a commercial market in the trafficking of children exists for them.


Socially, childlessness has also resulted in financial stress and sometimes ruin in societies which depend on their offspring to contribute economically and to support other members of the family or tribe. “In agricultural societies about 20 per cent of all couples would not have children because of problems for at least one of the partners. Worry about assuring the desired birth rate could become an important part of family life … even after a first child was born. … In agricultural societies up to half of all children born would die within two years … (Excess surviving children could among other things, be sent to childless families to provide labour there, reducing upkeep demands at home.) When a population disaster hit – like war or major disease – higher birth rates might briefly be feasible to fill out community ranks.” [4]

In the 20th and 21st centuries, when control over conception became reliable in some countries, childlessness is having an enormous impact on national planning and financial planning. [5]


Specific instances of childlessness, especially in cases of royal succession, but more generally for people in positions of power or influence, have had enormous impacts on politics, culture and society. In many cases, a lack of a male child was also considered a type of childlessness, since male children were needed as heirs to property and titles. Examples of historical impacts of actual or potential childlessness include:

  • Elizabeth I of England was childless, choosing not to marry in part to prevent political instability in the kingdom, which passed on her death from the House of Tudor to the House of Stuart.
  • Henry VIII of England divorced his first wife Catherine of Aragon, to whom he had been married for more than 20 years, because she had not produced a male heir to the throne. This decision set in train a break between the English and the Roman churches that reverberated across Europe for centuries.
  • Queen Anne had seventeen pregnancies but none of her children survived so the throne passed from the House of Stuart to the House of Hanover.
  • Napoléon’s first wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais, did not bear him any children so he divorced her and married another in order to produce an heir.
  • The lack of a male heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne in Japan brought the country to the brink of a constitutional crisis. [6] [7]
  • In Monaco, the lack of legitimate children became a matter of public and political concern due to the legal and international consequences if Albert II, Prince of Monaco were to die without lawful heirs.[8]


  1. ^ An example is obstetric fistula which has left many women rejected by their husbands and communities and unable to bear further children. The Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital is the only hospital of its kind in the world dedicated exclusively to women with obstetric fistula. It was founded by Doctors Catherine and Reg Hamlin.
  2. ^ Social infertility is a term that has been used to describe homosexuality or single life as factors of infertility. Sexual Function and Sexuality: Social infertilityIn extended use, it also includes couples where the husband spends a lot of time away from home, such as in the armed forces, or for those who simply put other goals, such as a career, before having children, resulting in infertility from advanced maternal age.
  3. ^ Stearns, Peter N. (20109). Childhood in world history. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon; New York. pp. 33. ISBN 9780415598088. 
  4. ^ Stearns, Peter N. (2009). Sexuality in world history. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon; New York. pp. 18. ISBN 9780415777766. 
  5. ^ Toshihiko Hara: Increasing Childlessness in Germany and Japan: Toward a Childless Society?International Journal of Japanese Sociology Volume 17, Issue 1, pages 42–62, November 2008
  6. ^ Baby boy ends 40-year wait for heir to chrysanthemum throne
  7. ^ Controversial legal change mooted
  8. ^ Monaco seeks new golden era with princely wedding

See also

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Childlessness — Child less*ness, n. The state of being childless. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • childlessness — noun see child …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • childlessness — See childless. * * * …   Universalium

  • childlessness — noun the state of being childless …   Wiktionary

  • childlessness — n. state of having no children …   English contemporary dictionary

  • childlessness — child·less·ness …   English syllables

  • childlessness — noun the condition of being without offspring • Derivationally related forms: ↑childless • Hypernyms: ↑situation, ↑state of affairs …   Useful english dictionary

  • children — Childlessness was such a disaster that the Hebrews could regard it only as a punishment from God (Gen. 20:18); but children in abundance (Ps. 127:5) were a mark of divine blessing, and, in the case of sons, the means of perpetuating the family… …   Dictionary of the Bible

  • Childfree — (sometimes spelled child free) also known as voluntary childlessness [1] is a form of childlessness. The term was coined in the English language late in the 20th century[2] and is used to describe people who have made a personal decision not to… …   Wikipedia

  • Marcia C. Inhorn — at Yale, 2009. Born 1957 Residence New Haven, CT Nationality …   Wikipedia

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