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Ninety percent of the differences across countries in total fertility rates are accounted for solely by differences in women's reported desired fertility. Using desired fertility constructed from both retrospective and prospective questions together with instrumental variables estimation, the article shows that this strong result is affected neither by ex-post rationalization of births nor by the dependence of desired fertility on contraceptive access or cost. Moreover, in spite of the obvious role of contraception as a proximate determinant of fertility, the additional effect of contraceptive availability or family planning programs on fertility is quantitatively small and explains very little cross-country variation. These empirical results are consistent with theories in which fertility is determined by couples' choices about children within the social, educational, economic, and cultural environment couples, and especially women, face. The results contradict theories that assert a large causal role for expansion of contraceptive use in the reduction of fertility.
Population and Development Review © 1994 Population Council