People all over the world have stopped having children.
The populations of at least 12 European states are declining. In 35 years, less than 12 percent of the population in Portugal will be under the age of 15, according to the European Union’s Eurostat agency.
Japan is also in the midst of an accelerated population decline, with official projections estimating that the nation’s population will fall by 40 million by 2060. In October, the Chinese communist government, faced with one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, ended its decades-old “one child policy,” allowing all married couples to have two children.
The same phenomenon is happening in Latin America. With the birth rate in free fall and estimates that the population will decline by one-third in 50 years, the Cuban government is circulating pro-pregnancy literature to encourage young couples to have children.
“We have created a world that over the long run is going to resemble a sort of collective suicide pact,” said Steven W. Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute, a nonprofit organization that fights against overpopulation theories and coercive population control programs.
“Children are becoming less and less common, and less and less desired. There is no developed country that has an above replacement fertility rate. That suggests we have a universal problem,” Mosher told Our Sunday Visitor.
The reasons why
The factors are complex for why many couples across the globe are not having an average of 2.1 children, which is the replacement-level fertility rate for most countries. Urbanization, industrialization, educational and career opportunities, reduced infant mortality rates, contraceptive use and shifts in attitudes and social mores have all conspired to drive down birth rates in developed countries.
“There has clearly been a normative shift in the size of families,” said Dr. Susan Yoshihara, the senior vice president for research and director of the International Organizations Research Group for the Center for Family and Human Rights.
Yoshihara, editor of “Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics,” told OSV that entire countries could “disappear” if birth rates do not turn around. She noted that whole villages in Europe and Japan have already turned into ghost towns.
“For some towns, it is the end for them,” Yoshihara said. “As to what happens in the large scale, I’ll guess we’ll find out.”
Nicholas Eberstadt, a political economist and demographer with the American Enterprise Institute, told OSV that he thinks the vision of a demographic winter is “a little bit too apocalyptic” because he said an aging and shrinking society can still maintain prosperity.
“People can work longer. People can be better educated. Economies can become more flexible. There can be technological advances and innovation. People are healthier. All these things offset and countermand the vision of an economic apocalypse from population aging and decline,” Eberstadt said.
‘Choosing to be alone’
As to why couples are not having children, Eberstadt said the reasons transcend the social sciences.
“It has to do more with the zeitgeist and people’s attitudes,” Eberstadt said.
Yoshihara noted several studies that show the numbers of women in their 40s who have never had children are growing in European countries such as Italy and Germany, both of which have fertility rates under 2.0. Studies also show that more adults are living single, without spouses or partners.
“They’re choosing to be alone,” Yoshihara said. “It’s a lot about desire. Many people just don’t want kids.”
Even in China, where the communist government in 2013 allowed some couples to have a second child, only 11 percent of eligible couples applied, citing the expenses and pressures of raising children.
“Large families were traditionally treasured for thousands of years in China, and in just 30 years, the communist government managed to crush that,” Yoshihara said. “It’s amazing. If that’s not an indictment of family planning policy, I don’t know what is.”
A United Nations report, released in late October, indicated that average global fertility rates from 2010 to 2015 fell to an average of 2.5 children for every woman. Between 1990 and 1995, the global average was three children per woman, the U.N. reported.
Fertility remains relatively high in some regions, especially in areas of sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and the Middle East. For example, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Angola, Ethiopia and Nigeria all have average fertility rates over three, according to the World Bank Group.
“Parents still want families in Africa,” said Yoshihara, who added that fertility rates remain high in that continent despite the developed countries and nongovernmental organizations that have distributed contraceptives in family planning programs.
“Contraception saturation is pretty high in Africa,” Yoshihara said. “Access and education about contraception is not an issue. A lot of women know about it, have used it in the past and don’t want to use it because they want kids and they don’t like the side effects.”
Mosher attributes coercive family planning and population control programs with driving down fertility rates across the world, especially in Latin America, where he said organizations like Planned Parenthood Federation of America spend millions of dollars annually to fund groups that push for legal abortion.
“The whole agenda is to drive down the birth rate even further, and there is no natural stopping point,” said Mosher, who suggested that a natural cycle exists where fertility rates decline as a nation develops and public health improves. With modern medicine and lower infant mortality rates, Mosher said couples tend to naturally have fewer children.
“Before the advent of medical contraception, people controlled their fertility by breast-feeding, abstinence. They controlled it in various ways,” Mosher said. “It’s not like before the birth control pill, people were always breeding like rabbits. They had as many children as they needed in order to have two or three survive to adulthood.”
Looking to immigrants
With birth rates below replacement, some countries are having to rely on immigration to offset the losses in population.
“The only reason Germany’s shrinkage of population didn’t commence decades ago is because Germany, which has had more deaths than births since the early 1970s, has welcomed a lot of newcomers from other places,” Eberstadt said.
Several demographers believe that nations like Germany could benefit from the record number of refugees who are entering the European Union from war-torn and repressive states such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Eritrea. More than 750,000 migrants are estimated to have made their way across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe this year, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Yoshihara said whether the migrants will help Europe depends in large part on how well they assimilate into their host countries. “Very few countries integrate immigrants well,” she said. “The United States has always done a great job of attracting immigrants and integrating them into our society. Europe hasn’t always done that well.”
Rather than relying on immigration, Mosher said countries need to make it economically easier for married couples who want two or more children, such as sheltering them from taxes. In many countries with graying populations, Mosher said young families are taxed heavily to support expensive social welfare programs.
“Governments can do many things. They can feed the hungry, clothe the naked and give drink to the thirsty,” Mosher said. “But they can’t reproduce.”
Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.