Monday, November 20, 2006

Low Fertility In Europe

by Edward Hugh

This collection of articles by the sexual and reproductive health section of the WHO will contain few surprises for regular readers of DM, but may well prove interesting for those who are less familiar with this topic (careful, PDF file and a very slow loader). Nonetheless there are also some interesting details.

The balance between ensuring female equality and trying to achieve reproduction levels of fertility is not always an easy one. As the editors of this collection say in their introduction:

As can be read from several of the articles in this issue of Entre Nous, upholding the reproductive rights of women and men, also in a European context, can be a challenge and several governments have led pro-natalist policies, which in some cases have been in conflict with ensuring reproductive rights.

The fact that many policy makers in Europe are following the development of the fertility trends closely is signified by the fact that several countries have established high-level national committees to evaluate the possibilities of changing the present demographic trends. For example President Vladimir Putin highlighted the demographic crisis of the Russian Federation in his state-of-the-nation address this year and has made it one of the countries highest priorities: ”First a lower death rate; second, an efficient migration policy; and third, a higher birth rate”.

This edition of Entre Nous is planned to assist policy makers to learn more about the general trends of fertility rates in Europe and the ways some countries are trying to respond to what by some is discussed as the ‘fertility crises’ through support to couples with children and to create family friendly environments. We have invited authors, specialist in this field from academic institutions, professional associations and UN agencies to discuss the role of the health care services in increasing the birth rates. The role of social factors is emphasized in many articles, and the national experts in the field present examples of the policies in countries from different parts of the European region.

The demographer Nikolai Botev, in the first article, offers a very useful summary of the issues of postponement, tempo and quantum effects etc. He also draws attention to how difficult it is to obtain a balance in pro-natalist policies:

Pro-natalist Policies: To Be or Not To Be

This Hamletian question has been on the minds of many policy-makers in Europe. Attitudes towards, and traditions in interventions to influence birth rates vary across Europe. France, a country that up to the Second World War had the lowest fertility in the world, has had a long-standing pro-natalist policy. A broad consensus across the political spectrum exists there around that policy and around the need for strong family support programmes. The policy in France includes, among other things, relatively generous family allowances, parental leave, tax breaks, and other incentives. According to many, the fact that France currently has one of the highest fertility levels in Europe is due to that policy. In general, however, the evidence about the success of such kind of policies is limited and there is an on-going debate about their efficacy and efficiency.

The communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe also had a tradition of active pro-natalism. At different times, they used restrictions on abortions, or fiscal and other incentives to increase the birth rates. This reflected the fact that these regimes were much more likely to perceive policy intervention in private lives acceptable, and people were more likely to tolerate that. As a result, some of these policies created serious problems in the reproductive health field. The case with Ceausescu’s policies in the 1960s is probably the best-known example.

Nowadays, the concern about low fertility in some countries in Eastern Europe is fueled by nationalist and/or ethno-centric sentiments, and voices are often heard that favour measures to increase the birth rates at the expense of reproductive health and rights, and in detriment to women’s status. In the rest of Europe, governments have been guided by the understanding that it is the right of individuals to determine freely the number of children they have.

This is also worthy of note:

All this raises the issue of finding the most effective and efficient ways and means to react to the dramatic demographic changes in Europe. As pointed out earlier, the debate on that issue is still raging. Several broad points could be highlighted though: (1) policies narrowly focused on increasing birth rates are not likely to be successful; instead, demographic change needs to be addressed though comprehensive population policies (i.e. those that address all underlying processes, not just fertility), which in turn need to be an integral part of modern social polices; (2) two of the elements of these policies have to be programmes focusing on social integration of young people, particularly through youth employment, and on better reconciliation of work and family obligations; (3) consistency and continuity have to be among the primary characteristics of these policies – most observers agree that if French polices are to be considered successful, it is because they have been applied consistently over many decades; (4) these policies also need to be contextual, i.e. the mix of policy tools need to reflect the specific conditions and circumstances in a country; (5) they certainly need to be non-coercive, to respect the rights of individuals, and to be acceptable across a broad political spectrum; (6) last but not least, the policies need to be financially viable, i.e. they need to be within the fiscal capacity of a country in the long run – making commitments that are not sustainable financially runs the risk of jeopardizing economic growth and further aggravating the population situation in a country.

So there we have it. We are, as they say, between a rock and a hard place. But all in all the whole collection of articles is worth the read. Doubtless I will be returning to some of them.

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