June 3rd 2000

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Articles from this issue:

Canberra Observed: National Party vanishing ignominiously

National Affairs: Time to rethink UN treaties

Victoria: Transurban: now itÂ’s BrackÂ’s problem

Drugs: Why free heroin is not the answer

Economics: Markets or electorate?

Straws in the wind

Comment: Traditional supporters not buying what Coalition is selling

Population: Eastern EuropeÂ’s collapsing birth rates

United States: Poverty amidst the plenty

United States: Manipulating the next generation

Medicine: Teen contraceptive message has failed

New moves to legalise euthanasia in the Netherlands

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Population: Eastern EuropeÂ’s collapsing birth rates

by Anna Krohn

News Weekly, June 3, 2000
The economic and social problems of Eastern Europe have triggered a birth dearth which could see the region’s population fall by one-third by 2050. Anna Krohn explains.

Birth rates in the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe have plummeted so low that experts are warning that in the next 50 years the region will be depopulated by a third.

“The economic and social crisis is a prime force behind the large fertility decline in [these] transition economies,” commented Mr Miroslav Macura, as he launched the results of a survey conducted by the Population Activities Unit of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UN/ECE), of which he is Chief.

The Survey notes that since 1989, the former Communist countries have experienced “profound demographic changes, including a surge in international migration, divergent mortality trends” and in many regions “a precipitous decline in fertility”.

In general terms, a fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman is needed for a generation to replace itself.

Although most of Western Europe has experienced a radical drop in fertility rates, those in Eastern Europe have fallen even further below replacement level.

In 1998, most of Eastern Europe had a birthrate of below 1.3 children per woman. Latvia had 1.09 and Bulgaria 1.11 at the lower end, and East Germany had recovered from its 1993 of just 0.76 to 1.2 children per woman.

These rates compare with the 1997 fertility rate of 1.58 children per woman throughout countries of Western Europe.

During the tail end of Communist and Soviet rule, which could not be described as “pro-family, the comparative birthrates were about 2.3 in Latvia, 2 in Bulgaria and about 1.7 in East Germany.

The Survey associates the falling birthrates with a process “everywhere accompanied by large declines in output, employment and real wages, which combined to produce a reduction in total real income from employment accruing to the household sector.”

Government economies, upon which state support of families and children depended, have also experienced falling incomes. State funded family services which, in many countries, were once provided free of charge, are now proving too expensive for many families.

The Survey states that “the real cost of children therefore increased as the real incomes of their parent fell. As a result individuals and couples, postponed, or abandoned altogether, having children”.

The Survey also makes the interesting observation that it is not only economic factors which have influenced the decline in fertility in Eastern Europe. It identifies dramatic social and cultural changes which have also taken place, and which have brought the general acceptance of the ideals of freedom of choice and individualism.

“These changes have encouraged new patterns of reproductive and family behaviour and new life-styles conducive to a trend away from conjugal life and children.” This, the Survey states, accounts for the continuing depression in fertility rates in central Europe, despite the fact that in this region, the economy and general living standards have begun to improve.

A number of the East European governments have voiced concern about their declining fertility rates, and have requested advice about policies which might lead to a recovery. The UN/ECE has advised that time will tell whether the decline is in part due to postponed and delayed births.

“Governments may be able to raise fertility,” said Miroslav Macura, “by reinvigorating various family policies, including the provision of financial or tax benefits to individuals and couples with children as well as measures enabling them to balance more easily their parental and work roles”.

These policies, say Mr Macura, may seem initially expensive, “but they do require lots of political will” on the part of governments and policy makers, who must see clearly that this is a matter of their “societies’ long-term survival”.

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