June 18th 2005

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: OPINION: The European Union - charting the future

EDITORIAL: New industrial law needs amendment

FINANCE: Leading banker calls for Development Bank

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Kim Beazley's tactics backfire

WESTERN AUSTRALIA: New law to deny patients life-saving treatment

QUARANTINE: Pork industry wins major court victory

FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Behind the defection of a Chinese diplomat

DEFENCE: Australia ill-prepared for new threats

FAMILY: Is Australia facing a new baby boom?

OPINION: Bioethics and the biblical worldview

ENVIRONMENT: Debunking myths about the Great Barrier Reef

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Disillusioned Europeans / Can the Euro last? / Some more unintended consequences for the Greens / Not another oil-for-food scam? / The Year of the Octopus

Democracy vs. the courts (letter)

Destroying lives to benefit others (letter)

Informed consent (letter)

Washington's "Deep Throat" a hero? (letter)

BOOKS: C.S. Lewis for the New Millennium, by Peter Kreeft

BOOKS: Until the Final Hour: Hitler's Last Secretary / The Bonfire of Berlin

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Is Australia facing a new baby boom?

by Dr Kerrie Allen

News Weekly, June 18, 2005
Dr Kerrie Allen examines what makes women choose to have or not to have children.

Australian women are having more babies, according to recent Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data. More than 133,000 were born in the six months to September last year - the biggest six-month total in the past 14 years.

This increase has resulted in around 255,000 births over the past year, the largest 12-month total in nine years.

The Federal Government denies that its $3,000 baby bonus, established on July 1 last year, is a factor contributing to this increase.

Researchers from the Australian National University, however, are divided as to the baby bonus's impact. Professor of public policy, Glenn Withers, links the increased birth-rate to public confidence that more family-friendly policies were on the way. But professor of demography, Peter McDonald, says that it is premature to attribute the increased birth-rate to the baby bonus.

But the surge in births over the past six and 12 months has yet to make an impact on Australia's long-term fertility, which remains depressed.

In 2004, the long-term fertility rate was only 1.773 babies per woman, just up from 1.735 in 2003, and a far cry away from 2.859 in 1970 and 3.451 in 1960. So why hasn't the fertility rate risen with this surge of births?

It would appear that women on average are still not having more babies, although in the past year there has been a greater cohort of women having babies.

This latter category may be women who delayed having babies in their twenties and early thirties.

But it could also be migrant women who are having more babies. According to ABS data, the highest fertility rates are among women born in the Middle East and North Africa. The average fertility rate for these women is 2.7 children, with 28 per cent of Middle Eastern women having four or more children.

Harvard University's eminent demographer, Nicholas Eberstadt, has declared that anyone who discovers the key determinants of fertility decline, deserves a Nobel Prize.

Public health scientists state that there are four groups of determinants of population health - biological, environmental, social and psychological - which are often interlinked in complex ways.

Biological Determinants include things such as age, gender and genetics. With regard to the declining fertility rate in Australia, an association between these cannot be made as there is no shortage of women of childbearing age, nor is there a shortage of men. Despite this, however, many women in their mid- to late-thirties find it difficult to conceive. This, however, may be seen as a social determinant, as many social factors have led to the delay rather than biological ones.

Environmental determinants come under two categories - built environment and natural environment. The built environment includes housing, public infrastructure and services (health care, education), work environments and sanitation. The natural environment includes things such as disease-causing agents and vectors, climatic conditions, topography, air quality, condition of soil for growing foodstuffs, etc.

With regard to Australia, it could be argued that certain environmental determinants may be associated with low fertility:

  • The taxation system does not allow income-splitting for single-income two-parent families. This may discourage a couple from having children or may limit the number they wish to have.

  • The high cost of housing means that, more often than not, two incomes are required to pay a mortgage.

  • The wide availability and affordability of the contraceptive pill and other prophylactics have made it easy for women to delay childbearing. The availability of abortion services funded by Medicare also is a determinant of fertility levels, with close to 100,000 babies having been aborted last year.

  • The economy is said to require women's labour and therefore a mother is encouraged to return to paid work soon after birth. This process is exacerbated by the fact that much government funding is directed to child-care institutions rather than to families. This restricts a mother's freedom to choose to stay at home and have more babies.

Social determinants include such things as wealth distribution, unemployment, work (type of work, stress and degree of job security), social support, social exclusion (isolation), food, transport, level of education, material deprivation, issues of gender and power, religion and culture, social thought and ideologies.

With regard to fertility levels in Australia, there appear to be many social determinants:

  • Underemployment: Financially, many people lack the resources to contemplate marriage and family - this may be owing to work instability (underemployment, contract work), low income, and a lack of post-school qualifications.

  • Men and Women Apart: The Decline of Partnering in Australia (2004) by Dr Bob Birrell and his colleagues, (based upon 1986 and 2001 Census figures) shows that there is a growing underclass of single, low-income males (SLIMs), not in full-time work and lacking the economic resources to marry and begin a family.

  • Work: The growth in casual jobs is a grave concern when considering the links between SLIMs and fertility. Casual jobs are unstable in terms of predictable earnings owing to low pay and hours, and there is no paid sick leave or holiday pay, and limited opportunity for training. The casual workforce, it may also be argued, favours men and women without children. It rarely offers a mother paid maternity leave or breastfeeding opportunities, nor does it guarantee her a job again should she choose to return to paid work.

  • Education: Australian women who are university graduates have fewer children than non-graduates (People and Place, vol. 12, no. 1, 2004). This is because their most fertile years are filled with education and career. This, coupled with reduced mate-selection choices, affects fertility.

  • Feminism: This has proclaimed to three generations of Australian women that they have the equal "right" to achieve, earn and lead as men do. Unfortunately, what feminism hasn't told women is that they are not equal when it comes to fertility; for while a man remains fertile his whole life, a woman does not. Thus, many Australian women, like their international sisters, have sought careers, financial security and independence to the detriment of their fertility. Feminism, instead of empowering women by honouring their uniqueness, has championed their "right" to control their fertility through contraception and abortion.

  • Societal views of motherhood: Women are constantly bombarded with the message that it is only outside the family that they can find fulfilment. Women who choose full-time mothering are denigrated as lazy, brainless, unempowered or submissive. This prejudice persuades many women to return to the paid workforce and limit fertility.

  • Radical individualism: According to the late conservative sociologist, Robert Nisbet, individualism has taught that "the essence of human behaviour lies in what is within man, not what exists between man and his institutions". We have seen in the past 30 years a pursuit of self-sufficiency and autonomy which echoes, "I can do what I want, because I have a right to do it". This has resulted in the dislocation of people from community and social institutions, and has caused widespread alienation and dissatisfaction. Subsequently, rampant materialism has emerged - a desire for more and more goods, which requires ever more income. Radical individualism, allied with feminism, has led women to think they can make it alone in life without a man and without children. Family is subordinated to the acquisition of wealth and the attainment of autonomy. As Virginia Haussegger has noted, often, by the time a woman realises she wants children, she is infertile.

  • Rejection of marriage: The past 20 years have seen the abandonment of marriage and the increased incidence of de facto relationships. Often, these relationships are transient and therefore associated with childlessness. A woman in a de facto relationship may well delay fertility longer than if she had the security of marriage. Furthermore, homosexual unions, even though they only account for a small percentage of Australian couples, are increasing in number; and these naturally preclude natural conception.

Psychological determinants include cognition (perceptions, capacity to learn and remember, problem-solving skills, thought processes); motivation; self-efficacy and human agency (people's capacity and belief in their capacity to do something in the first place); and personality traits.

There is limited research examining the influence of these determinants upon women's fertility. Despite this, however, many modern women are reflecting upon the tension between feminism/individualism and motherhood, even though it is sometimes akin to negotiating a mine-field.

Molly Mokros writes: "Because of expectations placed on young women by their parents, the men in their lives, and even other women, many will admit their desire to stay home and raise a family only to the most trustworthy of friends and of those, only to the ones they suspect feel the same way. Even then, such enticing desires are often expressed in hushed tones and with half-raised hands in a gesture characteristic of a guilty and reluctant confession."

In a similar vein, Daphne de Marneffe, in her recent book, Maternal Desire (2004), says: "Maternal desire is constrained by a contemporary model of self that has developed in response to more recent economic and social realities ... The whole arena of pregnancy, childbirth, and the daily activities of mothering involve decreased personal control, and loss of control is among the cultural and personal anxieties that maternal desire raises.

"For some young women struggling toward a sense of identity, it is not surprising that motherhood comes to symbolise everything antithetical to the independent life they want to pursue."

Further, Andrea J. Buchanan notes that those who choose motherhood face a fear of failing, combined with the complicated, uncertain, and ever-changing cultural zeitgeist about what constitutes being an excellent mother.

It seems that women may be realising the un-doability of aspiring to be what Hausegger calls a "Superwoman".

With regard to fertility and childrearing, women's self-efficacy and agency may quite possibly be affected by the tension of the dichotomy between the "have it all" philosophy promoted by feminism and the "I want to give" instinct inherent in a woman.

Although one cannot make a direct association between women's actual conflicts with these ideologies and the low fertility levels in Australia, it remains nevertheless an area that demands further investigation.

The decision "to have or not to have" children in Australia seems greatly to be influenced by many determinants. Further research is recommended to further identify links between these and prevailing low fertility levels.

  • Dr Kerrie Allen is a research officer for the Australian Family Association.


Birrell, B., Rapson, V. & Hourigan, C. (2004). Men and Women Apart: Partnering in Australia. Melbourne: The Australian Family Association and Centre for Population and Urban Research, Monash University.

de Marneffe, D. (2004). Maternal Desire: On Children, Love, and the Inner Life. New York: Back Bay Books.

de Vaus, D. (2002). "Fertility Decline in Australia: A Demographic Context". Australian Institute of Family Studies. 63: 30-37.

Franklin, J. & Tueno, S.C. (2004). "Low Fertility Among Women Graduates". People and Place. 12(1): 38-45.

Legge, K. (2005). "Australians born lucky". The Australian. April 9, 1,28.

Mokros, M, M. (2002). "Women Who Want Domesticity". Moxie Magazine. www.moxiemag.com/moxie/articles/perspectives/womenwhowant.html

Nisbet, R. (1990). The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom. San Francisco: ICS Press.

Buchanan, A. J. (2004). "Overparenting". Mothershock. December 07. www.mothershock.com/blog/archives/2004/12/

Buchanan is also author of: (2003). Mothershock: Loving Every (Other) Minute of It. New York: Seal Press.

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