Why the world needs fewer babies

Part one of a three-part series exploring the widespread push to increase birth rates around the world. In this edition, Campaign and Communications Specialist Florence Blondel outlines the issue and unpacks why political leaders are panicking.

As birth rates plummet, populations age and lifespans lengthen, an apparent “demographic crisis” looms for many nations. Governments grapple with the prospect of shrinking workforces and ballooning social security bills. But the anxieties run deeper for some. Fears of cultural decline, dwindling military recruits and stagnant economies all point to the same desperate solution: a baby boom, at any cost.

This desperation has fueled the rise of pronatalism, where people are encouraged to have more babies. These policy trends are wrapped in incentives like baby bonuses, tax breaks for families and extended parental leave. On the surface, such proposals do not appear to be cause for alarm. However, the trend can also take a darker turn, with some countries resorting to restrictive reproductive measures. Regardless of the approach, the goal remains the same: to increase birth rates.  

The panic button

Are birth rates falling? Are populations declining? 

Yes and yes, they are.  According to the latest UN population projections, in more than half of the world’s countries, women are hovering around replacement-level fertility (2.1 children per woman). It is much lower in one-fifth of countries, mostly in Europe and East Asia, where they are experiencing “ultra-low fertility” (1.4 children per woman or less).

But there is no need to panic. First and foremost, we should celebrate why these numbers are falling. It comes down to having many more enlightened, empowered women who have agency over their lives. Women who are educated, employed and have limited barriers to accessing modern contraception. In the US recently, there were reports of birth rates falling. One of the reasons was that the birth rate for teenagers aged 15–19 was down three per cent. Teenagers are more informed of their reproductive choices and can choose to use modern contraception. This is to be applauded. 

More babies: incentives or coercion?

Have you ever felt a subtle pressure to have children? Maybe it’s from family gatherings filled with, “When are you giving us grandkids?”, the biological clock is ticking comments, or even government policies offering tax breaks for larger families. Being a parent is the be-all and end-all. 

This is pronatalism in action – the belief that childbirth and population growth are essential for a nation’s well-being. Proponents often cite concerns about a shrinking workforce, economic decline, or even national security as reasons to boost birth rates. Governments may offer financial incentives, but in some extreme cases, things get much more coercive. Some pronatalist policies result in infringements on women’s bodily autonomy and right to choose family size. 

There’s a growing concern about countries using coercive measures to increase birth rates, potentially restricting women’s reproductive rights. We’ve documented disturbing trends in eight countries (think Handmaid’s Tale, but in the real world) where pronatalism has morphed into state-imposed coercion. Here, women’s lives become tethered to reproduction, limiting their opportunities and personal aspirations. 

Remember this chilling quote from Russian President Putin in 2023?  

Recall that in Russian families our grandmothers and great-grandmothers had both 7 and 8 children. Let us preserve and revive these traditions. Having many children, a large family, should become a norm, a way of life for all the peoples of Russia.” 

This rhetoric exemplifies the pressure some countries exert to control birth rates. And what could be more proof that girls’ and women’s feelings are not considered than Nina Ostanina, Head of the Russian Parliamentary Committee for Family, Women and Children, saying: 

I believe that everything should be done to encourage a girl to have a child and give her confidence that she will not be left alone with the problems when this child is born. We can take the child to an orphanage, thereby helping to improve the demographics.”  

This disregards the emotional well-being of both mothers and children, treating them like tools for population growth rather than individuals. This cold pragmatism is worse in Iran where reproduction is called “women’s jihad” – a religious duty and birth control is labelled a “disorder”. 

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Part two published tomorrow.

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