Brazilians put brakes on babies


September’s issue of National Geographic included a feature on “Brazil’s Girl Power,” detailing how Brazil’s fertility rate has slid from 6.3 children per women in 1960 to 1.9 in 2009 – a lightning-quick change in the world of demographics:

That new Brazilian fertility rate is below the level at which a population replaces itself. It is lower than the two-children-per-woman fertility rate in the United States. In the largest nation in Latin America – a 191-million-person country where the Roman Catholic Church dominates, abortion is illegal (except in rare cases), and no official government policy has ever promoted birth control – family size has dropped so sharply and so insistently over the past five decades that the fertility rate graph looks like a playground slide.

There are some good things behind this – like increased education for women, and the realization that having six or more children may not be in the best interest of every family. And some not-so-good factors: the growth of consumerism, plus the role of Brazil’s extremely popular soap operas (as detailed in the Geographic story), which is a little bizarre. But reading this paragraph about the writer’s interactions with Brazilian women just made me feel gloomy:

So why two [children]? Why not four? Why not the eight your grandmother had? Always the same answer – “Impossible! Too expensive! Too much work!” With the facial expression, the widened eyes and the startled grin that I came to know well: It’s the 21st century, senhora, are you nuts?

Apparently, these women see children as more of a burden than a benefit. To me, that’s tragic. (I don’t need to wax at sentimental length here about the blessings of having children, but I do adore mine despite all the work and expense they entail.) This huge change in attitude is not to Brazil’s benefit. An individual couple may not need to have lots of children to support them in old age anymore, but who’s going to support the national pension program?

On a countrywide level, so few children may lead to a cultural and economic decline. Europe’s demographic problems are well documented. At the other extreme, India’s high fertility rate raises concerns.

I do not judge any individual decision to limit child-bearing. (For the record, I have “only” three children myself – which is close to Utah’s fertility rate of 2.6.) My concern is what this abrupt change in attitude and in action, on a wide-scale level, may mean for the future.