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Fertility is not destiny - its policy driven

Everywhere I look is talking about fertility - a sign I think. The Economist has a leader on the collapse in global fertility. I needed a couple of books to read on my recent travels, and picked up Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, both books that deal with the future of fertility. The former, published in 1931, sees a future dystopia (in sci-fi, like in financial newsletters, dystopia sells better than utopia), where motherhood is seen as barbaric, and all people are born via a production process. Inevitable some classes are born to rule, and some to serve. One of my favourite sci-fi films, Gattaca, has many of the same themes. In this world, population growth is exponential. In Handmaid’s Tale, falling fertility rates brings about a political response, where fertile women are essentially forced to breed. Both books see a world where a woman’s choice over having children is somehow curtailed. I think this is the wrong analysis. First of all, if we look at the causes of the baby boom, we can then understand the current baby bust, and how policy can be changed. One of the first things to understand is that the baby boom was in many way driven by the desire for women to start families earlier. In both the UK and Australia the average age of mother dropped in the years after world war II, and continued falling until 1970.

There are two different (but related) reasons that I can think of why we saw a sudden decline in the age that women became mothers. The first, which fits in with my pro-labour argument is that in a world of very low unemployment, and rising wages, families felt secure enough to have children. This makes sense in terms of the two world wars and a great depression where then followed by two decades of low unemployment. Looking at Australian employment data, average mother’s age began to rise when unemployment rose in the mid 1970s.

I like this argument as it implies pro-labour policies create a self fulfilling virtuous cycle, leading to ever more growth, and ever more inflation, as we saw in the 1970s. It also implies that pure capitalism is anti-natal, and that socialism is pro-natal. Certainly the experience of eastern European nations that went through a sudden change from socialist to capitalist does not make an argument that capitalism is pro-natal. The problem with this argument is that the one rich country that has very high fertility rates is an extremely capitalist country - Israel.

Typically, Israel is left out of demographic analysis, as was the case with the Economist article. The reasons are that high fertility rates in Israel are driven by Haredi (ultra-orthodox) Jews, and so is not really comparable to other nations. While it is true that Haredi have extremely high fertility rates, even non-religious Jews in Israel have much higher fertility rates than other rich nations. Using data from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, we can look at the fertility of “Jewish Women - Not Religious” exclusively. Non-religious Jewish women have followed the same trends seen in all rich countries, they have been having children at an older age.

But unlike other countries, the total fertility rates has stayed very stable.

What is particularly striking about this is that Jewish people in the US have below average fertility rate. This number for the US includes both Haredi and non-religious Jews, so the implication would be non-religious Jews fertility rates are well below replacement levels in the US.

One thing that Jewish people in Israel have access to, that American based Jews do not, is an extremely progressive policy toward Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART), which includes IVF. The Israeli government pays for all costs for ART until a woman in 45, or has two take home babies. Israel has a unique history that makes it extremely pro-natal. But the idea of government policy driving birth rates is a recurring theme after World War II. One study highlighted that countries that were neutral during World War II saw a much more muted or non-existent baby boom. Many countries felt a desire to repopulate after the trials of two world wars.

So while the Economist highlights the upcoming fertility crisis, and there a certainly an expanding number of governments that wish to boost fertility rates, I am not sure that the average person on the street feels that there is a pressing need for more babies. You don’t have to go far to find someone who thinks the world is overpopulated. The point of all of this is to show that demographics is not destiny. If society and governments decide more babies (populate or perish) is necessary, then the technology exists to make that happen. Population is politics. Demographics is a decision. And we can have more births without resorting to the methods used in either A Brave New World, or Handmaid’s Tale. In fact, contrary to public opinion, modern technology is leading to a better world as far as baby making is concerned, where women can have babies later in life, at a time of their choosing. More utopia than dystopia in my view.

IVF and changing political priorities suggest fertility treatments could become a boom area
Russell Clark