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“I don’t have the desire”: Why Uruguay’s birth rate is plummeting

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – “I also wonder if this is a society for having children. The world is already saturated. And it is ridiculous to think that we are going to become extinct because some people won’t have children,” Laura says, with arguments that she recites almost by heart, used to questions that often challenge her decision.

Lack of desire is far from being the only reason for low fertility, a multi-causal phenomenon widespread in the region, of which Uruguay is a historical leader.

Uruguay is a country of traditionally low fertility where the number of births in 2020 reached its historic low, after dropping sharply over the past 5 years. (Photo internet reproduction)

Since the early 21st century, the 3.5 million inhabitants nation has fallen below the 2.1 children per woman threshold that demographers consider the “generation replacement rate,” i.e., the magic number that allows a population to be maintained without decreasing in volume.

In the past 5 years, the drop been even more remarkable. In gross figures, it dropped from almost 49,000 births in 2015 to less than 36,000 in 2020.

This translates into an average of 1.4 children per woman: the lowest fertility rate in Uruguayan history, far short of replacement and close to the “extinction” fantasy.

It is also possibly the lowest in the region, although several Latin American countries do not have data updated to 2020. Cuba, another traditionally low fertility nation, reached 1.57 children per woman in 2019, according to the latest official figures.

REASONS

“We have to refrain from catastrophist scenarios. The idea that we are going to end up with a depopulated or disappearing country is not going to happen,” clarifies Fernando Filgueira, head of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) office in Uruguay.

According to the sociologist, the country’s historically low birth rate is explained by an early urbanization process, low-fertility migrants and the absence of a strong indigenous population.

The separation of Church and State also facilitated family planning and the early incorporation of women into the educational world and the labor market, which favored the decrease in births.

In addition, today motherhood is postponed, which often leads to the decision to have only one child or even to fertility issues.

But the sharp drop occurring since 2015 mirrors another crucial decline: teenage motherhood.

“Some 52% of the reason for the decline in the past five years, from 1.9 to 1.4 children per woman,” is explained by the decrease in mothers aged 15 to 24 years due to public policies to prevent teenage pregnancy, says demographer Ignacio Pardo, a researcher at the University of the Republic.

Risel Suárez, director of the Pereira Rossell Women’s Hospital, a maternity referral center in Uruguay, explains that “the most convincing assumption” is that this drop is caused by subdermal contraceptive implants offered by the state to young women since 2014.

But she also points to sex education and a paradigm shift that has teenagers reaching the gynecological clinic accompanied by their mothers. “It is something that at the clinical level has been greatly observed in the past decade,” she says.

REGION ON THE DECLINE

Although many of the causes of low fertility are good news, remaining at levels of 1.4 children per woman could pose long-term problems.

Not because of the specter of “extinction”: according to Filgueira, with the current trend the Uruguayan population will continue to grow until 2040 and only in 2100 will there be a decline.

However, the aging of the population is an inevitable consequence, pressuring the health and social security systems.

Experts believe that families should be encouraged to share the burden of care so that it does not fall mainly on women, and that the State should provide financial support for parenting in a country with a high cost of living.

The decline in fertility is a trend in Latin America, which emulates a process established in Europe and parts of Asia. South Korea reached 0.9 children per woman in 2019, according to World Bank data.

Spain (1.2) and Italy (1.3) have the lowest fertility rates among European countries, and Chile (1.6) and Costa Rica (1.7) in Latin America, where Bolivia emerges at the far end with 2.7 children per woman.

In Uruguay, Laura acknowledges that she may one day regret her decision. “But what if I regret having them? I’ve seen that too.”

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