HomeCommentaryFalling Birth Rate

Falling Birth Rate

Over sixty years ago, the Philippines had a total fertility rate of 6.8 birth women which led to a rapid increase in the population. In 2017, the total fertility rate dropped to 2.7 and since 2022, this has fallen to 1.9 (2.2 in the rural areas and 1.7 in the urban areas) which is below the 2.1 replacement level.

So, from 26 million Filipinos in 1960, there are now over 115 million and the population is expected to continue growing for the next two to three decades until it reaches its peak several decades from now.

For those who are worried about the effects of overpopulation, a falling birth rate is good news. Many believe that too many people are a strain on the country’s resources and the environment.

Overpopulation can lead to famine, starvation, and wars. It prevents progress and perpetuates poverty. Exponential population growth outstrips food production which is linear and arithmetical.

The earth is not capable of supporting billions of people. This was the warning of the neo-Malthusian proponent Paul Ehrlich whose book Population Bomb published in 1968 had an alarming effect worldwide and influenced the policies of the UN and many governments.

Later, many environmental activists would also assert that overpopulation contributes to climate change.

This view has led to widespread belief that limiting the size of families or the number of children that come into the world is a solution to the problems caused by overpopulation.

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This was the primary rationale not only for the Reproductive Health Law (passed in 2012) but also for the population control/family planning campaign of the Marcos dictatorial regime since 1972 which promoted birth control pills, condoms, tubal ligation, vasectomy, sterilization, and IUD.

Abortion, although illegal in the country, has been tolerated (estimates range from 500,000 to 1 million abortions annually). Some liberal and progressive groups continue to advocate for the decriminalization and legalization of abortion following most countries in the world.

Thus, for many, a falling birth rate is an indicator of how successful the population control policies and the Reproductive Law have been in addressing overpopulation.

There are also various factors for the declining fertility rate: urbanization, higher education, changing gender roles, the need for women to work or pursue a career, high cost of raising children, marrying late in life, materialism, individualism, changing cultural norms and mindsets influenced by liberal values, contraceptive mentality, abortion, anxiety about the future.

Behind all these is the view that a child is a burden and a threat.

A declining birth rate is not only happening in the Philippines. It has become a global phenomenon. It started in the developed countries in Western Europe, and North America many decades ago and has spread rapidly in Asia and Latin America.

The majority of the countries are now below the 2.1 replacement level. The effects of low fertility rates have become evident in the major industrialized countries with an aging and shrinking population.

The average fertility rate in Europe is 1.53 with Italy and Spain having the lowest (1.2,) and France with 1.8. Russia has 1.3. The US has 1.7. The Asian average is 1.93. Japan has 1.3 and South Korea 0.8 which is the lowest in the world.

China’s one-child policy has led to a 1.1 fertility rate. India, which has overtaken China as the world’s largest population has 2.0 which is still below the replacement level. It is only in Africa that has a 5.0 birth rate but this is expected to decline in the coming decades.

The falling fertility rate and subsequent population decline are difficult if not impossible to reverse. It can only be slowed down and stabilized temporarily.

The existential crisis the world is facing is not only climate change. The irreversible population decline is another crisis that threatens the survival of the species as population collapse becomes a reality before the end of the 21st century.

Population explosion or overpopulation is not the problem. Paul Ehrlich’s alarmist prediction that hundreds of millions of people would die of starvation due to population explosion has not come true.

The global population has reached over 8 billion people and this will peak to 10.4 billion or less sixty years from now. This will be followed by a rapid and irreversible decline.

Many countries have already reached their peak especially those whose birth rate started falling thirty to forty years ago. Paul Ehrlich’s prediction of population explosion has not come to pass.

Instead, the world is facing a threat of population collapse that could lead to mass extinction if this trend continues. This is a dire warning for many demographers.

It could take many decades for this to happen. What are the immediate problems caused by an aging and shrinking population? Many economists point to economic stagnation and decline. This is now happening in Europe, Japan, China, and other rich industrial nations.

The global capitalist economic system is growth-driven and dependent on mass consumption. This means a shrinking market and less consumer demand. There will also be a shortage of labor as the working-age population shrinks.

The younger people will have difficulty supporting the elderly which will outnumber them. Tax revenues will continue to fall and will not suffice for government spending on social security and health care and to pay ballooning debts.

To address the problems caused by the falling birth rate and declining population many governments in the developed nations have adopted pronatalist policies: financial rewards and tax exemption for couples who have more children, longer maternity and paternity leaves, affordable child-care, flexible work-places, better state-run schools, etc.

China has abandoned the one-child policy and adopted a three-child policy per family. So far, none of these measures have led to an increase in fertility rate higher than 2.1 replacement level.

An immediate solution to a shrinking population and workforce is to encourage immigration from countries that are not yet experiencing population decline. This is what is happening in Western Europe and North America. Thus, the demand for immigrants and migrant workers will continue to rise.

The Philippines which has the 13th largest population in the world continues to reap the demographic dividend. Twelve million Filipinos have left the country as Overseas Filipino Workers to fill the demand for workers and beef up the population in the developed countries.

Their remittances have contributed to the economy and improved the standard of living of many families although this has also led to a brain drain. This is the blessing of overpopulation. But this will not last as the country will also experience the effect of a falling birth rate in the next 20 to 30 years and will experience the same fate as those in the developed nations.

An abortive, contraceptive mentality has contributed to the demographic crisis. People have to be reminded that children are not a burden or a threat. They are the future and hope of humanity.

The more people there are the better. They are the greatest resource to every nation and are capable of innovation and addressing other threats like climate change and starvation. Being pro-life – treasuring the sacredness of life and promoting the traditional values of marriage and family – can save the planet and is more sustainable.

The challenge for governments, civil society, and the Church is to become aware of the existential threat of population decline, find ways to mitigate it and prepare for a world with an aging and shrinking population.

Fr. Amado Picardal is a Redemptorist priest and human rights and peace advocate. He was executive secretary of the CBCP Episcopal Committee on Basic Ecclesial Communities. He also served as co-executive secretary of the Commission of Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation of the Union of Superiors General in Rome.

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