Declining fertility rates and the threat to human rights

Jennifer VenisMonday 28 March 2022

Facing low fertility rates that could undermine labour forces and social structures, governments are pursuing labour reforms, immigration expansion and pronatalist policies. Global Insight explores the impact of such policies on human rights and gender equality.

Across the developed world, fertility rates have consistently been declining to below replacement level, with significant implications for society – and particularly for human rights. In simple terms, nations need an average birth rate (total fertility rate or TFR) of just over two children per woman (2.1 TFR) to maintain their populations. But half of the world’s population now lives in countries below this level, according to a 2017 estimate by the UN.

Developed nations in East Asia have seen decline to ultra-low fertility rates, with South Korea’s dropping to 0.92 in 2019. It’s among several countries globally where deaths have begun outnumbering births. Most Western countries have yet to see such stark decline, but the TFR for England and Wales hit a record low of 1.58 in 2020.

People from developed nations are also choosing to start families later – a result of access to contraception, the expansion of education, labour market instability and changing values and preferences. This creates a ‘tempo effect’ that distorts TFRs downwards.

Tomas Sobotka, Senior Researcher at the Vienna Institute of Demography, tells Global Insight this distortion is one of several concerns he has about the over-reliance on the TFR measure for analysis and policymaking.

However, he says, ‘there is a reason for concern about countries where fertility falls in a sustained way below a threshold of say, 1.3 – whatever measurement method you use. Such a level clearly signals there is more than just short-term timing changes and that fertility is really low in the population’.

‘Combined with the knowledge that in most countries with low fertility, on average, individuals of childbearing ages express the desire to have around two children, this very low fertility rate also sends a clear signal to us that individuals are not achieving what they want, that there are obstacles they are facing in their personal lives or very likely at the societal level’, he adds.

Policy responses to low fertility: How effective are they?, a 2019 research paper from the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) states that ‘[h]ealth care provision, education policies, housing regulations, labor market regulations, provision of assisted reproduction or taxation policies all frame conditions in which people raise children and create environment[s] that can nurture or discourage a decision to have a(nother) child’.


Image displays population growth rate from 1970 –2019. Data taken from World Bank.

For example, traditional workforce practices in a demanding labour market ‘characterised by long working hours and limited work flexibility’ have a negative impact on family planning decisions for the now-dominant dual-earner family model.

Falling or stagnating earnings and income for young people across highly developed countries is making it more difficult to reach the ‘material standards’ – stable employment, secure housing and so on – that are perceived as necessary to have children. In the UK, the UNFPA suggests that housing costs have dampened fertility plans as ‘millennials born between 1980 and the mid-1990s spend almost a quarter of their incomes on housing, far more than the previous generations’.

Global instability

Sub-replacement, where each generation is less populous than the previous, leads to concerns about labour shortages and the effects on a country’s economic and social stability. Japan, for example, is facing a shrinking labour force and challenges in caring for a growing cohort of elders due to ultra-low fertility combed with low immigration rates and rapid population ageing.

A population forecast published in medical journal The Lancet in 2020 warns, ‘in countries with slower economic growth and with rising shares of the population who are retired compared with those who are still working, the fiscal sustainability of national health insurance and social security programmes will be challenged’. It predicts environmental consequences and, ultimately, shifting geopolitical power structures.

Meanwhile, a three-year European Commission investigation into the EU’s demographic future suggests that the stability of the Union itself is at stake. The 2019 report, Demographic Scenarios for the EU: Migration, Population and Education, highlights that in Southeastern and Eastern European countries, low birth rates are coupled with vast emigration to richer Member States, creating pronounced population decline and exacerbating labour force concerns.

In turn, this slows the convergence of all Member States, with ‘implications for the goals of economic development and Cohesion Policy, in particular when the movement is disproportionately highly skilled workers educated in the sending Member States’, the report says.

While richer states often look to such immigration to boost their populations, the report finds that ‘neither higher fertility nor more migration will stop population ageing because the momentum has been decisively set by past, long-term demographic trends’, and that Europe’s ‘most effective strategy is to increase labour-force participation of everyone, particularly women’.

It suggests re-evaluating pension ages, taking into account that longer life spans – ‘a sign of success in health and living standards’ – have expanded people’s potential for ‘living more productive lives’.

In France, the government faced major backlash for pension reforms it put forward to address such concerns, but several other EU countries have also looked to link retirement age to life expectancy.

However, reforms to workforce participation may not be a sufficient policy response for some countries. The UNFPA paper warns that the pace of population decline resulting from long-term ultra-low fertility rates – around 1.0 TFR – would be challenging ‘even for the governments accepting large numbers of immigrants or willing to implement radical reforms to their social security and pension systems’.

Therefore, as many developed countries see their fertility rates drop to less than 1.5 TFR, attention is increasingly being placed on policies to boost birth rates. The number of countries pursuing family planning policies jumped from 19 to 55 between 1986 and 2015, according to the most recent data from UNFPA.

A toxic mix

The UNFPA’s Regional Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Alanna Armitage, recently said that ‘[d]espite the complexity of demographic change, most policies to “improve demographic trends” in Eastern Europe remain focused on one principal demographic driver – increasing birth rates’.


And while pronatalist policies in general can be benign – being targeted at the gap between intended and achieved family sizes (the ‘fertility gap’) by tackling obstacles to family growth such as the cost of childcare – some perpetuate gender inequalities, while the most sinister iterations take on an overtly coercive approach.

In its 2021 report, Welcome to Gilead, the UK-based charity Population Matters connects pronatalist policies in several countries with ‘a patriarchal worldview’ and a political trend towards religious conservativism and immigration-resistant ethnic nationalism.

In Hungary, spending on pronatalism is high, representing five per cent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), but policies are selective in line with what might be viewed as ‘traditional’ family norms. For example, a £25,000 loan to married couples that does not have to be repaid if the couple has at least three children must be repaid within four months if a couple divorces. Women under 40 are entitled to free fertility treatments, but lesbian women are denied access.

More overt is the ethnic nationalism of the population goals. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has explicitly stated: ‘Instead of just numbers, we want Hungarian children. Migration for us is surrender.’

With this form of coercive pronatalism comes an increased potential for human rights abuses, as control over women’s bodies becomes entwined with state goals. State propaganda in countries taking this route often emphasises the ‘patriotic’ duty of women to have more children to secure the future of the country, while stigmatising childlessness.

Empty vessels

Welcome to Gilead argues that ‘coercive pronatalism is not simply a manifestation of patriarchy or misogyny but can be a product of political and economic forces entirely indifferent to women, for whom they exist simply as productive or non-productive wombs’.

Such indifference is evident particularly in China, where the state hopes a population long subjected to enforcement of reproductive limits will now embrace state pressure to increase the size of their families.

Heather Barr, Associate Director of Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) Women’s Rights Division, says that ‘policies to try to encourage women to have more babies are often being implemented by the same governments that have behaved in really abusive ways toward women’s reproductive rights in the past – so they haven’t got a lot of credibility when it comes to trying to chart a more compassionate path’.

Having historically enforced a one-child limit, China implemented a three-child policy in August 2021 to boost its now-declining ethnic majority population. The introduction of the three-child limit comes after low uptake of a two-child policy in 2016, which was accompanied by the introduction or expansion of family planning policies.

State goals failed to consider the wishes of the population; surveys conducted as the two-child policy was introduced found that most parents did not want second children.

Barr says ‘generations of people went through not only not having the family size they wanted, but also through coerced sterilization and abortions and abusive repercussions for people who violated the policy, all of which was incredibly traumatic for many people. And so, when they come to making decisions now or their daughters come to making decisions about family size, there’s all that baggage that they’re carrying with them’.

Further, the policies introduced may have limited fertility plans by over-emphasising traditional gender norms, highlighting the danger of a pronatalism that is indifferent to women’s rights and interests.

A HRW report found that ‘extensive state propaganda across China has encouraged women – but not men – to stay at home and raise children’, and much of the family support provided was targeted at women, such as expanded maternity leave provisions but no national legislation for paternity leave. This led to an increase in pregnancy-related discrimination, and many women went on to cite this as a barrier to them having more children. Pushing women out of the workforce is evidently also likely to undermine any attempts to reverse labour force shrinkage.

Some couples did still take up the policy, creating a brief baby boom, but this was followed by falling birth rates every year.

Restricting rights

Advocates fear that if the three-child policy also fails to boost population rates, China will resort to increasingly aggressive means to enforce increased birth rates. For example, Welcome to Gilead cites the Chinese cabinet’s ten-year plan for women’s health, released in 2021, with ‘the cryptic goal of reducing elective abortions’.

The report argues that ‘in combination with exclusionary, nationalistic and socially conservative agendas, and fragile or non-existent regard for human rights, a toxic brand of pronatalism emerges that represents an almost inevitable threat to sexual and reproductive health and rights’ – a predictable outcome given that for certain states, ‘demography, family values and national destiny are unambiguously intertwined’.

In November 2021, Iran demonstrated the threat of pronatalism in action when it made family planning a national security issue, placing a bill on the ‘rejuvenation of the population and support of family’ within the Ministry of Intelligence’s jurisdiction.

The bill bans sterilisation and the free distribution of contraceptives in the public health system. Abortion is only legal if three doctors agree that a pregnancy threatens the health of a woman, or if severe foetal abnormalities would generate extreme hardship.

The bill also bans cultural material criticising the country’s population policies, and, as a HRW statement condemning it highlights, ‘mandates Iran’s state broadcasting agency to produce programs encouraging women to have children and denouncing decisions to remain single, have fewer children, or have abortions’.

Expecting to achieve population growth by restricting the right to health and privacy is a delusional understanding of policymaking and one that will only lead to rights abuses

Tara Sepehri Far
Senior Iran Researcher, Human Rights Watch

‘This new law poses a serious risk to women’s health and lives and will have long-lasting harm’, says Tara Sepehri Far, HRW’s senior Iran researcher, in the statement. ‘Expecting to achieve population growth by restricting the right to health and privacy is a delusional understanding of policymaking and one that will only lead to rights abuses.’

Sobotka says that despite the potential increase in unintended pregnancies, ‘Banning abortion, for instance, doesn’t necessarily have the effect it would have 30 or 40 years ago, and it doesn't seem to have a clear positive impact on fertility rates. So, if banning abortion has a pronatalist motivation, I think at the end of the day, governments will not achieve what they may be hoping for, even in a short-term perspective’.

In fact, Sobotka says, ‘most of us demographers are very strongly convinced that the essential component of family policies in rich societies is respecting reproductive rights and freedoms’.

Getting policy right

To succeed, plans for population growth must make the protection of human rights and women’s interests a priority. A 2011 study by Myrskylä et al concluded that countries with low gender equality, but otherwise high levels of development, continue to experience low fertility.

The UNFPA paper meanwhile asserts that ‘for decades, societies with strong traditional gender role norms have been continuously witnessing very low fertility’. It suggests that South Korea’s ambitious family policy reforms may have had little impact on the country’s ‘ultra-low’ fertility rate because they have not tackled the root causes of low fertility – that ‘[m]ost important, women may not have fully benefited from these policies because of the traditional division of labor, deeply rooted in the patriarchal culture, intense work-pressure and highly competitive educational systems’.

The paper presents a recipe for success, arguing that future family policies must reflect the needs of changing and increasingly diverse families, adapt to changing gender roles and reflect rising economic inequalities and new forms of employment, as well as societal challenges such as unaffordable housing costs.

‘In short, family policies should [create] family-friendly and child-friendly societies focused on health, education and well-being of children and families at large’, the report concludes.

What’s key for Barr is that policies address ‘some of the gender inequities that influence women's decisions not to have children. That means low-cost – or free – access to childcare, access to maternal healthcare, child healthcare, generous and equitable paid care-giving leave, employment protections for mothers, and a social safety net’.

Boom or bust?

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, pundits from midwives to politicians speculated that the enforcement of lockdowns would lead to a baby boom. Demographers predicted the opposite, as periods of uncertainty and instability have historically led to fertility slumps.

Sobotka saw many reasons to expect a sustained lower fertility rate in highly developed countries, resulting, for instance, from the long-term negative consequences of uncertainty about the future, lockdowns preventing socialising and the stress many families faced when schools were shut down and parents had to take additional responsibilities.

But, he says, demographers have been surprised to find that, taking the pandemic period so far as a whole, ‘nothing much happened’. An initial baby bust was compensated for by a boom in conceptions in June to July 2020, when the pandemic’s impact was reduced. Sobotka says what’s remarkable is that the subsequent worsening of the pandemic and increasing restrictions did not trigger the same baby bust.

He believes extensive government intervention may have staved off the dampening effect that social instability – manifest in high unemployment levels, for example – would normally have on birth rates. As a result, he says, ‘many countries are back to the birth trends they were on before the pandemic’.

Countries in the Nordic region have seen some success in slowing fertility decline, with policies tackling inequities and obstacles to child-raising in place – and expanding – for decades, reducing not only the costs of services but the impact on the career prospects of women. In fact, countries in the region, particularly Iceland, have experienced a baby boom since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, surprising demographers.

But even these societies, where gender equality is well-established, have been experiencing fertility rate decline, pandemic baby boom aside.

Sobotka believes this is not a failure of policy, but that decline to below-replacement rates is ‘almost inevitable’ among developed nations, particularly because he foresees fertility intentions changing.

‘It's entirely conceivable that the future will be of many more people voluntarily staying child-free and we’ll have low fertility in a sustained way, even in countries which provide generous family policies, support gender equality, and provide relatively stable economic environments’, he says.

It’s entirely conceivable that the future will be of many more people voluntarily staying child-free and we’ll have low fertility in a sustained way

Tomas Sobotka
Senior Researcher, Vienna Institute of Demography

‘Of course, countries will still differ’, he adds, ‘those which don't do all these things will have yet lower fertility than those countries which will. But the future is more likely of fertility rates closer to 1.5 or 1.3 rather than two children per woman in most countries, whatever fertility indicator we take’.

For Barr, ‘[i]t’s fine for the government to try to understand whether there are people who wish they had more children, and try to design policies that allow people to reach their preferred family size. But if people want one-two children, then the government should accept that and either plan for a smaller population or look to humane immigration policies to meet population goals’.

‘If the state wants people to have children, they should make it as cost-free as possible to have children because we all know that it is very expensive’, she adds.

Kermit Lowery, the former Secretary-Treasurer of the IBA Poverty and Social Development Committee, agrees. He believes addressing economic barriers, and poverty itself, ‘would be a natural incentive to increase birth rates’.

It will take hitting someone in the wallet to see the benefits to increasing the birth rate in the US

Kermit Lowery
Former Secretary-Treasurer, IBA Poverty and Social Development Committee

‘I hear plenty of people saying, we have one child, but we really can’t afford to have another.’ But, he says, there’s no appetite for the sort of pronatalist policies that would make having a family more appealing and affordable in the US, where population growth flatlined in 2021.

US President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Plan would include child tax credit, leave provisions and some free childcare, but it lacks support. Lowery says, ‘Joe Manchin, the one Democrat in the Senate whose support the President needed, said he would not vote for the legislation. He refused to include paid parental leave. He was saying that people would take advantage of it, that men would go hunting instead of bonding with their children and that he was worried that with the child tax credit people would use it to buy drugs’.

‘This society is very individualistic, people don’t want their tax dollars to go to help to feed other people’s kids, to help to educate them, to help cover the cost of housing’, adds Lowery.

‘Even if we were in a dire situation where our GDP is declining because we don’t have a workforce and the birth rate is so low, I still don't think that Congress would support the legislation’, he says. ‘But if the powerful and the rich see their net worth start to spiral down to zero, they’ll get on board. It will take hitting someone in the wallet to see the benefits to increasing the birth rate here in the US.’

Jennifer Venis is a freelance journalist and can be contacted at jennifer@jennifervenis.co.uk

Sub-replacement fertility and shrinking populations

Low fertility rates are contributing to declines in population growth across developed nations. According to data released in January by the National Bureau of Statistics, China’s birth rate has declined to its lowest level since 1949, with 10.6 million births in 2021. In the same period, there were 10.14 million deaths, and the country’s population growth has reached its lowest level since the Great Famine killed millions of people in 1959–1961.

While the UK’s population has grown annually since 1982, the growth in the year mid-2018 to mid-2019 (0.5 per cent) was slower than any year since mid-2004, according to the Office for National Statistics. The total fertility rate in England and Wales hit a record low of 1.58 in 2020. It has been annually decreasing since 2012 and has remained below replacement rate since 1973.

In South Korea, which has the lowest fertility rate globally, deaths have begun to outnumber births and population growth has declined to is lowest rate at 0.138 in 2020, according to the World Bank.

For some countries, outright population decline is no longer a threat, but a fact. In Hungary, Italy, Japan, Poland and elsewhere, the combination of low fertility rates and other factors like outward migration have led to their populations shrinking.

Source: World Bank

Country Fertility rate (TFR) in 1970 Fertility rate (TFR) in 2019 Population growth rate in 1970 (%) Population growth rate in 2019 (%)
Western Europe
France 2.55 1.87 0.77 0.22
Germany 2.03 1.54 0.33 0.23
Italy 2.38 1.27 0.53 -1.15 (-0.29 in 2020, which is more on trend with the previous data)
United Kingdom 2.44 1.65 0.4 0.56
Eastern Europe
Hungary 1.98 1.49 0.38 -0.05 (negative annual growth rate every year since 1982 (-0.06))
Latvia 1.96 1.61 0.68 -0.07
Lithuania 2.4 1.61 1.04 -0.27
Poland 2.2 1.42 0.36 -0.02
Nordic region
Finland 1.83 1.35 -0.38 0.11
Iceland 2.81 1.75 0.52 2.22
Norway 2.5 1.53 0.73 0.68
Sweden 1.92 1.7 0.93 1.01
East Asia and Pacific
Australia 2.86 1.66 1.97 1.52
China 5.73 1.7 2.76 0.36
Japan 2.14 1.36 1.15 -0.21 (consistently below zero since 2011)
South Korea 4.53 0.92 (lowest) 2.18 0.2 (lowest on World Bank records for country)
Brazil 4.97 1.72 2.52 0.75
Canada 2.26 1.47 1.4 1.42
United States 2.48 1.71 1.17 0.46
World 4.78 2.4 2.09 1.06
EU 2.35 1.52 0.55 0.06
OECD average 2.85 1.66 1.12 0.5

Baby and Mother. TrueTouchLifeStyle/Shutterstock.com

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