Fertility in the 20th Century Peer Reviewed Paper

Fertility in the 20th Century

An insight into the declining fertility rate in the Twentieth Century can be gleaned from a report from the New York Times in 1987; “Births totaled 3,731,000, down 18,000 from 1985. That represented 64.9 live births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44, 2% below last year and the lowest rate ever recorded in the United States. “(U.S. FERTILITY at LOW and LIFE EXPECTANCY at HIGH, 1987) There are numerous studies and reports that show a decline in the fertility in the United States, particularly in the last quarter of the Twentieth Century.” The nation’s fertility rate dipped to a new low last year, with fewer than 65 births recorded per 1,000 women of childbearing age…” (U.S. FERTILITY RATE DIPS to NEW LOW, 1987)

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This tendency towards lower fertility rates can also be clearly seen in many statistics relating to other countries in the world. This general view is summed up by the fact that,

Nearly half of the world’s population in 2000 lived in countries with fertility rates at or below replacement level, and nearly all countries will reach low fertility levels in the next two decades. Concerns about low fertility, fertility that is well below replacement, are widespread. (Morgan, 2003)

The following graph shows the worldwide decline in fertility rates since the 1950s.

Source: http://www.uwsp.edu/business/economicswisconsin/e_lecture/pop_images/trends_child_bearing.jpg)

The general trend in almost all economically and industrially active countries in the world during the Twentieth Century was toward a declining fertility rate. Most European countries began their fertility declines in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. (Haines) a report by Juurikkala (2007) states that during the last century fertility rates in the United States and Europe dropped from a figure of five percent at the beginning of the century to less than two percent by the end of the century. (Juurikkala, 2007)

As an indication of the concern that these declining rates evoke is the fact that according to estimates, Italy will reduce its population by half in the next 50 years. (Juurikkala, 2007) Japan is another country that has shown severe fertility declines and, “Between the end of World War II and the end of the 20th century, Japanese fertility declined from over 4 to some 1.4 lifetime births per woman.” (Velculescu et al. 2004)

These figures raise some obvious concerns, the first of which is that it translates into a population that is dominated by a rapidly ageing population, which also has concomitant social and economic implications. One of the main implication is the way that natality is affected, especially in areas like Europe. The balance between birth and death has been dramatically affected by the decreased fertility rate and this in turn has certain consequences. Grant and Hoorens S, (2007) state the following: “Numerous studies have estimated the probable impact of population aging, from the potentially devastating effects on an unprepared welfare state to shortages of blood for transfusions”:(Grant and Hoorens, 2007) Lower fertility rates also have an economic impact, such as increased pension provisions due to the larger ageing population, with fewer younger people to create economic wealth. Therefore, “The traditional model of the working young paying for the retired old will not work if the latter group is twice the size of the former….”: (Grant and Hoorens, 2007) There are also other consequences to consider; such as the fact that delaying childbirth can prevent many women from conceiving naturally.

2. Causes and reasons

There are many reasons that have been suggested for the general decrease in fertility during the Twentieth Century. While many of the reasons refer specifically to gender aspects and issues, there are also underlying general causative factors that should be considered and that are not necessarily gender specific.

A prevalent theory is that changing economic factors had a direct influence on fertility rates. “It is hypothesized that the social and economic circumstances present in the life of individuals when they begin their reproductive period will influence the childbearing process…” (Masnick and McFalls, 1976) in essence this refers to periods of economic decline, such as the 1929 economic Depression that would have had a tendency to constrain fertility rates.

A second factor is the ease of access to contraception. This refers particularly to access to and the increased use of contraception aids like the ‘pill’ during the 1960s onwards in most western counties. Some countries such as Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Japan were “…distinguished by extremely low rates of fertility” due the pill, IUD and sterilization for contraceptive purposes. Gianpiero, De Rose and Racioppi, 2005) third factor is social and cultural in nature and refers to the view that the drop in fertility rates in the latter half of the Twentieth Century was largely the result of the trend towards the postponement of marriage and having a family. The reason give for this was that education and career were seen to be a first priory and that pregnancy was something that could come later – which often resulted in a reduction of the pregnancy rate. “The drop reflects the trend of recent years, as many young people have postponed marriage and having families to pursue education and careers.” (U.S. FERTILITY at LOW and LIFE EXPECTANCY at HIGH) This can also be seen as a gender specific aspect as this attitude was to become more prevalent among young women in the 1970s and eighties.

2.1. Women and fertility

As noted above, one of the recognized reasons for the reduction of fertility during the last century was the changing role of women and the changed perception of gender in modern society. (Reproductive Health) Women began to become more concerned with career and advancement and found pregnancy to be incompatible with work. Some critics argue that, “… this structural change was accompanied by ideologies that stressed that individuals should… act in their self-interest.” (Morgan, 2003) This also relates to the aspect of postponement;

Postponement is a key word: with some exceptions, key demographic events, and more specifically events leading to the formation of new households and families, have been increasingly postponed in the lives of Europeans. In the new millennium, leaving the parental home, forming a new union, getting married and becoming a parent are being experienced on average later than ever before. (Billari, 2005)

As referred to above, another causative factor for the low fertility rates was the increased usage and acceptance of contraceptive methods and devices by women in the last century. During this time, “Most couples terminated their fertility after the birth of the second, third or fourth child, without using contraception before that. In the ensuing reproductive years they used coitus interruptus, with induced abortion as a backup for contraceptive failures.” (Gianpiero, De Rose and Racioppi. 2005) Coupled with this were social and cultural influencing aspects and causes. As one study asserts, “… varying fertility patterns are due to societal norms and circumstances which influence womens’ attitudes toward birth control.” (Gianpiero, De Rose and Racioppi. 2005)

Chemical factors also may have contributed to female infertility. Recent research for instance has suggested that soy foods also may have the propensity to have a negative affect on estrogen levels and therefore fertility among women. (RESEARCH REFUTES HIGH-SOY, LOW FERTILITY) However, this is a debatable and contested issue and the central reason that is given in much of the literature for female reduction rates is the widespread acceptance of contraception, coupled with the changed social role of women and the motivation to succeed in careers and activities outside the home during the second half of the century

2.2. Men and fertility central reason given for the decline in fertility among men during the Twentieth Century is industrialization and the exposure to various toxins. As developed and developing counties became more industrialized, there was a concomitant exposure to toxins and chemicals that may have had a detrimental effect on fertility rates. As one study states,

Over the last several decades, concern has risen about the impact of industrialization on reproductive health. This concern stems largely from reports showing that semen quality of men in Europe and the United States has decreased over the latter half of the 20th century.

Infertility in Men)

Other aspects related to the increasing industrial and chemical environment that many men were exposed to were hyperthermia or increased temperature, radiation and electromagnetic fields – all factors that have been medially linked to infertility. (Infertility in Men) Studies also show that semen quality of men in Europe and the United States decreased dramatically over the second half of the 20th century. (Infertility in Men) other factors that could have increase male infertility were the popularity cigarette smoking, as well as factors such as excessive alcohol consumption, marijuana and cocaine use as well as caffeine intake. (Infertility in Men) Coupled with these aspects were various occupational hazards such as. “… pesticides, industrial toxins like dioxin and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and exposure to heavy metals. (Infertility in Men)

Cultural and social aspects also feature in the assessment of male infertility and lifestyle variables, such as high stress levels and social pressure to succeed, have also been shown to negatively affect fertility.

3. Solutions

There are a number of solutions that are medically available for infertility. Fertility treatments for men and women can include chemical solutions, solutions to boost fertility as well as surgical procedures. However, these work on a personal level and do not address the wider and larger issues in society. The most effective and long-term solution to the problem of declining fertility rates is understanding and knowledge, coupled with governmental and institutional application of this knowledge. In other words, this could involve simple precautionary aspects such as the understanding and avoidance of certain chemical substance and toxins in the workplace that can increase the possibility of infertility.

Social and cultural stresses are major factors that impact on fertility rate and research into these factors is needed if the general problem is to be addressed adequately. Governmental and social policies that improve the possibility for increased fertility rates have in some instances already been introduced.

A family-friendly” policies – particularly those that help mothers to raise children and work – have managed to maintain or even slightly raise…fertility rates. Such policies include tax incentives for families with more than one child, flexible working options, and maternity and paternity leave. (Grant and Hoorens, 2007)

These could be expanded on and increased to facilitate more positive fertility and birth rates.

In conclusion, as Grant and Hoorens (2007) state, “As a larger percentage of the population falls into the 60-plus category, governments will not be able to ignore the graying of society.” (Grant and Hoorens 2007) This means that the increasing low fertility in many countries necessitates plans and actions that are becoming an essential economic and social necessity. This involves lessons learnt from the causes of reduced fertility in the Twentieth Century and would involve policies and protocols at all levels in society.

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Fertility in the 20th century

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