Thursday, October 28, 2010

Very low fertility in Asia: A Study

Philippine Daily Inquirer/OPINION/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo
WHILE THERE is an urgent need and reason to manage the Philippines’ galloping population increase in relation to the country’s economic ability/inability to provide quality life for the teeming millions who live in penury, there is also reason to pause a while and look at what is happening to our wealthy Asian neighbors.

The current issues on reproductive health and population control have triggered acrimonious debates between the pro- and the anti-RH bill, between the Church hierarchy and the sponsors of the bill and among citizens of various persuasions and religious beliefs. The arguments from different sides have been exhausted and presented. What is ahead for us?

A recent study on fertility problems in Asia released by the East-West Center is worth looking into. The study, “Very Low Fertility in Asia: Is There a Problem? Can It Be Solved?” was done by Sidney B. Westley, Minja Kim Choe and Robert D. Retherford and released a few months ago.

The East-West Center is a US-based “independent, non-profit organization with funding from the US government and additional support from private agencies, individuals, corporations and governments in the (Asia-Pacific) region.” Founded 50 years ago in 1960, the center is on the University of Hawaii campus in Honolulu. Hundreds of Filipinos have passed through its portals. (I was an East-West Center journalism fellow.)

The summary of the study on fertility says: “Fifty years ago, women in Asia were having, on average, more than five children each, and there was widespread fear of a ‘population explosion’ in the region. Then the birth rates began to fall—in several countries more steeply than anyone had anticipated. This unexpected trend has now raised concerns about the social and economic impact of extremely low fertility.

“Today, four of Asia’s most prosperous economies—Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan—have among the lowest birth rates in the world. With women having, on average, only one child each, these societies have expanding elderly populations and a shrinking workforce to pay for social services and drive economic growth.”

The study asks: Why are women choosing to have so few children? How are policymakers responding to these trends? What is the effect of government efforts to encourage marriage and childbearing?

I quote the stark prediction: “Given current social and economic trends, it is unlikely that Asia’s steep fertility decline will be reversed, at least not in the foreseeable future.”

Just a little note: “Fertility decline” almost sounds as if the women in those countries suddenly became infertile because of some clinical maladies triggered by a nuclear fall-out, a deadly epidemic, computer radiation or something. What the study simply means is that women (men should be faulted as well) choose not to bear children or bear only so few. This is not about clogged fallopian tubes or low sperm count.

As a Filipino, my reflex reaction would be to say that given our own unabated population increase, we could easily supply these “infertile” countries with man/womanpower. In fact, we are already doing that. Not because we are concerned about their vanishing population but because Filipinos continue to populate the earth with wild abandon and need to survive.

A couple of years ago, while visiting a paradisiacal island, I met a retired Peace Corps volunteer who married a local woman, bore children with her and set up a thriving diving facility. When I asked him what the locals’ main preoccupation was, he laughed and gave a straightforward answer: “Making babies.”

Demographers, according to the East-West study, agree that fertility tends to decline with economic growth, adding that the link between economic growth and fertility decline has health and education components. Improved standards of living bring assurance of the offspring’s survival and there is no need to have “extra” kids just in case.

With better education and job opportunities, many become economically independent at an early age and prefer to stay in their jobs without the burden of large families. Young women postpone marriage and childbearing or avoid them all together. And so forth and so on.

Comparing data from different eras, the study shows that by 2006, the total fertility rate (TFR) in Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan (and several European countries) had fallen to levels rarely seen in human history. The researchers are seeing a worrisome scenario and say that while demographers anticipated that couples would tend to have fewer children as they became more affluent, they did not foresee that fertility would eventually fall to well below replacement levels.

Well below replacement levels. In concrete, what does that mean? The study says that it could lead to age imbalance in a population. The number of older folks born when fertility was high would become a large proportion of the total.

A figure shows that in those four countries, the percentage of the total population in the 65 plus age group is projected to rise steeply, reaching one-third or more of the total by 2050. This trend is already seen in Japan.

Policymakers, the study notes, are finding that it is more difficult and costly to raise fertility than to lower it. This is an irony that would not be lost on Filipinos. The study says: “Programs aimed at lowering fertility can be highly cost effective because family planning technology is relatively inexpensive and because economic and social development tends to lower fertility even in the absence of government programs. Japan is a good example. There, fertility declined to well below replacement levels without any government family-planning program at all.”

As we worry about our runaway population growth, should we also start worrying about a future steep decline?