Categories
Population

Refocus the Media’s Concern about Births

Teen Birth Rates

“U.S. birth rates are declining. This trend is cause for concern, because an aging population puts a strain on the economy.” Kimberly Amadeo, in “The Balance”, 4/29/2021

            The CDC reported that the birth rate in the USA dropped in 2020, with much lamentation in the press. Instead, we should be applauding this decrease in births—especially among one group of people.

            The general fertility rate (the number of live births each year, per 1000 women aged 15 to 44) has been decreasing since a small peak in 2014. In 2019 it was 58.3, and in 2020 it dropped to 55.8. Not a huge decline, but newsworthy. Please note that this is the number of births, not the number of babies born. The number of babies is actually about 3% higher because of twins, triplets etc.

            Did people decide to postpone childbearing because of covid-19? Due to the timing of the births in 2020, we can figure that most of the conceptions actually happened before the pandemic. Births were down most sharply at the end of the year, however, when babies conceived at the start of the pandemic would have been born. Very preliminary information suggests that the birth rate for 2021 will show a slight rise. That figure may increase as the year goes on since September is the month when the most babies are born.

Recently, many women are waiting to start their families. I am the second and last child of my parents. My parents married in 1928 and my sister Clara was born in 1939. I was born 4 years later, when my mother was 40 years old. This was an unusual pattern of childbearing in the 1940s but is much more common now as women are entering the workforce and postpone childbearing.

The birth rate of women in the 40-to-44-year cohort has been rising 3% each year for the past 35 years. The oldest women I helped give birth was Sarah, who was 52 when she delivered her second child. Her history is unusual. She retired from a professional career and then married for the first time. Despite being postmenopausal, modern reproductive technology allowed her to bear and raise 2 healthy children.

Several countries offer financial incentives for childbearing. The USA has tax breaks to help parents with the financial expenses of raising children. However, incentives are not very effective in motivating people when it comes to family size. 

Unfortunately, the media have not focused on the good demographic news. With fewer births we can expect eventually to have less impact on our environment, including slowing of climate chaos. With smaller families, each child benefits from more time with their parents and more financial resources. The best part of the CDC’s report is the number of babies born to teens. That rate has been declining much faster than the overall births. We in Colorado can be especially proud of this decline since we have been one of the leaders in the country. 

Our teen birth rate declined 76% between 1991 and 2019! Free contraception for uninsured women, paid for by a large grant starting in 2009, helped this decrease. For example, one morning I inserted 6 IUDs as a volunteer at the public health clinic; the women paid nothing.  Although started by the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, this wonderful program was continued with private and state funds. The impact on the abortion rate was noted immediately, with a steep downturn starting in 2009. Who knows how many unplanned pregnancies were prevented, and how many young women’s lives were improved by that generosity!

            Other programs have also helped to keep the teen pregnancy rate low in Colorado. Pharmacists are allowed to prescribe birth control pills, allowing healthy young women to get started on effective contraception easily and inexpensively. Furthermore, “Obamacare”, will pay for reliable contraception for people who meet eligibility standards.

It is fortunate for many reasons that people are choosing to have fewer children. Sadly, the media stressed the short-term economic problems this downturn may cause.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2021

Categories
Population

Watch these Films

            Some people learn well by hearing and others find that seeing works better. Perhaps the best way of learning uses both—video—and there’s a great new film on population.

            I am aware of several videos that have been made to inform people about overpopulation. “Mother Caring for 7 Billion” was the first to have been conceived right here in Durango, and it is excellent. Durango’s second population film, “Ancient People in Overshoot and Collapse in the Four Corners”, is still gestating. More about “Overshoot” later.

Also made in Colorado, “Growthbusters” looks at the bad side of growth with a bit of humor. “Critical Mass” features the rodent experiments by John Calhoun, which demonstrated that rat and mouse societies deteriorated when they were overpopulated. I was intrigued when I read Calhoun’s Scientific American article in 1962.

“Don’t Panic” by the sword-swallowing Hans Rosling takes a different viewpoint—that there’s no problem with population. He is wonderful showman and has some good points in this video. However, he only looks at the effects of increasing population on humans. He disregards our effect on other species—and on Earth, itself. You’ll need to go to another of his videos to see him actually swallowing a sword.

One of my favorite nonprofit organizations, the Population Media Center, demonstrates how effective the media can be. They use soap opera-like programs to deliver messages to people in developing countries with surprisingly good results. The folks get hooked on a serial drama and tune in regularly, absorbing subtle messages about empowerment of women, prevention of disease and choosing to have small families.

The latest film is “8 Billion Angels”. Whereas many documentaries feature experts speaking about the subject at hand, “Angels” starts with stories told by farmers in the fields, by an oyster cultivator and by an environmental activist in India. These everyday people tell stories showing we are experiencing the effects of climate chaos and overpopulation already. 

“Angels” seeks balance. It doesn’t lay the blame for our environmental crises only on increasing population. It also incriminates our consumption. “Angels” also points out that people are unlikely to decrease their affluence in our world of omnipresent media pushing consumption.

In addition to everyday people, several experts present their answers to environmental problems in the “Solutions” section of this film. Zoe Weil, an educator, espouses human rights and environmental preservation. Travis Rieder, a philosophy professor who spoke in Durango a couple of years ago, praises the ethics of small family size. Bill Ryerson, founder of the Population Media Center, mentions the success of a radio program in rural Ethiopia in lowering birth rates. They stress the importance of changing the norm from assuming that all women will bear children to giving birth being one of several options.

            They suggest several solutions in addition to changing the norm, including: healthcare for all, with access to effective contraception; education of girls and women; and espousing policies to slow population growth and support family planning.

            Terry Spahr, a retired businessperson, is the energy behind “Angels”. He wrote this about why “Angels” is so important: “We have an instinctive aversion to discussing unsustainable population growth because it can be fraught with emotions across the cultural, political, religious and economic spectrums. But it is a conversation we must have to ensure the future of humanity.”

For more information about “Angels” and to watch the trailer go to: https://8billionangels.org. There are links on the website to stream it, either through a local theater (if you live in the USA) or one which will work in most countries. There is also a stimulating panel discussion of the film here: https://vimeo.com/536090003/027c36e3e0

After writing Population Matters! essays for 2 decades I realized that the written word doesn’t reach everyone. Negative connotations with the word “population” is one concern, and not everyone likes to read. Art is another means to reach people, so I entered several pieces of “contraceptual art” (as opposed to “conceptual art”) in competitions.Recently I ran into Durango filmmaker, Larry Ruiz, who makes prizewinning archeological videos. Why not join forces to make a film on the reason Ancestral Puebloans left the Four Corners? One theory is their population increased to the point that drought caused them to overshoot the carrying capacity of the land. Thus, the movie “Overshoot”—coming soon! Here’s a short introduction to one of the film’s messages: https://vimeo.com/554063877 .

© Richard Grossman MD