ROME, December 3, 2003 ( – Many western nations are in population free-fall, with Italy leading the way to national extinction at 1.2 children per woman. Canada trails close behind with a birth rate of 1.6 children, while the United States only recently surpassed the two children per woman replacement rate.

Italy, which also has the fastest aging population in Europe, is hoping cold hard cash will succeed where the stork failed. The Mediterranean country has introduced a 1000 euro (around $1200 USD) financial bonus to encourage couples with one child to have a second before the end of 2004. Italy faces a double threat since its low birth rate combined with a rapidly aging population has decimated the once ample state pension scheme. Italian economist Giuseppe Pennisi told BBC reporter Tamsin Smith that, by 2050, there won’t be enough young people to pay for the country’s pensions or health care for seniors.

In a further effort to remedy the failing pension program, the Italian Parliament has debated raising the retirement age by five years. In the village of Laviano, near Naples, the mayor is offering a 10,000 euro bonus per baby born in the village, with no deadlines attached. Other European countries with dangerously low birth rates include Spain, Germany, Austria and Greece.  Read BBC coverage of the issue at: