Opinion

Author’s note: I write from Moscow, where I am participating in a Demographic Summit with other World Congress of Families leaders and Russian officials. Abortion is rampant here, having first been legalized and encouraged by the Communists in 1920. Even today, the average Russian woman has seven (7!) abortions over her lifetime. Now we have an historic opportunity to help reduce, perhaps even outlaw, abortion throughout Russia. There is a bill in the Russian Duma that would place severe restrictions on abortion, saving the lives of an estimated 4 million babies a year. Here is what I am telling the Russian people and their leaders.

June 28, 2011 (Pop.org) – Some say the battle to save the Russian people is being lost: that the population is destined to age and shrink dramatically over the next few decades. Some even predict that, like ancient Greece, Russia will extinguish herself completely over the succeeding centuries. I strongly disagree. The government has already taken measures that appear to be slowing down the rate of decline. The Duma is at present considering additional steps to raise the birth rate. What Russia needs, of course, is not an incremental increase in the number of births. What is called for is a Russian baby boom.

It is true that the demographic situation is dire. The Russians have been filling more coffins than cradles for some years now. The disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 triggered a sharp drop in Russian births, which have stayed low in the years following because of the sudden loss of a social system that formerly provided employment and housing for nearly every Russian, combined with the ongoing economic malaise and a general lack of confidence in the future. By 2000 Russian birthrates had plummeted to historic lows, substantially lower than those achieved in the midst of the upheavals of World War I and the Russian Revolution, and equaled only by the worst year of World War II when German armies overran the western third of the country. This, combined with increased mortality, meant that Russia’s population was decreasing by nearly a million people each year.

By 2003 the birthrate had been so low for so long that Russia’s leaders were publicly voicing concern. Then-President Vladimir Putin warned the Russian parliament that the lack of babies was “a serious crisis threatening Russia’s survival.” Three years later, Putin put in place a one-time payment of $9,000 upon the birth of a second child, along with additional cash and child-care subsidies for subsequent children. The birthrate has been climbing since then, while the mortality rate has been gradually falling.

But the crisis continues. There are still more deaths than births in Russia. Moreover, the increase in births appears to be leveling off, while recent mortality gains have diminished as well. The number of women entering their prime reproductive years is shrinking, and will bottom out around 2020. If the experience of other countries is any guide, a baby bonus has a greater impact on the timing of childbearing than on the total fertility rate. In other words, couples are motivated by the baby bonus to have their children earlier than they had planned (lest the policy change and they lose their bonus), but their desired family size does not increase by a significant amount.

According to the U.N. Population Division, Russia’s population is slated to decrease from 142 million in 2010 to 136 million in 2030. This is the UNDP’s medium variant projection, which unrealistically assumes that most Russian couples will start having two children again. The low variant projection, historically the most accurate, has the population falling to 129 million by 2030. The U.S. Census Bureau is even more pessimistic, predicting that Russian numbers will sag to 124 million over that same time frame. It is hard to see how a country can lose 10 percent of its population over the next two decades and build a modern economy at the same time. Yet the converse is also true: Until the Great Russian Depression ends the birthrate is likely to say low. The largest country in the world seems locked into a fatal spiral: a dance of death between demography and depression.

It may be possible, by paying benefits to pregnant women, and by making abortion marginally harder to get, to further close the gap between births and deaths. The state should stop paying for late-term abortions. Doctors should be protected by a conscience clause. But what Russia needs to develop its economy is a baby boom. And what this will require is bold measures that will fundamentally change the way that the state protects life, educates the young, and interacts with the family.

Reprinted with permission from the Population Research Institute.

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