Fertility and Public Policy Essay

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Fertility levels vary widely among contemporary populations, from a high of 7.2 births per woman in Niger to a low of 0.9 in Macao (United Nations 2007). These levels are largely the result of decisions made by individual couples who are trying to maximize their families’ welfare. The fertility that results from this individual decision-making is not necessarily optimal from a societal point of view, thus suggesting a potential role for government intervention.

Policy Responses to High Fertility in the Developing World

High fertility and rapid population growth have a number of adverse health and socio-economic effects. In response, governments have attempted to reduce high birth rates through the implementation of voluntary family planning programs. The aim of these programs was to provide information about and access to contraception to permit women and men to take control of their reproductive lives and avoid unwanted childbearing. Only in rare cases, most notably in China, has coercion been used. The choice of voluntary family planning programs as the principal policy instrument to reduce fertility is based on the documentation of a substantial level of unwanted childbearing and unsatisfied demand for contraception. A sizable proportion of women who do not want to become pregnant are not protected from the risk of pregnancy by practicing effective contraception (including sterilization) and, as a result, unintended pregnancies are common. Women in the developing world have an estimated 76 million unplanned pregnancies every year, mostly due to non-use of contraception (Alan Guttmacher Institute 2003).

There is little doubt that family planning programs have made a substantial contribution to fertility declines in the developing countries. The most effective public policies to reduce high fertility not only strengthen the family planning program but also encourage human development (in particular the education of girls). The former is aimed primarily at reducing unplanned pregnancy and the latter at reducing the demand for children.

Policy Responses to Low Fertility in the Developed World

Fertility in virtually all modern societies has dropped below the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman (United Nations 2007).This low fertility has become a concern because a continuation of current levels will lead to rapid population aging which threatens the sustainability of public pension and health care systems (OECD 1998). Governments are considering a range of options: reduced benefits, increased taxes, higher labor force participation, delayed retirement, privatization of pension systems, etc. Until recently, pronatalist measures have been largely absent from this debate. Governments are reluctant to support such measures because of a disinclination to interfere with personal decision-making regarding family size, or because of the apparent inconsistency of advocating pronatalism at home while supporting efforts to reduce fertility in poor developing countries; in addition, they may hope that fertility will soon increase again without intervention. But interest in efforts to encourage higher fertility directly or indirectly is growing. For example, family support measures such as subsidized child care, reduced taxes for families with children, and paid parental leaves are widely acceptable and could be expanded. The fact that desired family size in most developed countries is still around two indicates that actual fertility is lower than desired and strongly suggests that birth rates can be raised by policies that reduce the cost of childbearing and help women to combine a career with childbearing.


  1. Alan Guttmacher Institute (2003) Adding It Up: The Benefits of Investing in Sexual and Reproductive Health Care. Alan Guttmacher Institute, New York.
  2. Bongaarts, J. (1997) The role of family planning programmes in contemporary fertility transitions. In: Jones, G. W., Caldwell, J. C., Douglas, R. M., & D’Souza, R. M. (eds.), The Continuing Demographic Transition. Clarendon Press, Oxford, pp. 422—44.
  3. Caldwell, J. C., Caldwell, P., & McDonald, P. (2002) Policy responses to low fertility and its consequences: a global survey. Journal of Population Research 19 (1): 1—24.
  4. OECD (1998) Maintaining Prosperity in an Ageing Society. OECD, Paris.
  5. United Nations (2007) World Population Prospects: The 2006 Revision. United Nations Population Division, New York.

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