Spain´s Birth Pains

Government Aims to Avoid a Shrinking Population

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MADRID, Spain, JULY 19, 2001 ( Stella Villamermea, 33, sees herself as a typical Spanish woman.

“My biological clock may be ticking, but there is no rush,” she told the National Post newspaper of Canada. “We are not like our mothers. Having babies is not our only role in life. It´s not even a duty.”

The Spanish government would like her to think otherwise. As the economic fallout of Spain´s plunging birthrate becomes better understood, government officials have begun speaking out in the media, appealing to young women to set aside their ambitions and have children for the sake of the nation.

“They try to make you feel unpatriotic,” says Villamermea, a philosophy teacher at a Madrid university. “They say the nation has a problem; we can´t support the social security system when there are no children. As if it´s my responsibility to have children just to support the nation.”

The government itself has helped bring on the problem over the years, notably with liberal abortion laws. Earlier this year, pharmacies were told to start stocking the “morning-after” pill.

A generation ago, the average Spanish woman gave birth to more children than women did from most other countries. Now, according to U.N. figures, Spain´s birthrate is the world´s lowest, plummeting to fewer than 1.2 births per woman — well below the 2.1 birthrate needed for a generation to replace itself.

Demographer Juan Antonio Fernandez of the Superior Council for Scientific Research predicts that unless young Spanish women begin having more children or the government opens the doors to immigration, the country´s population of 40 million could begin shrinking within four years.

“The problem is not the volume of the population; we could get by with as little as 30 million people,” Fernandez told the National Post. “It´s the age structure.”

Already there are more people over 65 than under 15. As the balance tips further, Fernandez fears the country´s social-welfare system, particularly its pension plan, will collapse.

When dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975, Spain was still family oriented and child friendly — just a few years earlier, the country had had a baby boom. But after nearly 40 years of isolation and governmental heavy-handedness, the time was ripe for social and economic change.

Spain´s new government made it easier for women to enter the work force. It also introduced a plan to restructure the economy, which meant shutting down inefficient industries. Tens of thousands were thrown out of work, but the youngest segment of the population paid the highest price.

“Just when these young people were ready to begin their lives, to get married and have children, there were no jobs,” Fernandez says. “It changed everything.”

From the mid-1980s through the early 1990s, as many as 45% of young Spaniards were unemployed in some regions. Although job prospects have since improved, the percentage of youth who are unemployed is still well above the 13.7% national average.

Pushing children even further down on the list of priorities are housing costs. In such cities as Madrid, apartment prices have increased by as much as 40% in recent months. Many young Spaniards cannot afford to live anywhere but with their parents. Indeed, one study says there are more 25- to 30-year-olds still living with their parents in Spain than in any other country in the European Union.

Thanks to an inheritance, Villamermea and her husband recently purchased an apartment in a working-class Madrid neighborhood. So what stops the couple from having children?

“Many women are fired for having children,” she says. “At the university where I work, they can´t do that. It´s illegal. But they can decide not to renew your contract.”

Some might even prefer being fired, when they consider the increased amount of work they face with children at home and no likelihood of help from their husbands. In a recent Eurobarometer survey, Spanish men were last in all of Europe when ranked according to how much they contributed to family and household chores.

“In Spain, when you have a baby, it is your responsibility alone, your problem,” Villamermea says.

Even the ruling Popular Party government seems unable to connect the low birthrate with the lack of support for women with children. New parental-leave legislation recently passed in Parliament, for example, grants mothers (or fathers) up to three years of leave within the first eight years of a child´s life. But the leave is without pay, notes sociologist Constanza Tobio. In reality, she says, only about 10% of new mothers take any time off at all.

Given the uphill battle facing women, demographer Fernandez believes Spain´s birthrate is unlikely to increase much during the next few years. “Like it or not, Spain needs immigrants,” he says. Fernandez estimates that by 2020, Spain must begin welcoming as many as 1.5 million immigrants a year, in order to avoid a pension crunch.

“This is about 10 times more each year than we are currently receiving,” he says. “It would mean a real change in Spain, and I´m not sure we are ready to face it.”

Meanwhile, other policies in Spain — and the moral climate in general in the post-Franco years — work to keep the birthrate low. Rising consumerism, the arrival of pornography to nightly television, and liberal abortion laws in the 1980s and 1990s worked against a pro-family atmosphere.

As a sign of the times, pharmacies earlier this year were told to begin carrying the abortive “morning-after” pill.

In February, the president of the Spanish Association of Catholic Pharmacists, José Carlos Areses, called on his colleagues to be conscientious objectors.

“In face of the culture of hedonism and of yielding to everything, a pharmacist must have a very clear attitude: life above everything else, from the beginning until the end,” he said. “The Church needs us and we must be consistent.”

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