This entry discusses the human birthrate in the context of the historical past, contemporary, and future trends of human population. Human birthrate is at the heart of the challenges surrounding the population explosion worldwide and the divide that exists between industrial and developing nations. Birthrate is also a vital subject in light of the growing concern over environmental issues, security, and development. Meaningful discussion of the human birthrate naturally requires a consideration of time factors because historical, contemporary, and future trends of the birthrate are interpreted in terms of periods of human fertility. Furthermore, spacing, delay, and postponement of childbirth, as well as overall rates of birth, are of course measured through time.
Notions and Measures of Birthrate
Birthrate, the rate of fertility of the human population, can be determined in various ways. One way of understanding birthrate is by considering childbirths per 1,000 people per year. This is a crude estimate of birthrate. As of 2007, accordingly, the average birthrate worldwide was 20.3 per year per 1,000 total population, and thus, for the total world population of about 6.6 billion, the average birthrate was 134 million babies per year.
Another method of determining birthrate is referred to as total fertility rate, which is the average number of children a woman gives birth to during her entire life. This is a better indicator compared with the crude birthrate because it is not affected by the age distribution of the population. A total fertility rate is a measure of the fertility of an imaginary woman who passes the age-specific fertility rates of women in the childbearing-age range. Thus total fertility rate is neither the number of children counted nor the fertility of an actual group of women. It is rather the average number of children born to a woman on condition that she is subjected to all age-specific fertility rates for ages of 15 to 49 of a given population in a given year. A third method of measuring birthrate is called general fertility rate, and this method measures the number of births per 1,000 women with the age range of 15 to 49. Standard birthrate, on the other hand, compares the age-sex structure to a hypothetical standard population.
Historical Development and Trends
Birthrates and death rates were closely even and high until the 19th century. Thus population growth was slow. But with the advancement of medicine and of living standards generally, death rates started to decline, leading to a growth in population size. In addition, whenever the fertility level rises above the replacement level, it contributes to the growth of population size.
Leon Bouvier and Jane Bertrand note that the 20th century, particularly its first half, experienced an increase in birthrates. The growth rate continued in the 1960s with an average birthrate of six children in the developing nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. UN reports indicate that there were some declines in fertility up to the end the century. Accordingly, the birthrate fell to 3.3 children among the developing countries during the years 1990 to 1995. Nonetheless there are wide disparities in birthrates even among these countries. In this regard, the rate of fertility for sub-Saharan Africa is 5.9, whereas it is 1.9 in East Asia. The historical development and current trend both show a state of an overall decline of birthrate worldwide, even though there is a wide gap between the developed world and the developing nations.
A low level of fertility is marked at 2.5 births per woman or below. John Bongaarts and Rodolfo Bulatao remark that this level applies to most of the demographically advanced developing and industrial countries. Fifty percent of the world population lives in these countries, whereas 15% of the world population lives in countries where fertility is below 1.8 births per woman. These countries were able to achieve low fertility by getting away from higher-order births. The higher- order births are the third births, fourth births, and more. The trend appears to be a lowering in numbers of births as family styles change from larger to smaller ones. Thus, the high fertility of the developing world will continue to decline until it reaches 2 children per woman. It is a rare occurrence for a fertility rate to rise once it reaches the rate of 2 children per woman. Accordingly, based on the observed experiences of the past decades, low- fertility countries tend not to return to a fertility rate well above the 2 children per woman.
Bongaarts believes that the future trends for rates of birth can be further affected by the factors of technology and science that have relevance to childbirth. Improved methods of contraception, technologies in the areas of hormone therapy and sexual enhancement medications, techniques of sex selection of offspring, selective abortions, and genetic selection of the characteristics of the babies to be born are possible factors to influence the future trends of birthrates.
Factors of Birthrates
Bongaarts and Bulatao explain that birthrate is a function of many factors. Socioeconomic changes that compete with motherhood—such as delayed marriages, failing marriages, separation and divorce, postponement of births to later ages, increase in the size of the aging population, and changes in reproductive behaviors—are among the factors that contribute to low numbers of births. Public policies are also factors that affect birthrates. The trend toward fewer births among families in some developed nations can be reversed to a replacement level by government policies providing educational and career development support to women of childbearing age. Other factors that affect birthrates include abortion, age-sex structure, social and religious beliefs, literacy levels of females, overall economic prosperity, poverty level, infant mortality rate, and urbanization.
Socioeconomic conditions help explain fertility rates. Harsh economic conditions can delay marriage and childbirth. Similarly, high rates of unemployment and inflation can contribute to the low rate of fertility due to delayed marriages and childbirth. The conditions in which people think that they cannot afford the expenses of childrearing contribute to the tendency to postpone childbirth. The notion of the human child as economic strain adds to the possibility of low birthrates. The cost of education and other needs associated with childrearing will influence parents’ decisions as to the number of children they will have. In the industrial countries, the desire for a low birthrate can be strengthened further by easy access to birth control and a low rate of child mortality.
The situation in some developing countries, however, appears to assume a different scenario. The high level of poverty and illiteracy, coupled with other social and religious factors, contribute to a high rate of birth. Due to the perceived possible economic incentive for having children both in the short term and in planning for one’s old age, having more higher-order births is a natural way of coping with the reality of economic hardships. Under such circumstances, therefore, economic hardship contributes to an increased fertility rate, whereas among relatively more literate societies, economic hardship (such as unemployment and inflation) delays marriages as well as childbirth. Lower levels of education among women, lack of contraception, and the limited role of women outside the performance of household duties contribute to the high- order birthrates in the developing countries.
Events such as wars have a major impact on birthrates. According to Bongaarts and Bulatao, major conflicts like World Wars I and II have had a significant impact on fertility rates in the United States and other nations. The baby boom generation that followed the end of World War II illustrates the impact of war on fertility rates. Major socioeconomic and political changes also bring about changes in fertility rates. In this regard, the changes in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s affected birthrates in those societies, which are now considered to be low.
Institutional factors such as marriage play key roles in determining the state of birthrates in societies. The trend is a delay in marriage and an increasing rate of divorce. Postponement of marriage and failure of marriages in the forms of separation and divorce contribute to the low rate of birth in terms of both the tempo and quantity of childbirth. As part of the changes in the socioeconomic and political dynamics of societies, changes in gender roles have a bearing on birthrates. Over the last four decades, the changes in the roles of women have led to a tendency toward low order of birth. Due to an increased level of education and opportunities for woman, childbirth delays and in some cases childlessness have become societal phenomena. These developments are among the factors that contribute to the low rate of childbirth.
Fertility at replacement level occurs when each generation of women exactly replaces its predecessor. This is a situation whereby each woman gives birth to just one daughter. Replacement level of birthrate is a fertility rate at which women give birth to not more children than are needed to replace the parents. Other factors being constant, replacement level of fertility maintains nil population growth. Replacement levels vary across nations. While the replacement level in developing countries equals 2.4 births per woman, it is 2.1 for the industrial world. UN reports reveal that the level remains above replacement in developing regions, while it is below in some industrial nations. During the second half of the 1990s, the average birthrates were reported to be 5.1 in Africa, 3.4 in South Asia, and 2.7 in Latin America. On the other hand, the figures are below replacement level in the developed world: 1.4 in Europe, 1.9 in North America, and 1.8 in East Asia.
Challenges and Prospects: The Case of Ethiopia
Population growth due to high rate of birth has negative consequences given the low level of economic progress to support it in the case of developing nations. This is the situation in sub-Saharan countries such as Ethiopia. Ethiopia is becoming the second most populous country in Africa, with the addition of two million people every year. At the same time, economic and social developments are declining with minimal industrial and agricultural output. The country is thus highly dependent on foreign aid. Over half of the population is economically unproductive, either too young or too old to work, and consequently supported by few working members of the society. The Ethiopian Economic Association reports indicate that the country’s main economic sector is agriculture, which is becoming less productive due to overcrowding, overuse of resources, lack of modern practices, erosion, deforestation, and heavy reliance on rainfall. As the result of such crises, shortage of food and drought are becoming common phenomena in Ethiopia. Unchecked population growth in Ethiopia affects the environmental balance as well. Assefa Hailemariam argues that the densely populated areas are overcultivated apart from deforestation, which leads to erosion and land degradation.
Countries like Ethiopia need to check their population growth so that they may achieve sustainable development. The strategies that can help counter population explosion include educating young women, in general, and educating the entire population about harmful cultural practices such as early marriage and early childbearing. The education of girls can contribute to active involvement of women in the economy, late marriage, delayed birth, and active decision making with regard to reproductive issues such as spacing and delay of births. The use of contraceptive methods is a typical example: Educated women are more likely to use them than those who are uneducated. The investment in the education sector is an important factor in achieving the goal of curbing rapid population growth by maintaining low-order birthrates.
According to Sahlu Haile, traditional practices of marriage, family life, and childbirth in developing countries contribute significantly to a high rate of birth. In Ethiopia, the average age of marriage is 17, and a significant percentage of those married at this age become mothers within a few years, contributing to the high birthrate in the country, which is 5.9. Thus, delaying marriage would contribute to the delay in childbirth. To combat harmful practices, Haile recommends educating the public through formal as well as informal venues. The role of the mass media and public policies is also vital; family planning, including counseling and the provision of contraceptive methods, is crucial. Such strategies delay marriages and childbirth while also contributing to the improvement of maternal and child health. International assistance is also helpful to complement local efforts and governments’ commitments in developing nations.
The future of our planet is greatly affected by human birthrates, which have direct bearing on population size. A state of controlled birthrate growth will contribute to the stability and maintenance of a sustainable environment that can support people’s fundamental needs. Conversely, unchecked birthrates will contribute to the complications of challenges in the areas of environmental crises, famine, drought, massive immigration, conflict, insecurity, and political instability worldwide. Uncontrolled level of replacement, which in the industrial world may continue to be below replacement level, will lead to scarcity of labor in the industry and even in the military forces. Likewise, uncontrolled rates of birth above the replacement level among developing nations will add to the worsening of the scarcity of resources and depletion of the environment, adding to human suffering worldwide.
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