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  • Eleonora Voltolina

How can a country increase its fertility rate without turning into a Gilead-like nightmare?

There is a scene in the fourth season of the television series The Handmaid’s Tale in which Commander Fred Waterford, played by Joseph Fiennes, delivers a sentence that marks a turning point, at least a temporary one, in his fate. The Commander – without giving too many potential spoilers for those watching the series – is in Canada, in a difficult situation where he must answer for his earlier misdeeds – mainly committed against women – as part of the Gilead regime.


The sentence the Commander proudly pronounces goes something like this: “The sacrifices we all made in Gilead were difficult. But where else on earth is the birth rate rising? Nowhere. Only in Gilead. Because it works. It works! We chose God’s path, and have been rewarded for our sufferings.


What ‘works’ is the method engineered by the ideologues of the Gilead regime, envisioned by author Margaret Atwood in the early 1980s and recently turned into a TV series – of which Atwood herself is a consultant and producer. A method that consists in depriving fertile women of their freedom and forcing them to become surrogate mothers for the Commanders’ families; simultaneously creating a regressive society, stripped of technology and knowledge, in which women cannot read or write, and where daily lives are punctuated by prayer and strict social customs.


In the fictional universe of The Handmaid’s Tale, a worldwide collapse of human reproductive capacity – males and females are impacted, but mostly females - condemns many to sterility. The women who are still fertile, better still those who have already borne children and have therefore already demonstrated their fertility, become rare commodities, and the architects of the coup decide to put them in captivity, ‘re-educate’ them by means of a crash course in sadism at the hands of the ‘aunts’, and then send them to the houses of the Gilead elite to bear their coveted heirs.


“We are the only country in the world with a rising birth rate,” says Commander Waterford, and even though it is Gilead – a dystopian world – on screen, viewers cannot help but feel the tug of reality in this statement: for at least a decade now, newspapers around the globe have been reporting worrying data on fertility rates which, with few exceptions, are falling sharply in developed countries.


Italy has gone from 1.45 average children per woman as recorded in 2008 to 1.25 in 2021. Switzerland has been steady for a few years at 1.48 (it had increased to 1.54 between 2014 and 2016, then fell again). The United Kingdom went from 1.91 in 2008 to 1.68 in 2018; Spain from 1.45 in 2008 to 1.23 in 2019.


Even Finland – we sometimes a tendency to idealise Northern European countries, imagining that they are always ahead of the curve and having ready solutions in their back pocket, particularly for these issues – has dropped from 1.85 in 2008 to 1.35 in 2019. A drop of such magnitude that researchers Julia Hellstrand, Jessica Nisén and Mikko Myrskylä of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in 2019 even dedicated an essay to it, “All-time low period fertility in Finland: drivers, tempo effects, and cohort implications”.


There are two European countries that stand apart from the rest: in France, the only country to have assigned substantial resources since the 1970s to policies designed to bolster fertility, birth rates have been stable for years at around 2 – 2.1 being defined as ‘replacement level fertility’, i.e., the rate it takes to have citizens who die to be ‘replaced’ and therefore for the population to remain statistically stable. The French figure did in fact decrease slightly, dropping to 1.87 in 2019, and then rising again.


The other country bucking the trend, although well short of the replacement level, is Germany: here the figure rose from 1.38 in 2008 to 1.54 in 2019. The solution certainly does not lie in the tyranny of the Gilead regime. But the temptation to blame women for this generalised decline in birth rates, and the push by reactionary and traditionalist political and social forces to try to counteract this decline by making access to abortion increasingly difficult or even impossible, are signs that if secular and progressive solutions are not found to reverse the trend of falling birth rates, there will inevitably be more space for those factions that would like to reduce women to the role of ‘broodmares’. Just like in Gilead.

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This content, and the whole The Why Wait Agenda website, is produced by the Journalism for Social Change, a non-profit association carrying on an engaged kind of journalism, providing through information a secular and progressive point of view on the issues of fertility and parenting and pushing for cultural, societal and political change with respect to these issues. One of the association's means of financing is through its readers' donations: by donating even a small sum you will allow this project to grow and achieve its objectives.

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