Abortion in Italy declines while fertility inches up

Is Italy breaking out of a demographic nose-dive?
Vincenzina Santoro | Oct 15 2009 | comment  

Each year the Italian Ministry responsible for health presents a report to Parliament on abortion trends. Data presented a few weeks ago by Undersecretary Eugenia Maria Roccella of the Ministry of Labor, Health and Social Policy brings encouraging news: Abortions have continued to decline among adult women and minors, an overwhelming percentage of Italian doctors refuse to perform abortions, and Italy has a low contraceptive prevalence rate.

According to the latest report, in 2008 there were 121,406 abortions in Italy, of which about 80,000, or two-thirds, were performed on Italian women and one-third on foreign women residing in or coming to Italy. The latter were primarily from Eastern Europe. The share of foreign women having an abortion has risen steadily from 10.1 percent of the total in 1998. (Italy has a population of approximately 60 million.)

The number of abortions last year declined by 4.1 percent, and were 48.3 percent below the peak year of 1982 when 234,801 abortions were registered. Available data show that Italy’s abortion rate among minors is one of the lowest: It was 7.5 percent in 2007 compared with 25 percent for the United Kingdom and 21 percent for the United States (according to 2004 data).

In 2007, approximately 70 percent of doctors in Italy refused to perform abortions, up dramatically from 58 percent in only 2005. In the Lazio Region (where Rome is located) the figure is over 80 percent.
Italy not only has one of the lowest abortion rates in the world, it also has a low contraceptive prevalence rate of 20 percent. In the words of Ms. Roccella: “It depends on a cultural factor. The sense of family is still strong.”

Ms Roccella’s remarks begs the question of Italy’s low fertility. Like nearly all developed countries, Italy’s fertility rate is below replacement – when women bear an average of 2.1 children – and under the 1.5 EU average. The fertility rate reached its low point of 1.19 in 1995 but has been inching up since then. The latest data show that the fertility rate reached 1.41 in 2008, up from 1.37 the year before and 1.26 in 2000. Indeed, fertility rates have risen in nearly all EU countries since 2000, with the exception of Germany, Luxembourg, Malta, and Poland; in the latter two, emigration may have contributed to the decline.

Are foreign women contributing to the rise? At the end of 2008 there were 3.89 million foreigners residing in Italy, an increase of 13.4 percent from the year before, and double the number registered in 2003. In 2008 foreign women had a fertility rate of 2.41 while Italian women only 1.24 and accounted for 12.6 percent of live births compared with 1.7 percent of the total in 1995. However, more foreign women, coming from different family backgrounds and cultures, are having out of wedlock births. As a result, the number of live births outside marriage has shot up from 9.7 percent in 2000 to 22.2 percent in 2008. Nonetheless, Italy’s rate is the fourth lowest in the EU after Greece, Cyprus and Poland. (Sweden holds the record with 54.6 percent.)

A 2006 survey showed that Italian women of childbearing age want to have more children: 63 percent said that they wanted two and 28 percent preferred three. Only 9 percent favored having only one child.

Italians cite a long list of complaints for the paucity of newborns. Raising a child properly is considered costly. Child care facilities are virtually nonexistent. Family members traditionally take care of each other and so some working women delay having children until their mothers have retired from the labor force (usually in their late 50s) and can take care of grandchildren. Mothers-to-be are offered five months of maternity leave, considerably less than in other European countries. Italians complain that adequate housing is expensive and in short supply. Mortgages are not as common as in other developed countries. Finally, women are having children later in life.

Various governments have paid lip service to the need for parental benefits but few measures are ever taken. The center-right government that was in office from 2001 to 2006 introduced a baby bonus of 1,000 Euros for a second child. Only Italians, not foreigners, were eligible.

On the other hand, the Italian National Drug Authority recently approved use of the RU486 pill as a drug that can be prescribed, although only in hospitals. This has drawn government opposition with a sharp comment from Senator Maurizio Gasparri who told Italy’s leading newspaper, Corriere della Sera, “To state that RU486 is a drug means that life is a disease.” Another prominent politician, Umberto Bossi, of the Northern League (Lega Nord) told the same paper: “The Lega is in favor of children being born; for too many years many babies have not been born and we risk the annihilation of society.”

It’s too early to tell what the future will bring for Italy. But the statistics seem to confound gloomy predictions of a “low-fertility trap” by some demographers. They observe that once a country’s fertility rate sinks below 1.5 it is doomed to enter a downward spiral, from which, like a nose-diving airplane, there is no escape. Fortunately, for reasons which are still obscure, Italy seems to be tiptoeing back from the abyss. 

Vincenzina Santoro is an international economist living in New York. She represents the American Family Association of New York at the United Nations.

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