Singapore’s fertility woes call for a rethink of sexual attitudes

On July 25, 1968, Pope Paul VI published a document, Humanae Vitae, which said that the Pill was incompatible with Catholic morality. Did this shunt his Church into decades of irrelevance or did it make the Church a beacon of moral clarity? This week MercatorNet publishes three articles about the world after Humanae Vitae. Below, Nick Chui identifies the troubling attitude behind Singapore's stubbornly low fertility.

*******  One of the worst-kept secrets of bustling, prosperous Singapore is the birth dearth which threatens to undermine both its economy and sense of nationhood in the decades ahead. The birth rate stands at a miserably low 1.29 children per woman -- one of the lowest in the world and far below the 2.1 level needed to replace the population.
A few weeks ago Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew highlighted once again the nation’s fertility woes , suggesting that we take some lessons from Sweden, where government funding of generous parental work leave and other family-friendly policies shores up a birth rate that, at 1.67, is higher than in much of Europe. At the same time the work-life balance approach keeps women in the workforce.
Singapore’s problem goes back almost 60 years to the mid-twentieth century belief that population control was essential to economic development, not to mention balancing the ethnic composition of the population. Following independence in 1965, the government instituted a birth control policy that lasted two decades. The birth rate came tumbling down, although much faster among educated women than among the poor and uneducated. Since the 1980s there has been a variety of policies to boost fertility, first among the educated sectors but now among all Singaporeans.
Reversing the low fertility trend is not proving to be an easy mission. In 2007, only 39,940 children were born, just two thirds of the 60,000 required for “replacement”. Yet in the frenzy of discussion that ensued, one statistic seemed to have been forgotten: our abortion rates. In 2006, one out of four, or 12,000 babies were aborted. For a country that prides itself on hard nosed pragmatism, and a devotion to statistics and similar apparatus, such amnesia is baffling.
What is more disturbing is that these terminations of pregnancies were not mostly limited to teenagers or unmarried women. A study by the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology of the National University of Singapore in 2002 reported that up to 75 per cent of women who went for abortions were married people.
In others words, what is generally represented as a desperate measure for women trapped in tragic situations is actually a mainstream method of birth control and a significant cause of our current fertility woes.
Yet the reality of abortion masks something deeper, the existence of a stubborn contraceptive mentality.
Now, a contraceptive mentality does not necessarily imply the widespread use of contraceptives. Rather it is a mentality which sees the act of intercourse as being intrinsically disconnected with babies. The reasons for intercourse are now left to the imagination, none of them necessarily connected to the possibility of bringing forth new life.
In light of this now ingrained attitude, a recent call by Singapore doctors for more contraceptive education to curb abortions may well be adding fuel to fire. There are several indications that this is so.
For one thing, it would seem that Singaporeans are not warming up to the various contraceptive paraphernalia easily available. Nor are they testifying that their sex lives have been enhanced by the use of contraceptives. A woman interviewed by the Whisper Project in 2006 felt that “her husband did not like the artificial feel of a condom, and the Pill and other methods meant she had to go see her doctor for a prescription, and she did not like strangers questioning her about her sexual habits.”
Secondly, while Singaporeans may not actually be using contraceptives, they have largely severed the connection between babies and intercourse. As such, people begin to talk about babies as if they are accidental occurrences. Abortion is thus seen as the next logical step in the birth control apparatus.
Indeed one woman surveyed in the same Whisper Project seem to have said as much when she declared that she felt that she did not need contraceptives because she was married. “When last year’s accident happened,” she continued “abortion was the only way out. Both of us had agreed on just one child.”
What can be done to change such a contraceptive mentality? I have a few suggestions:

Restrict the possibility of recourse to abortion. Currently, abortion is allowed on demand for up to 24 weeks which means that a woman can terminate her pregnancy for a variety of reasons from the tragic to the frivolous. Indeed, when compulsory counseling for abortion was introduced in 1986 along with the removal of subsidies, the number of pregnancies terminated fell from a high of 35.5 per cent to the current 25 per cent.

Have educational campaigns to help parents accept their “accidental” children rather than choose abortion. Help them to see that having children and organic sex are additions to marital bliss and not necessarily obstacles. The nine per cent of Singaporeans who are still having five or more children should be held up as examples and profiles should be done on how they cope with the worries which concern the average Singaporean including work life balance, finances and education of the children.

Create awareness of natural methods of fertility management. The Billings Ovulation Method has been certified by the World Health Organization as 99 per cent effective in avoiding pregnancy. Not only that; since use of the method cultivates an awareness of the fertility cycle of the woman, planning for a child is now much easier. Considering the significant number of couples who are having difficulty conceiving, being aware of the periods where the woman is most fertile can only be a blessing.
Indeed, couples who use natural methods of fertility management, attest to the fact that they find their sex lives satisfying. A mother of six even blogged about her experience. “If you can have sex anytime, anywhere and any how, the sense of excitement will diminish over the years. During this period of waiting, our sexual passion is simmering like a good pot of stew slowly stewing over a fire. When the fertile period is over, it is fun time. We can enjoy sex freely without the worry of any health concerns or side effects [from contraceptives].” Indeed, the periods of abstinence required by the couple would demonstrate to each other that they are both virtuous masters of their passions. Sex immediately takes on a deeper meaning and is not simply a masturbatory experience to relieve sexual urges.
The measures suggested seem like medicine difficult to swallow. But then again, the Singapore government has never been afraid to bite the bullet when it comes to keeping Singapore economically competitive during an economic depression. We are now in the midst of a fertility depression that has gone on unchecked for 32 years. Only a deeper change of attitude to fertility can lift us out of this dismal trend. Nick Chui works as a family life educator in Singapore. He can be contacted at [email protected] 

******* This is one of three articles on the world after Humanae Vitae. See also: The Pill: past its use-by date, exposing the fantasy ideology driving the quest for perfect contraception, and an interview with philosopher Christopher Tollefsen, Sex without consequences, a world without commitment  


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