Western democracies face a growing problem. No, it's not the ballooning budget deficits, swelling entitlement programs, or expanding ranks of the permanently unemployed. This time the problem is what's not growing: Too few women are having babies to sustain the population.
European countries have long posted fertility rates far below 2.1 births per woman, the level required to replace the population absent immigration. The United Kingdom and France have relatively healthy rates of around 2 births per woman, but Germany, Italy, Spain, Greece, Hungary, Poland, and Austria all have fewer than 1.5 births per woman. The United States had been an exception in the Western world, but the fertility rate recently dipped to 1.9 births per woman.
Low fertility has enormous economic implications. Too few babies today means too few workers and taxpayers tomorrow, and a stagnant economy. World leaders know this, so have tried a range of policies, from tax breaks and cash payments to subsidized parental leave and childcare programs, to encourage procreation. Such efforts have had modest, inconsistent impacts.
Here's one idea that Western democracies ought to consider and it won't take a dime from their strained government budgets: Try toning down the alarmism heaped on expectant parents to make pregnancy and parenting more appealing. Sadly, too much of society seeks to scare would-be parents into believing that danger lurks around every corner for any child they foolishly bring into this toxic world.
Take the recent release from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and American Society for Reproductive Medicine, trumpeting the dangers of chemical exposure for pregnant women. It goes far beyond encouraging doctors to assess a patient's lifestyle for a real risk of high-level exposure to dangerous chemicals. Rather it encourages doctors to suggest that common foods and products are dangerous and women ought to eliminate them from their lives or risk injuring their unborn babies. The release describes embracing a "precautionary approach," essentially assuming everything is a danger until proven otherwise.
How do women react to such overwhelming advice?
Some will likely react as I did, eight years ago when I was expecting my first child. At that time, the government included canned tuna on the long-list of no nos for pregnant women. I embraced the idea that because of trace levels of mercury, I needed to limit tuna consumption. In fact, I decided to go the extra mile and rid my diet of tuna entirely. Shortly thereafter I learned that — oops! — such guidance was actually unnecessary: It would be nearly impossible to consume enough tuna to endanger one's unborn baby. Moreover, the research now suggested that this was worse than just useless. By not eating enough fish I deprived my daughter of vital nutrients.
Beyond creating the potential for this kind of counterproductive health outcome (women needlessly worried about canned vegetables, for example, may well end up consuming less vitamin-packed vegetables overall), these warnings make pregnancy more stressful. Women are already worried about not being good enough mothers and the health of their offspring. Too much of society seems to want to add to this and make them feel guilty for having an occasional French fry or continuing to use makeup while pregnant. And — not to add to women's already heaping list of worries — keep in mind that stress itself isn't particular good for junior's health either.
Some comforting facts for women: In spite of the alarming headlines and allusions to unknowable risks, most common chemicals have been studied extensively. For example, while bisphenol A (BPA) has been a top target for environmental activists, the Food and Drug Administration has concluded that "the scientific evidence at this time does not suggest that the very low levels of human exposure to BPA through the diet are unsafe." This isn't because the issue hasn't been studied. The FDA explains further, "The agency has performed extensive research on BPA," and "has reviewed hundreds of other studies."
Doctors groups and policymakers truly concerned about people's health should consider how their guidance will be received, especially after it's filtered through an often hysterical media. Do they really think that having women worrying about every bite of apple or every wipe of their counter top is good for their families' health? Isn't it likely that suggesting everything is dangerous makes it more likely that women will give up trying to follow their recommendations at all?
Here's advice for expectant moms that I hope is a tad more useful: Try to relax and use common sense. Don't drink your Lysol or decide today's the day to start stripping your furniture. Take your prenatal vitamins, eat a variety of foods and think a bit more about your diet. But don't make yourself miserable with worry.
Children born today can expect a longer, healthier life than at any other time in history. They will have access to better medicine, greater nutrition and a cleaner, safer environment than previous generations. Such reminders may make being pregnant a little less stressful and parenting more fun. Perhaps it will even encourage a few more people out there to give parenting a try.
Carrie Lukas, a mother of four, is the managing director of the Independent Women's Forum.