How to Create a Baby Boom in Russia

I write from Moscow, where I am participating in a Demographic Summit with other World Congress of Families leaders and Russian officials. Abortion is rampant here, having first been legalized and encouraged by the Communists in 1920. Even today, the average Russian woman has seven (7!) abortions over her lifetime. Now we have an historic opportunity to help reduce, perhaps even outlaw, abortion throughout Russia. There is a bill in the Russian Duma that would place severe restrictions on abortion, saving the lives of an estimated 4 million babies a year. Here is what I am telling the Russian people and their leaders.

Some say the battle to save the Russian people is being lost: that the population is destined to age and shrink dramatically over the next few decades. Some even predict that, like ancient Greece, Russia will extinguish herself completely over the succeeding centuries. I strongly disagree. The government has already taken measures that appear to be slowing down the rate of decline. The Duma is at present considering additional steps to raise the birth rate. What Russia needs, of course, is not an incremental increase in the number of births. What is called for is a Russian baby boom.

It is true that the demographic situation is dire. The Russians have been filling more coffins than cradles for some years now. The disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 triggered a sharp drop in Russian births, which have stayed low in the years following because of the sudden loss of a social system that formerly provided employment and housing for nearly every Russian, combined with the ongoing economic malaise and a general lack of confidence in the future. By 2000 Russian birthrates had plummeted to historic lows, substantially lower than those achieved in the midst of the upheavals of World War I and the Russian Revolution, and equaled only by the worst year of World War II when German armies overran the western third of the country. This, combined with increased mortality, meant that Russia’s population was decreasing by nearly a million people each year.

By 2003 the birthrate had been so low for so long that Russia’s leaders were publicly voicing concern. Then-President Vladimir Putin warned the Russian parliament that the lack of babies was “a serious crisis threatening Russia’s survival.” Three years later, Putin put in place a one-time payment of $9,000 upon the birth of a second child, along with additional cash and child-care subsidies for subsequent children. The birthrate has been climbing since then, while the mortality rate has been gradually falling.

But the crisis continues. There are still more deaths than births in Russia. Moreover, the increase in births appears to be leveling off, while recent mortality gains have diminished as well. The number of women entering their prime reproductive years is shrinking, and will bottom out around 2020. If the experience of other countries is any guide, a baby bonus has a greater impact on the timing of childbearing than on the total fertility rate. In other words, couples are motivated by the baby bonus to have their children earlier than they had planned (lest the policy change and they lose their bonus), but their desired family size does not increase by a significant amount.

According to the U.N. Population Division, Russia’s population is slated to decrease from 142 million in 2010 to 136 million in 2030. This is the UNDP’s medium variant projection, which unrealistically assumes that most Russian couples will start having two children again. The low variant projection, historically the most accurate, has the population falling to 129 million by 2030. The U.S. Census Bureau is even more pessimistic, predicting that Russian numbers will sag to 124 million over that same time frame. It is hard to see how a country can lose 10 percent of its population over the next two decades and build a modern economy at the same time. Yet the converse is also true: Until the Great Russian Depression ends the birthrate is likely to say low. The largest country in the world seems locked into a fatal spiral: a dance of death between demography and depression.

It may be possible, by paying benefits to pregnant women, and by making abortion marginally harder to get, to further close the gap between births and deaths. The state should stop paying for late-term abortions. Doctors should be protected by a conscience clause. But what Russia needs to develop its economy is a baby boom. And what this will require is bold measures that will fundamentally change the way that the state protects life, educates the young, and interacts with the family.

What is to be done?

1. The Russian Constitution Should be Amended to Protect Life from Conception

This step alone, by calling into question the morality and legality of abortion, would ensure a healthy increase in the birthrate. How much of an increase, it is difficult to say. But it is worth noting that the Latin American countries, which are on par with Russia in terms of economic development, have constitutions which, for the most part, guarantee the right to life from conception. This is one reason why their birthrates are, for the most part, at or above replacement.

I do not underestimate the political difficulties associated with accomplishing this. After all, we in the United States, despite 40 years of concerted effort on the part of pro-life, pro-family groups, have not succeeded in passing a Human Life Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Of course, our founding document was deliberately designed by our Founding Fathers to be hard to amend (which is why it has only been amended 25 times over the past 240 years).

Yet we have an example from your part of the world, Eastern Europe, which shows that such an amendment is politically possible. The Hungarians, whose dire demographic situation so closely resembles Russia’s own, on April 18th of this year passed a new constitution which protects human life from the moment of conception. While this provision does not immediately invalidate Hungary’s abortion law, it should, over time, provide the legal basis for placing increasing restrictions on abortion. Such a constitutional amendment would also underline the fact that a free and just society protects the most innocent and vulnerable of its number: the unborn. Such recognition on the part of a democratically governed society should manifest itself in an increase in the number of live births.

This is why I and my colleagues at the Population Research Institute applaud Hungary’s efforts. While the new constitution may not be perfect, the fundamentals of a free and just society—the right to life and the protection of marriage—are now in place. If Hungary can do it, so can Russia.

2. Textbooks Should Emphasize that Human Beings are the Most Valuable Resource

The value of human capital is widely understood by economists, but is often overlooked by other social scientists, and even denigrated by some in the natural sciences. Thus, in the U.S., we find that introductory textbooks in many fields, chiefly biology and social studies, continue the push the outdated notion that the world, and even the U.S., is overpopulated. Others suggest that protecting the environment necessarily requires reducing human numbers. Still others suggest that women can only be “liberated” when they are freed from the “bonds” of marriage and childbearing.

American textbooks often reflect one or more of these anti-natal points of view. Many Americans grew up on a poisonous diet of overpopulation propaganda. We were exposed to “lifeboat” scenarios in high school biology, where we had to decide who we were going to push overboard, lest we all die. We were forced to read Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb in college, which begins with the author mournfully intoning, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over,” and ends by advocating the abandonment of entire continents to famine and death in order to “cut … out the cancer [of population growth].” We were treated to the speeches of former Vice President Al Gore, who warned of an “environmental holocaust without precedent”—a “black hole” in his words—that will engulf us if we do not stop having babies. In this and a myriad of ways we have been force-fed—and most of us swallowed whole—the nasty theory that there were too many people, along with its even more terrible corollary that it is necessary to practice inhumanity in order to save humanity—or some worthy fraction thereof.

Every American college student has read something similar to the following, taken from James Coleman and Donald Cressey’s Social Problems, one of the standard social science textbooks from the nineties:

The world’s population is exploding. The number of men, women and children is now over 5 billion. … If the current rate of growth continues, the world’s population will double again in the next 40 years…the dangers of runaway population growth can be seen in historical perspective… It took all of human history until 1800 for the world’s population to reach 1 billon people. But the next … 1 billion was added in only 130 years (1800-1930), [the next billion] after that in 30 years (1930-1960), and the next in 15 years (1960-1975). The last billion people were added in only 12 years (1975-1987). If this trend (of runaway population growth) continues the world will be soon be adding a billion people a year, and eventually every month.

Since even the most frantic of population alarmists now agree that the world’s population in the early nineties was only increasing by some 90 million per year (an increment which has since fallen to 76 million) there was zero chance that the world would “soon be adding a billion people a year,” much less “every month.” But literally millions of college students learned otherwise and, like me, began to obsess about the numbers.

Although the impact of such propaganda is difficult to quantify, anecdotal evidence suggests that it cannot help but have a profound effect on fertility. Take the case of the 1969 Valedictorian of Yale University, who burst into tears during her valedictory address as she announced that she would never to able to have children. She had been taught that the world was overpopulated, and that the socially responsible thing to do was not to have children.

But we now see that overpopulation is, as economist Jacqueline Kasun has remarked, a false dogma. Falling fertility rates in Russia, Europe and elsewhere demonstrate that our long-term problem is not too many children, but too few children.

This truth should be taught to our children. Their textbooks should teach them to see their fellow human beings as producers, not just consumers. Their teachers should emphasize the role of people as the ultimate resource, the one resource you cannot do without. They should be led to understand that the great enemy of the environment is not people, but poverty, and that protecting the environment requires the imagination and resources that only people can provide. They should be taught that the future of humanity passes through the family, and that population is a key constituent of national prosperity and national power. They should leave school convinced that the socially responsible thing to do in the face of the looming calamity of depopulation is to have children

3. Shelter Young Couples from Taxation

The third and, in terms of immediately demographic payback, perhaps the most important, is to shelter young couples from the exactions of the state. High tax rates are a tremendous fertility disincentive, especially for young couples, who feel themselves to be so impoverished by state levies that they postpone childbearing, perhaps indefinitely.

Baby bonuses and child subsidies, however generous, are not the answer. They not only encourage dependency and thus work at cross-purposes to economic development, but also have not proven efficacious in raising birthrates to replacement. Consider that every European country has child subsidies and other pro-natal policies in place, and yet not a single one has succeeded in raising the birthrate to replacement levels.

In the U.S., we have taken a different approach to our demographic crisis. Our birthrates fell below replacement in 1973 with the legalization of abortion. Our Total Fertility Rate fell as low as 1.7, and presaged long-term population decline. But in 1994 the Republican Congress passed, and a Democrat President signed into law, generous tax breaks for Americans who were willing themselves to be generous in having children. Today in America, each new baby qualifies its parents for an additional $4650 deduction against their income and an additional $1,000 credit against their tax liability.

This means that a young American couple of modest income with two or more children pays virtually no income tax. The situation is far different in Europe, where a similar couple may turn over 50 percent of its income to the state and receive back only a fraction of this amount as a monthly child subsidy.

This is the secret of much of America’s recent demographic success. Birthrates have actually inched back up close to replacement in recent years. This increase in the birth rate, combined with robust immigration, has ensured that America’s population continues to grow. The population clock at the U.S. Census Bureau currently stands at over 311 million, and seems set to increase for some decades to come.

This growth is a good thing. The idea that populations naturally tend to stabilize, or that government policy can and should be tuned to produce Zero Population Growth, is an anti-natal fantasy. The reality is that populations are either vigorous and growing, or they are stagnant and dying. There is no middle ground.

For this reason I would like to see another baby boom in America. America’s current policies do not, in my view, go far enough. Russia’s, obviously, need to be even more farsighted.

Here is one final suggestion. Democracies, by their vary nature, are prone to egalitarian policies. But the idea that a policy can be devised to ensure that everyone replaces himself or herself is a fantasy. Many urban dwellers are too enamored of sex, the city, and the single life to consider marriage, much less childbearing. At the same time, there is, in every country, a minority which rejects the prevailing ethos, which still embraces marriage and family, and which is willing to embrace the vocation of parenthood.

The focus of Russian policy should be in encouraging such couples. Those who are willing to have three or more children should be sheltered from all taxes, including income tax, social security taxes, and the like. Such couples are a national treasure and their sacrifice in raising large families should be honored. They are providing for the future of Russia in the most fundamental way, by providing the future generation.

There are, obviously, other things that could and should be done, such as improving primary health care to ensure that more Russian babies survive infancy and childhood. But the three I have mentioned above would provide the basis for a society that values human life from conception, recognizes the contribution that human resources make to economic development, and encourages family-centered couples who would, at great sacrifice, repopulate the country.

Were any one of these policies to be adopted, the birth rate would increase significantly. Were all three adopted, I feel confident that the Russian birthrate would not only return to replacement, but would rise significantly above that level. With such a Russian baby boom, Russia’s future, as a people, as a culture, and as a nation, would be assured.

Steve Mosher is the president of Population Research Institute.