European Observatory on Family Matters, focus monitoring 2000: Fertility



Karin Wall


Low fertility

The family in Portugal has been undergoing profound changes since the 1970s. As far as fertility over the last two decades is concerned, the figures show that radical change has taken place. From the high levels of the 1960s, and the still relatively high levels of the 1970s, birth and fertility rates fell to extremely low levels in the 1980s and 1990s. This decrease has taken place everywhere in the country, regional variations being insignificant in this context when compared to the stark contrasts that characterised the country in the past (where the northern districts, more rural and catholic, had much higher values than the southern districts). The drop in fertility rates shows how birth-control methods have become widespread throughout Portuguese society. Additionally, there is the evolution of new forms of perceiving marriage and children’s place. On the one hand, living together does not necessarily imply having children, even if a most Portuguese (65%) consider "having children" as very important if the marriage is to be a happy one (Almeida and Guerreiro, 19931).

On the other hand, the child today occupies a privileged and more protected position. There is a high level of investment at the level of affection, of material well-being— which previous generations did not have—and of long periods spent in education with a view to achieving a better social and occupational position later in life. There has been a sharp decline in the instrumental function of the child, that of working and contributing to the family income and of supporting his or her parents in their old age, in favour of the new ideal of a protected childhood. But that function is not totally

extinct, as is understandable in a society with low welfare benefits in which there are numerous families facing economic hardship and with very low levels of education.

For these people, it has traditionally been through the medium of family ties that care of the older generation is provided.

Besides the changes we have described above, there have been two other forms of change that, in one way or another, are connected to changes in fertility: the presence of women in the labour market and the increase in women’s levels of educational attainment. The number of Portuguese women in active employment has increased steadily from 13.1% in 1960 to 42.2% in 1996. This trend has continued to rise. At the same time, the age at which the highest number of women was working has also changed. In the 1960s, the age range in which the highest number of women was actively employed was 15–19 years—in most cases, before marrying and having children. At the time of the most recent population census (1991), however, the median age for females in the workforce was found in the 25–29-year range, apparently unaffected by considerations of marriage and the responsibilities of motherhood.

Low fertility has not been a source of major public concern in Portugal over the last few years. Such issues as the reorganisation of social protection, gender equality, seaching out to poor families, improving vertical redistribution, expanding service provision and the protection of abused or neglected children have been more central to public debate and policies. In other words, public concern has tended to focus to a great extent on the issues that have been the main triggers for action: poverty, disability, abuse and stress, inequality, service provision.

The theme of low fertility has nevertheless received some attention, usually in the context of broader discussions on population ageing and the need to increase support for the elderly, on abortion and contraception, on the long-term budgetary situation of social security and on the problems of families with many children.

The issue of population ageing and its implications for Portuguese society has been quite widely discussed during the past year. Attention at the government level (national as well as local) and of private and non-governmental organisations has mainly focused on new policy measures related to the increase in home-based care services and day care centres, the quality and official ‘certification’ of institutional care, and state financial support to private non-profit institutions providing services for the elderly. Discussion of the implications of an ageing population, both for public policies and for developing elderly care schemes, also received attention. For example, government representatives discussed the issue of the need for temporary institutional care in emergency situations and for night-care centres, due to the isolation of many elderly persons (Conference on Family and Ageing, Lisbon, November 1999).

On the other hand, media coverage of the issue of population ageing was usually triggered by certain events: the announcement of policy measures and goals, the organisation of conferences (the Conference on Family and Ageing in November 1999, the IXth Meeting of Elderly Persons organised by the Union of Private Social Solidarity Institutions in Bragança in July 1999), the closing down or inauguration of care institutions, or the publication of statistics and research findings. In 1999, the media discussed the United Nations Report on Population as well as national statistics on birth rates and ageing (namely, a study by the National Statistical Office on the Living Conditions of the Elderly Generations). Reference to low fertility as the cause of population stagnation and ageing was always to be found in this coverage of demographic reports. However, attention was often focused on other indicators, such as the fact that Portugal still has the highest infant mortality rate in Europe and a low GNP per capita, rather than on low fertility as a problem (cf. Diário de Notícias, 22 September 1999).

Abortion and contraception have been recurrent themes and major issues in Portuguese society, especially since the vigorous debate that took place between 1996 and 1998 (see Karin Wall, Portugal: Issues Concerning the Family in 1996, in J. Ditch et al. Developments in National Family Policies in 1996, European Observatory on National Family Policies, 1998). Proposed changes to the existing law (1984), including the introduction of the availability of abortion on demand for up to ten weeks, led to a 1998 referendum in which the majority of voters rejected liberalisation. In the aftermath of the referendum, a discussion on the need for new policy measures was introduced, mainly by the right and centre-right parties. The main social actors (government, political parties, non-governmental organisations) expressed their concern with the problems of access to family planning and the development of sexual education to prevent undesired pregnancies and protect young people from AIDS. It led to the August 1999 passing of Law 120 on Sexual Education in Schools and Access to Family Planning. Finally, another theme that has sometimes punctuated the debate on abortion and contraception is the need to discuss pronatalist policy measures rather than abortion. In this context, the opposition parties have proposed such measures over the last two years as increasing tax allowances for families with children, allowing unpaid parental leave to be taken into account in terms of pension rights, and supporting teenage mothers and large families with three or more children.

The 1999 creation of the Portuguese Association for Large Families (APFN) is another event that drew some attention to the theme of low fertility. Along with its demands and proposals on how to treat large families, the Association has criticised the absence of a pronatalist policy that would provide women with incentives to give birth to two or more children. In an interview during the Conference on Families and Education organised by the APFN in April 2000, the president of the association referred to the problems of the low fertility rate and the ever-lower proportions of young people in Portugal. "Many people would like to have large families but there are no incentives, there isn’t a pronatalist policy that would allow them to carry these life projects into effect" (Diário de Notícias, 13 April 2000). The Association proposes substantial increases in family benefits.

1 Almeida, A. N. and Guerreiro, M. D., "A família" in L. França Portugal, Valores Europeus, Identidade Cultural, Lisbon, Instituto de Estudos para o Desenvolvimento. pp. 105–135. European Observatory on Family Matters, focus monitoring 2000: Fertility