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Birthrate in Developing World Lower Than Expected - 2002-05-10

For years, demographers have warned that population growth in the developing world would push the planet's population to more than 10 billion people by the end of this century. But the birthrate in countries such as Brazil, India, Mexico and Egypt is not keeping pace with those projections. For reasons experts are just now beginning to understand, women are having fewer children even without advances in living standards that were once thought essential for population decline. Many parents in Brazil say economic factors play a key role in their decision to have children.

The family tree of Claudia Marques de Cunha provides a vivid illustration of the dramatic demographic changes happening in Brazil. Her grandmother had 10 children in the impoverished north of the country, with six surviving to adulthood. Her mother, Maria, emigrated to Rio de Janeiro where she raised five children. And now, Claudia and her husband have decided to stop at one child, their three-year-old son Rena. Claudia works as a teacher. She says her women friends all have their own careers too, and they are not interested in parenthood.

"They are only interested in loving someone and studying what they want, and working, making their money, and this is all," she said. "This is sufficient for them. And I thought the same way some time ago."

Claudia and her husband belong to Brazil's middle class, but money is tight. It takes her an hour to commute to work each way by bus. When she gets home, her son is already asleep. Her husband works as a mechanic and watches Rena in the evenings. Claudia says if she could, she would have two children, but they have decided they cannot afford it.

"I believe that there are many women who would say the same words, if they could they would have more children," she said. "It is not something that we just do not want. It is something that is a result of something else. And this something else for sure is related to economic reasons."

Claudia's decision to have only one child may be a reluctant one, but it also shows that many women now have the information and resources they need to have only their desired number of children. Since women are making the decision to have fewer children, experts say fertility in many large, developing countries may dip below the replacement level of 2.1 children, which was once thought unlikely. And it could happen by the year 2050.

Claudia's mother, Maria, a woman in her 60's, says she remembers feeling much less in control as her young family was growing up. Her mother died when she was young. When she got married, Maria says, she felt isolated and intimidated, with no one to ask about family planning. She had hoped to have only three children, but ultimately a fourth and a fifth came along as well. She says she feared she would not be able to do a good job raising them.

Maria says she used to worry about having a child every year, without being able to give them an education or a comfortable life. But, she says, once she became pregnant, she always carried the children to term because she never wanted to consider getting an abortion.

Maria says birth control information was hard to come by then. In that respect, times have changed, at least in Brazil's big cities, where family planning information is plentiful, and birth control pills can be purchased for about a $1.50 per month without a prescription.

According to researchers, Brazil's birthrate has fallen to its current level of 2.3 children per woman as women's income level, education and health-care have improved. Demographer Lillibeth Cardozo Ferreira with Brazil's Institute of Geography and Statistics says in the last decade, fertility in Brazil has fallen across every income category as the population has become more urban, and old beliefs have given way to new economic realities.

Ms. Ferreira says that as with other developing countries, in Brazil there was the idea that the more children you have, the more hands you have to help with the work. But she says this idea does not exist anymore. Today women realize that the more children you have, the more expenses there are, and the harder it is to raise them. Ms. Ferreira says even Brazil's television soap operas may play a role in inspiring people to have smaller families like the ones they see on-screen.

Whatever the reasons, Claudia's choice to have one child, which is part of a trend across the developing world, has enormous implications. This year the United Nations plans to revise its world population estimates based on these findings. Experts say there may be one billion fewer people on the planet than once expected by the end of this century.