Catholic countries have Europe's lowest birth rates: Britain's population set to rise as women have children later in life

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The Independent Online
BIRTH RATES in some of the richest countries of north-west Europe have risen in the 1990s after two decades of decline, writes Steve Connor. By contrast, poorer countries in southern Europe, often Roman Catholic and thought to have traditions of large families, now have the lowest birth rates.

Demographers said yesterday that many women in north-west Europe who delayed having a family in the 1970s and 1980s have decided to go ahead - ending the overall decline in births since the baby boom of the 1960s.

David Coleman, lecturer in demography at Oxford University, will present the latest data on European birth rates to the annual conference of the British Society for Population Studies which begins today in Durham. Yesterday he dismissed the view that Europe's population is set to dwindle.

'It is not true that Europe is experiencing declining birth rates, although they have been low by world standards since the 1970s. In north-west Europe birth rates have increased, not declined, since the 1980s, by up to 25 per cent in the case of Sweden. The UK, France, Norway and Finland all have relatively high birth-rates by European standards,' Dr Coleman said.

By contrast, birth rates in southern Europe have fallen rapidly since about 1980, he said. 'We are now in the bizarre position where Catholic Spain and Catholic Italy are vying for position as the lowest birth rate country.'

Even Catholic Ireland has experienced a remarkable fall in birth rates in recent years.

Dr Coleman said the experience in Scandinavian countries is that working women no longer view a job and children as mutually exclusive. 'It used to be clear that married women who worked had fewer children than those who did not. Recently, however, it seems that women's work and larger families are no longer alternatives.

'In Norway and some other countries, women at work are just as likely as those who stay at home to have a third child, possibly as a result of improved child support.'

In contrast, the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, and with it the guarantee of child-support policies, has caused a dramatic decline in birth rates in those countries.

Throughout Europe women are choosing to have their first baby later in life, which contributes to a fall in the overall population. In 1970, the average age for women to have the first born was 23.5 years. Now it is 27.

Britain's population is set to rise slowly over the next two decades until 2026 when deaths are expected to outstrip births for the first time.