East bloc to women: have babies. Officials seek to arrest population drop

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

East European planners love to push for increased output, be it of steel or almost any other product. Now they have gone one step further. They want to boost the number of babies.

As their populations slowly shrink, governments throughout the region have introduced a series of natality measures -- from financial bonuses to bans on contraception. For Hungarians fearful of losing their Magyar identity, Romanians anxious about their Latin culture, and Bulgaria's Slavs nervous about the fast-growing Turkish minority, the issue is a matter of national survival as well as economic necessity.

``We need a healthier structure of the population,'' says Andras Klinger, director of Hungary's Statistics Board. ``To plan an economy, you must be able to plan the number of workers.''

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Eastern Europe's overall birth rate has fallen steadily for the past two decades. From a postwar high of around three babies each, mothers in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Bulgaria now average fewer than two babies. Only in Romania and Poland is the birth rate above the 2.1 replacement level -- the number of children needed to replace every parent, with more added to account for mortality.

Western Europe and the United States have experienced a similar decline. In the most dramatic cases, birth rates in West Germany and Denmark have tumbled to 1.4 per woman. West Germany has the world's oldest population, with only a small percentage of young people and a large share of the middle-aged and pensioners.

On both sides of the political divide, demographers say the reasons for the decline are much the same: urbanization, modernization, and women's liberation. Rural dwellers tied to a traditional way of life have high fertility rates; urbanites living in cramped apartments don't.

In Poland, the continued influence of the Roman Catholic Church and traditional family ties are the exception, giving the country the highest birthrate of any industrialized country in the world. But elsewhere, as contraception spreads, the educational level of society increases, and more women enter the labor market, childbearing has decreased.

``People find they want cars and refrigerators before babies,'' Dr. Klinger explains. ``Children become secondary and very expensive propositions.''

As expensive as children are to raise, the decline of the birthrate hurts the economy. Some East-bloc countries already face labor shortages. Czechoslovakia has been forced to import ``guest workers'' from as far away as Vietnam. Hungary counts more than 2 million pensioners out of a total population of some 11 million.

``There are too few workers to support these pensioners,'' says Ed Hewitt, an East Europe specialist at Washington's Brookings Institute. ``It's a major structural problem.''

Despite facing a similar challenge, almost all Western governments shy away from population policies. They consider the decision of whether or not to have children a private matter. Few politicians discuss the issue in public.

The only exception are the nationalistic French. Believing that power lies in numbers, former President Charles de Gaulle proposed in the 1960s the doubling of France's population to 100 million people. His successors have pursued a policy of giving generous amounts of financial aid to large families. At the National Institute of Demographic Studies in Paris, director Gerard Callou has held several conferences uniting French and East European researchers. ``Alone in the West,'' he explains, ``we share the East European fear for the nation's future.''

Like the French policy, East-bloc programs ease the financial burden of motherhood. They give progressive bonuses for second and third children, full pay long after mothers have given birth, and priority on coveted housing. In Hungary, a mother with three children receives 2,520 forints a month (about $63), a significant sum in a country in which the average worker only earns about 5,000 forints a month (about $125).

Enticing as all these goodies are, East-bloc officials admit they are not sufficient. Hungarian and Romanian officials estimate that benefits make up only about 20 percent of the cost of bringing up a child.

Some countries have turned to outright coercion. Although contraception and abortion were made widely available during the 1950s, both these former social rights are under attack. In almost all East-bloc countries, women must appear before medical boards and offer either convincing medical or economic reasons for the abortion.

The results of this coercion were not encouraging to the governments. In the first year after abortion was banned in Hungary, the birth rate jumped. The next year it fell back to previous levels, and the Hungarians returned to emphasizing financial bonuses.

The Romanians drew a different lesson from the experiment, and have become stricter. All contraceptive devices and abortions are now banned except in a medical emergency. Women receive a gynecological checkup each month at their workplace.

At the Ministry of Health in Bucharest, officials defended the practice in interviews as a medical precaution. It also seems a clear attempt to prevent abortions. Once a woman is found to be preganant, she is closely monitored.

The tactics have shown mixed success. Although officials say Romania's population is growing again, they admit the growth remains far below President Nicolae Ceausescu's stated goal of increasing the number of Romanians from 22.8 million today to 30 million in 1990.

``We must accomplish a lot more,'' says Ioan Copil, a physician at the National Institute of Geriatrics, ``but at least we're doing much better than Western countries.''

In nearby Budapest, potential mothers are more ambivalent. As she plays in a park with her 13-month-old son David, Erika Csillikne says child care funds permit her to balance her home budget. The funds will permit her to have a second child -- if she is willing to take more time off from her job as a computer programmer.

``The additional benefits make it easier, but they don't make a difference unless you really want children,'' she says. ``That,'' she adds, ``is a question of love.''

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