An Italian Irony: The Land That Is Home to Papacy Boasts Planet's Lowest Birthrate

THAT image of Italian mamas surrounded by bambini tugging at their skirts?

Forget it.

A just-issued United Nations report on the state of world population shows that Italy has the lowest birthrate in the world.

"Twenty years ago the Italian woman didn't work and there was a house full of children," explains gynecologist Paola Di Bello. "Today's Italian woman wants to realize herself as a person."

The result is that Italian women have 1.3 children on average, the UN survey shows. With Italians not even replacing themselves, concerns have been raised that Italy will be getting progressively grayer. A number of other European countries - Greece, Austria, Germany, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Hungary, Finland, France, and Britain - also have birthrates of fewer than two children per woman.

"Having children has become a prospect that requires serious evaluation and careful planning," said the Rome-based ISPES political institute in its 1992 annual report. "The new professional role of women, the change in the rhythms of work in the service society, the inadequacy of fundamental social agencies like the school, not to mention the widespread employment crisis, have undermined the foundation of the pillars on which the family, until the beginning of the 1970s, managed to stand virtually unscat hed," the report says. Great sacrifices

In recent years, Italians have become attached to the idea of enjoying a high standard of living, says Ms. Di Bello, even if it means making great sacrifices, including having fewer children.

Economically speaking, a lot of this is a matter of la bella figura - cutting a good figure, or, in the context of a Mercedes and a cellular telephone, keeping up with the Joneses.

"One salary is not enough. The woman has to work," Di Bello says. "These things cost a lot."

And the cost of living for many families went still higher this year, with the introduction of new taxes on homes and small businesses.

The fact that young women have increasingly chosen to pursue higher education at the expense of a family is another reason for the low birthrate. Increasing job prospects

The pressure not to have children continues right after school, too.

When a young woman finishes university, at about 25 years of age in Italy, says Di Bello, it is almost certainly she will not get a job if there's a chance she will have a child in the near future: Employers want to avoid paying maternity leave of three months before the birth and three months after.

"Just recently a young woman came to me," she says. "At a certain point she had decided to have a child and the next month she got an offer for a very prestigious job and decided to abort the child."

Ironically, the Italians are practicing such stringent family planning in a predominantly Roman Catholic country - indeed, in the country that is host to the Vatican. Pope John Paul II's firm opposition to the use of contraceptive devices or abortion is well known.

"The pope says not to do it, but the Italian women do it anyway," says Di Bello.

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