5-12-21 The doom-loop of a falling fertility rate
Why America is powerless to reverse its plummeting fertility rate. Growth is good. On that, most of us agree. Sure, there are some agrarian localists on the right and antimodern environmentalists on the left who pine for a smaller, simpler world in which we make do with less as well as fewer — fewer cars, fewer smokestacks, fewer cities, fewer carbon dioxide molecules, and yes, even fewer people. But they are very much in the minority. Most of the rest of us consider growth — economic as well as demographic — incredibly important, if perhaps for somewhat different reasons. Nationalists believe in greatness for the political community, and they view growth of all kinds as a means to that end. Mainstream environmentalists understand that combatting climate change will have to involve advances in technology that are driven by a mixture of growth-fueled economic dynamism and public investments paid for, in part, with revenue generated by economic growth. And liberals recognize the crucially important role that economic growth plays in making possible a rising standard of living — and how giving people at all levels of the economic hierarchy hope for personal, familial, and community betterment diminishes the allure of antiliberal political movements on the far left and far right. That's why the recent news that declines in the U.S. fertility rate over the past decade and a half are continuing, and may even be accelerating, is so distressing. Replacement-level fertility — the number of babies each woman, on average, needs to have in order for the country's population to hold steady — is 2.1 births per woman. As recently as 15 years ago, the U.S. was bucking the trend of many peer nations in Europe and Asia in averaging about 2.1. But since 2007, the year before the start of the financial crisis and the extended recession that followed, we've fallen off a cliff. By 2019, the average number of births per woman had fallen to 1.71, and last week the CDC announced that the number dropped to 1.64 in 2020. That most recent downtick may be partly driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it's not divergent enough from recent trends to suggest there will be a reversal once the pandemic passes. For now, the American population continues to grow, in part because of our relatively high levels of immigration. But we're growing at the slowest rate since World War II, and even this anemic level of growth will soon come to an end if the fertility rate doesn't bounce back. And that could point toward an economically troubling future. In such a world, the median age of the population would rise over time, with fewer young people available to work relative to the increasing number of retirees. The shrinking workforce would act as a drag on productivity and economic growth, leading us at first to generate wealth at a slower rate than we've grown accustomed to, and eventually to grow poorer over time. Meanwhile, fewer people would be paying into social programs (Social Security and Medicare) struggling to support ever-greater numbers of the elderly, placing those programs under increasing strain and necessitating tax increases or additional deficit spending to cover costs, with both of those possibilities adding to the economic drag. And of course, those economic struggles could further discourage people from having children. That's the doom-loop of a falling fertility rate — and countries around the world, from Italy and Spain to China and Japan, are in danger of falling into it, along with the United States. The trend would be less alarming if there were obvious things we could do to reverse it. But there aren't.
5-7-21 Ancient hominins may have needed midwives to help deliver babies
It isn’t just modern humans that have found giving birth painful and dangerous. Growing evidence suggests birth was difficult for our hominin relatives millions of years ago. As a result, earlier hominins like Australopithecus may have needed help to deliver their babies. Birth is strikingly dangerous for modern humans (Homo sapiens) compared with other primates. Globally, for every 100,000 births in 2017, 211 mothers died. In the worst-affected countries, such as Sierra Leone, the maternal mortality rate is more than five times that. Many nations have much lower rates, but that is largely due to better medical intervention, including caesarean sections – which weren’t available for most of our species’ existence. The same isn’t true for other primates like monkeys and apes, our closest living relatives. “You’re not seeing these types of complications that you see in humans,” says Nicole Webb at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. The long-standing explanation for the difficulty of human births is that it is caused by a combination of our large brains and the fact we walk upright on two legs. According to anthropologist Sherwood Washburn, writing in 1960, upright walking meant evolution favoured a narrower pelvis, but also a wider pelvic canal to accommodate the baby’s head – creating what he dubbed the “obstetrical dilemma”. Despite challenges and modifications to the idea, for many anthropologists, it still largely holds true. “In my view, the obstetrical dilemma hypothesis as Washburn framed it is still the most reasonable,” says Martin Haeusler at the University of Zurich. It was generally thought that the obstetrical dilemma was unique to humans, or at least to the Homo genus, but new evidence suggests birth difficulties go back much further.
5-6-21 US birth rate falls 4% to its lowest point ever
The American birth rate fell for the sixth consecutive year in 2020, with the lowest number of babies born since 1979, according to a new report. Some 3.6 million babies were born in the US in 2020 - marking a 4% decline from the year before, found the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics. The slump was seen across all recorded ethnicities and origins, according to the findings. The national picture mirrors a decline in births seen worldwide, a trend some experts say has been accelerated by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. In the CDC report, demographers examined the country's general fertility rate, which compares the number of live births with the number of women considered to be of childbearing age - between 15 and 44 years old. In 2020, the general fertility rate in the US was about 56 births per 1,000 women - the lowest rate on record and about half of what it was in the early 1960s. The decline in birth rates was seen across all measured racial and ethnic groups. Births dropped by 4% among white, black and Latina women, 9% for Asian women, 3% for Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders and 7% for Native American and Alaska native women. The report also analysed the total US fertility rate, which estimates how many babies a hypothetical group of 1,000 women would have over their lifetime based on actual birth rates. For a generation to exactly replace itself, this number must be at or above 2.1. According to the CDC, this rate has generally been "below replacement" since 1971 and has consistently been below replacement since 2007. Today, the US total fertility rate sits at 1.6 - another record low. Experts say the country's tumbling birth rate is closely linked to the average age of American mothers. Women are becoming mothers later in life - a phenomenon tied to increases in educational attainment, growing labour force participation and delays in marriage, according to the Pew Research Center. The average age of mothers at first birth is 27, up from 23 in 2010, recent CDC data has found.
5-6-21 Blood test could predict when pregnant women will give birth
Many pregnant women are eager to know exactly when they will give birth, and one day a blood test might be able to tell them. At the moment, women are given a due date that is 40 weeks from the first day of their last period, but some give birth weeks before that, while others go beyond that date and may need to have labour induced. Ina Stelzer at Stanford University, California, and her colleagues are investigating a new approach that involves tracking how the body responds to signals from the fetus and prepares for labour. “The blood shows that birth is approaching,” she says. Stelzer’s team took blood samples from 53 pregnant women and tested them in multiple ways between one and three times over their expected last 100 days of pregnancy. The researchers looked at nearly 5000 biochemicals and carried out more than 2000 tests on immune cells in their blood. Two to four weeks before the birth, the team found that there was a change in the women’s hormone patterns and a fall in inflammatory immune cell activity, reflected by changes in the blood biomarkers. The researchers built a prediction model using 45 of the biomarkers and tested this on a further 10 women. It predicted a probable delivery date that for each of them was within 17 days of their actual date, either before or after. Stelzer believes that as results from more women are added to the model it will become more accurate. The researchers haven’t yet tested if the model would work for multiple pregnancies or pregnant trans men. If turned into a commercial test, it could be useful for knowing if pregnant women are likely to give birth prematurely, says Rachel Tribe at King’s College London (KCL). At the moment this requires taking a swab of their vaginal fluid and doing a scan to measure the position of their cervix.
5-2-21 Sweden's IVF programme for single women not 'as good as hoped'
Fertility campaigners in Sweden say healthcare officials have broken a promise to help more single women get pregnant. In April 2016, Swedish women without partners were given the same rights as couples to access state-funded fertility treatments including IVF. But waiting times are so long in one part of the country that women have been told it’s too late to join the list once they turn 37.
4-25-21 Menstrual leave: South Korea airline ex-CEO fined for refusing time off
A former airline CEO who refused to allow female staff to take menstrual leave protected by employment law has been fined almost $1,800 (£1,300; 2m won) by a court in South Korea. Kim Soo-cheon, the ex-head of Asiana Airlines, turned down 138 requests from 15 flight attendants in 2014 and 2015. Mr Kim claimed the employees did not provide proof of menstruation. Since 1953, women in South Korea have been allowed to take one day off a month if they have painful periods. What is menstrual leave? 1. It allows women to take one or two days off a month, sometimes unpaid, when they are having their period. 2. Exists in a number of jurisdictions, including Japan, Indonesia and Taiwan. 3. However, the take-up among women is often low. 4. Supporters say menstrual leave is as important for women as maternity leave, a recognition of a basic biological process. 5. But critics say it reinforces negative stereotypes of female workers and could even discourage employers from hiring women. A lower court first found against Mr Kim in 2017. He had argued there were "many suspicious cases" when employees requested leave around holidays or days off, the South Korean news agency Yonhap reports. However, the court said that asking employees to prove they were having their period could "infringe upon privacy and human rights". The ruling was upheld by a higher court.
4-9-21 Sexual health: 'I can't tell my mum I'm having sex'
When Singapore resident Nadia* visited a local clinic to get tested for sexually transmitted infections (STI) three years ago, she left the doctor's office feeling ashamed. The elderly woman doctor there had talked down to her and dumped a stack of pamphlets on her "as if I was stupid", the 24-year-old student recalled. "I felt judged the entire time too - as if it was my fault if I got an infection because I shouldn't have been having sex with my boyfriend in the first place," she said. But now, the country's internet-savvy are being offered alternative options, thanks to a bunch of telehealth start-ups which have popped up in the city-state in the last year - all with a focus on sexual health. They are allowing people "shame-free" access to sexual health products and advice - something which young people like Nadia say they need, given their attitudes to sex differ markedly to traditionally accepted views. Nadia says she used Ferne Health - a company that offers STI tests from the privacy of your own home. After consulting a doctor via video call on the website, she was mailed a vaginal swab kit in discreet packaging which allowed her to self-collect samples. A courier picked them up the next day, and she received her results within the week. "Nothing was written on the box so even the courier didn't know what was inside, which was great," said Nadia, who shares a flat with her parents and two siblings. It is common for young adults to live at home with their parents before marriage - due to both high property prices as well as cultural or religious attitudes. "My family is very traditional - I'm Singaporean and I'm also Malay Muslim, so there are certain things expected of you. I can't tell my mum I'm having sex," she said. While at-home STI tests may be common across Europe and the US, the concept is relatively new in Singapore. But while both experts and users agree that such services are long overdue, clinical sexologist Martha Lee has said there needs to be some considerations when signing up for them.
4-7-21 Why Utah is making men pay women's pregnancy costs
Fathers in Utah are now legally obliged to pay half the cost of a mother's medical care related to pregnancy and delivery. Supporters of the law - which is thought to be the first of its kind in the US - say it will help alleviate the financial burden of motherhood for American women. The legislation passed with bipartisan support - but it raises questions about the cost of parenting in the US, as well as the state's growing roster of anti-abortion legislation. Utah's Shared Medical Costs law requires biological fathers to pay half of a mother's insurance premiums - her monthly health insurance costs - during pregnancy as well as all other related medical fees, including the birth of the child. For US women with insurance, giving birth costs an average of $4,500 (£3,254) out of pocket, according to a study in the Health Affairs journal that tracked costs from 2008 - 2015. For those without coverage, this figure could more than double: the not-for-profit Fair Health organisation reported the average as closer to $10,000. If paternity of the child is in question, fathers are able to delay payments until paternity is proven. The payment process is not automatic. Similar to child support, if a woman does not seek assistance, the father will not be notified. The same financial obligation does not apply if a woman wants to terminate the pregnancy. Biological fathers will not be required to contribute to the cost of an abortion if it is sought without their consent, except in the case of rape or if the mother's life is in danger. The cost of an abortion, without insurance, is roughly $1,000 (£722) according to Planned Parenthood. The law, which will take effect on 5 May, passed unanimously with bipartisan support in the state's Senate but faced Democratic opposition in the House of Representatives.
3-25-21 Miscarriages and stillbirths: New Zealand to allow bereavement leave
Couples in New Zealand who have a miscarriage or stillbirth will be eligible for paid bereavement leave under a new law approved by parliament. MP Ginny Andersen, who put forward the bill, said it would allow mothers and their partners to "come to terms with their loss" without taking sick leave. The bill also applies to those having a child though adoption or surrogacy. New Zealand is reportedly only the second country in the world to introduce the measure, after India. The legislation, which was unanimously passed in parliament, provides three days of bereavement leave. Ms Anderson said one in four women in New Zealand have had a miscarriage and she hoped the new provision would give them "time to come to terms with their loss without having to tap into sick leave". "Their grief is not a sickness, it is a loss. And loss takes time," she said, adding that New Zealand was "leading the way for progressive and compassionate legislation". A year ago, parliament passed a reform bill that decriminalised abortion and allowed women to choose a termination up to 20 weeks into a pregnancy.
3-21-21 America's falling fertility rate
Women are having fewer children than at any time on record. What are the implications? Women are having fewer children than at any time on record. What are the implications? Here's everything you need to know:
- What is the current rate? The U.S.'s total fertility rate, or the number of babies each woman is expected to have during her lifetime, reached a record low of 1.705 births per woman in 2019, the latest year for which data is available. That year the number of babies born in the U.S. was 3.74 million — a 35-year low.
- Why the decline in births? A complex set of factors has driven down birth rates for almost all age groups of women — except for those in their late 30s and early 40s. As more women pursue college and advanced degrees and devote their 20s to career building, the mean age at which women have their first birth reached a record high of 26.9 in 2018.
- What role does housing play? A major one. The National Bureau of Economic Research says that the largest component of child-rearing costs is housing. And the cost of housing in America has skyrocketed.
- What about teenage births? The number of teen births has plunged, from 41.5 children per 1,000 women in 2007 to 17.4 per 1,000 women in 2018. Studies have attributed this rapid decline to improved access to birth control — especially highly effective means such as the pill, IUDs, and implants.
- Did the pandemic affect births? It is apparently causing a "baby bust." Researchers Melissa S. Kearney and Phillip B. Levine estimate that the pandemic will result in 300,000 to 500,000 fewer babies born in the U.S.
- Government childbirth programs: Nearly 30 percent of the world's countries have officially adopted pro-natalist policies to encourage their citizens to have kids.
1-24-21 JoJo Siwa: YouTube star 'never been this happy' after coming out
YouTube star JoJo Siwa has told fans she has never been so happy before after coming out on social media. In a post on Twitter, the teenager shared a photo of herself wearing a T-Shirt with the words 'Best. Gay. Cousin. Ever.' printed on it. She later told fans she was not ready to put a label on her sexuality, but that coming out felt "awesome". Celebrities including Paris Hilton and Ellen DeGeneres supported the 17-year-old on social media. Siwa first found fame on the reality show Dance Moms, which documented the tantrums and triumphs of a group of pre-teen dancers in Pennsylvania. The American dancer, singer and YouTuber - known for her massive colourful hair bows - now has millions of followers. Her tweet on Friday was liked more than one million times. On Saturday, she said in an Instagram Live post that she had "never ever been this happy". Responding to a fan who asked what "label" she was, she said: "I don't really know this answer. I think humans are awesome. I think humans are really incredible people." "Right now, I'm super duper happy and I want to share everything with the world, I really do, but I also want to keep things in my life private until they are ready to be public," she added.While acknowledging that everyone's experience is different, Siwa said that coming out "has this stigma around it - that it's a really, really, really scary thing, but it's not anymore". Siwa also said she had "always believed that my person was going to be my person and if that person happened to be a boy great and if that person happened to be a girl great."
1-17-21 Are women let down by period trackers?
When journalist Orla Barry received a notification from her iPhone informing her that her period was due "any day in the next three weeks", she shared it on social media with wry amusement. It wasn't the first time she'd received such an unspecific notification from the app, and it prompted others to share their stories. "I got one which said my period was 56 days late," wrote one. "My notification said 'the next nine days'," said another. One man said his smartwatch had a menstruation tracker activated by default when he got it, and it kept telling him his period was "due" - despite him never having had one. These apps do face a big challenge - periods are not always renowned for their punctuality. But are they up to the job? At their most simple, women input the dates when their periods begin and end, and an app calculates when their next is due to arrive based on this information. It can also use this data to estimate when they might ovulate: this is also when they are most likely to conceive. Some offer to track additional data including basal body temperature, sleep patterns, menstrual pain and sexual activity, which can provide further clues - although there have been concerns around what else this data can be used for by the developers of the app. However, women's cycles can change from month to month based on a large number of factors including stress, age, and hormone fluctuations. It is perhaps not all that surprising that a scientific study of nearly 1,000 women carried out in 2018 found that the apps they were using were only correctly identifying when they ovulated 21% of the time. But period trackers remain very popular. They are used for a number of reasons.