ADELAIDE, SOUTH AUSTRALIA: Societies around the world are being confronted by inexorable evidence of falling fertility rates and environmental collapse that pose major threats to humanity.
Nowhere is this free fall into a potentially irreversible fertility trap more evident than in Asia Pacific countries including China, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore.
This disturbing outlook is being presented today at the 2023 Congress of the Asia Pacific Initiative on Reproduction (ASPIRE) in Adelaide South Australia.
In a keynote address to the Congress, eminent reproductive biologist, Laureate Professor John Aitken, warned that some Asia Pacific countries may see their population levels reduced by about one half in coming decades.
He believes this will place enormous pressure on countries to maintain economic growth as they face a declining workforce and the challenge of supporting ageing societies.
Professor Aitken holds an Emeritus position at the University of Newcastle in Australia, and he is the former President of the International Society of Andrology.
The general global consensus is that a population replacement rate should be 2.1 – that is, one child to replace the mother, one to succeed the father, and 0.1 to compensate for childhood mortality.
However, total fertility rate – defined by the average number of children a woman is expected to have in her lifetime – is among the lowest in the world in some of the so-called Tiger economies of the Asia Pacific region.
Professor Aitken said key factors behind sagging fertility rates included industrialisation, rampant urbanisation limiting space for larger families, and changing personal aspirations, particularly among women of reproductive age delaying or foregoing motherhood to pursue lifestyle or career paths.
“Socio-economic factors driving the changing roles of women is putting their reproductive potential at risk as fertility declines from the age of 34,” Professor Aitken explained.
“Meanwhile, environmental factors and atmospheric contaminants pose growing threats to human health and especially male fertility with sperm counts in men in serious global decline.
“New patterns of disease associated with environmental oestrogens have also emerged in prosperous societies including testicular, breast and uterine cancers.”
Professor Aitken said increasing numbers of people were turning to IVF to achieve parenthood with up to 40 per cent of cases of infertility believed to be associated with genetic causes.
“The downside of this trend is that the more we use assisted reproductive technology in one generation, the more we are going to need it in the next,” he added.
Professor Aitken points to China as a leading example of a country that has lost what he calls “population momentum.”
“In China, one of the consequences of the one child per family policy in place from 1980 to 2016 is that there is now no population momentum, meaning there is not a reservoir of young girls reaching sexual maturity to buffer population numbers.
“China’s prosperity is very much dependent on population growth so who knows what the ramifications of fertility decline will be in that country let alone globally among its major trading partners.”
Professor Aitken said the first response is to recognise the driving forces behind rapidly falling fertility rates, and to then address them at socio-economic, environmental and genetic levels.
Responses may include:
- parental support schemes for mothers and fathers in the workforce to have children earlier as introduced in Scandinavian countries;
- baby bonus incentive payments from governments as Australia introduced successfully in 2004 to encourage young couples to have children;
- provision of affordable housing
- income tax reform to ease cost of living pressures on working people of reproductive age;
- more effective monitoring and action on reproductive toxicants in the environment; and
- stopping the use of IVF as a default infertility treatment.
The ASPIRE Congress has brought together scientists, clinicians, nurses and counsellors from around the world to address obstacles facing couples striving for parenthood. The Congress is being held at the Adelaide Convention Centre.
ASPIRE Congress Media Release, Friday 8 September 2023