ASEAN Beat | Society | Southeast Asia

Philippines Registers ‘Sharpest Ever’ Decline in Birthrate

The Catholic-majority country now has a birthrate of just 1.9 children per adult woman, the third-lowest in Southeast Asia.

Philippines Registers ‘Sharpest Ever’ Decline in Birthrate

A Filipino girl and her siblings stare at the camera in the village of Banaue, north Luzon, Philippines, December 4, 2013.

Credit: Depositphotos

The Philippines’ fertility rate has registered a sharp decline this year, according to the latest national health demographic survey conducted by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA). The PSA found that the birthrate among Filipino mothers aged 15 to 49 fell to 1.9 children this year, a decrease from 2.7 children in 2017.

While the Philippines’ fertility rate has been steadily declining since the 1970s, the decline since 2017 is “the sharpest ever recorded,” Lolito Tacardon, the executive director of the Commission on Population and Development (PopCom), told local media yesterday.

Tacardon said that the drop in fertility was the likely result of various factors, including women’s empowerment and the easier access of Filipinos to family planning and birth control. The PSA survey also found that half of the currently married women said they no longer desire more children, “while 17 percent want to delay their next childbirths for two or more years.”

As a Catholic-majority nation, the Philippines has historically had higher birthrates than many of its Southeast Asian neighbors; the figure sat at around six children per woman in the 1970s. However, the cultural influence of Catholicism, and its strictures against birth control and abortion, has been less significant than relative levels of economic development. As the Philippine economy has grown since the 1960s, birthrates have steadily fallen – a similar pattern to that which has played out in other Southeast Asian nations including Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia.

After this year’s unprecedented drop, the Philippines remarkably now has the third lowest fertility rate in Southeast Asia after Singapore (1.1 children per woman) and Thailand (1.5), Tacardon said. All three of these are well below the Asian average of 2.2, and in the same league as upper-middle-income countries, which have an average of 1.8 children per woman.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

It is also likely that the COVID-19 pandemic has played a role in the country’s sharp decline in fertility. While PopCom predicted that the birthrate would rise under COVID-19, given that access to family planning methods was limited, much the opposite turned out to be the case, due to the anxieties that attended the pandemic. In November 2020, Social Weather Stations, a local pollster, conducted a survey that found unintended or unplanned pregnancies were among the major concerns of a majority of Filipino women as COVID-19 tightened its grip.

The news is far from bad news for the Philippines, which has long struggled with overpopulation. The country’s population is currently around 111 million, the second highest in Southeast Asia after Indonesia. Tacardon was quoted by The Inquirer as saying that the latest shift has put the Philippines below the “replacement fertility level” of 2.1 children, the point at which women give birth to babies just enough to sustain the population level. But he said that there were “more pros than cons” to this shift.

Indeed, it could be considered a “breakthrough for the country’s programs on population and development as well as family planning, which were instituted more than five decades ago,” Tacardon said. He added that the “demographic transition” offered the country an opportunity to “hasten socioeconomic development.”

“Focus should now be on ensuring that the quality and capacity of the country’s human resources are enhanced,” Tacardon said. “At the household level, lower fertility also means greater opportunity for personal development of couples and individuals, which can redound to more savings and investments.”