Official data confirms that Ireland’s birth rate is in decline, and has been steadily decreasing for over a century.
In Munster, the birth rate is even lower than the national average. But does the data simply mirror historical shifts in Irish society and culture, or reflect a country with more complex issues at play?
Between 1916 and 2012, Ireland’s birth rate dropped substantially from 20.6 births per 1,000 people to 15.6 per 1,000. By 2012, Munster’s birth rate had dwindled even more dramatically to 14.8 per 1,000. And these ebbing birth rates are forecast to continue.
According to the United Nations World Populations Prospects, Ireland’s predicted birth rate for 2021 will be 12.013 per 1,000, a downturn of 2.74% from 2020.
So it seems we have convincing data to support a historic and ongoing flux in the demographics of Irish society. But the reasons behind this still-unfolding phenomenon are not entirely clear and do not fit neatly under the umbrella of consensus. What is clear is that searching for the ‘why’ will bring us face to face with some thought-provoking topics.
The human challenges facing Irish people
In 2019, Edgar Morgenroth an Economics Professor from Dublin City University hypothesised that Ireland’s falling birth rate is due to a baby boom in the 1970s which led to fewer children being born in the Republic in the 1980s. Consequently, the smaller generation of the 1980s is now starting families.
He added that high costs of housing and childcare may also add a layer of reluctance to have children. While this is no doubt a robust demographic and economic theory, perhaps it’s also useful to explore the shrinking birth rate in ways which relate to the more personal, human challenges faced by the Irish population?
Being childless, or the more contemporary phraseology of ‘child-free’ is on the rise in Ireland. A 2018 study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development revealed that Irish women have the third-highest rate of childlessness in the developed world.
In the most recent Irish census of 2016, 355,649 couples reported having no children: food for thought in a comparatively small population of 4.74 million. Whether being child-free is a conscious decision or not, the data highlights a trend which could clearly impact national and regional birth rates.
The high cost of infertility treatment
Infertility could also be a factor in Ireland’s falling birth rate. According to the Health Service Executive, around one in six heterosexual couples in Ireland may experience infertility. Irish people also face a potential financial barrier to seeking fertility treatment as Ireland is the only EU country not to offer state funding for assisted reproduction.
The World Health Organisation has recognised infertility as a global public health issue and has calculated that over 10% of women and 60 – 80 million couples worldwide are affected.
In 2017 the Irish fertility rate had fallen to 1.77 births per woman: this had been as high as 3.85 in 1970. In 2017, Cork had the second-lowest fertility rate for an Irish city at 1.50.
It seems possible, therefore, that infertility plus a drop in fertility rates could be interwoven in the down-swing of birth rates. This can also be related to the fact that women are having children later in life, with Ireland’s average age of mothers being 32.8 in 2017, the highest recorded since 1955 (CSO, 2018).
Births in women over 40 appear to be increasing, which can impact decisions on whether to have more than one child or not, thus linked to falling fertility rates.
Did contraception sculpt the birth rate?
Having been legalised in 1980 in Ireland, it might seem logical that contraception would begin to sculpt the nation’s birth rate. But perhaps surprisingly, the available data doesn’t necessarily offer a sense of symmetry here.
A joint survey carried out by the Irish Family Planning Association and Durex on contraceptive practices among Irish adults showed that 30% of Irish couples rely on high-risk ‘withdrawal’ methods of contraception. An even higher 38% of Irish couples reported using ‘no method’ of contraception.
In 2020, national research by the Dublin Well Woman Centre highlighted that the contraceptive pill and condoms were the most common forms of contraception used by respondents: both methods cited most often in contraceptive failure by health experts. And despite being legal, contraception is not provided free by the State (other than to people who qualify for free healthcare), adding a potential monetary hurdle to those seeking it.
However, the Irish Government does plan to introduce free contraception to women and girls aged between 17 and 25 ahead of a State-funded universal contraceptive scheme: a fascinating topic for future data scientists to explore.
Overall, contraception may not be the birth rate blocker we might have reasonably assumed.
What about abortion in Munster?
Following the 2018 Abortion Referendum, abortions have been lawfully permitted in the Republic of Ireland and thus data on terminations of pregnancies will begin to feed into birth rate statistics. Terminations in Munster have the potential to be high on a regional scale as County Cork has more providers of this service per capita than any other county in the Republic.
Data from the Department Of Health shows that in 2019, there were 606 reported terminations by individuals residing in Cork, while 6,666 terminations were carried out across Ireland. In 2019 the number of registered births in Ireland was 59,796, so in this context, both 606 and 6,666 are substantial numbers. We’ll have to wait and see what future data tells us, but it seems plausible that newly available termination services will have a quantifiable effect on birth rates.
There is still no concrete answer
Even skimming the surface of available data points to both overarching societal shifts and deeply personal, individual challenges affecting Ireland’s slumping birth rate. Perhaps one day the birth rate will start to climb again, offering us a vital cusp to analyse what has suddenly changed?
Until then, we have almost infinite hypotheses to make and thousands of data sets to pursue as we continue to search for clues.
This article was written by Helen Earley. Much of the data researched for this article was found via the Data Times, a software tool enabling journalists to get up and running with data-driven journalism.