Turkey readies incentives to halt falling birth rate

ANKARA Thu Jan 31, 2013 1:16pm EST

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey plans to offer incentives including free fertility treatment to try to reverse a slowing birth rate after official figures showed the median age of its population has crept above 30 for the first time.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan wants Turkey, a nation of more than 75 million people, to be among the world's top 10 economies by 2023 when the Turkish Republic turns 100 years old.

Per capita income has trebled during his decade in power.

But the government fears that an ageing population could eventually lead Turkey down the same path as more developed economies in Europe, towards a shrinking workforce and rising welfare spending.

A greying nation also sits uneasily with Turkey's self-image as a virile and dynamic nation, eager to take a more prominent role on the world stage.

A religious and social conservative, Erdogan has for years publicly advocated families having at least three children, and more recently has suggested having five.

But since he came to power, the country's fertility rate, the ratio of births to the number of women of childbearing age, has fallen below the 2.1 needed to replenish its population, sinking to 2.02 in 2011.

This week, Turkey's statistics bureau (TUIK) released data showing the median age has risen above 30 for the first time, to 30.1, up from 29.7 in 2011. Population growth slowed from 1.35 percent in 2011 to 1.2 percent last year.

No sooner was the data released than the country's development and finance ministers announced they were working on incentives to try to reverse the trend.

Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan, who oversees the economy, said Erdogan had instructed him to lead the efforts, which would require "implementation of very rational measures" so as not to upset the budget balance.

While none of the ministers gave specific details, Development Minister Cevdet Yilmaz said Turkey needed to move closer into line with Europe, where some parents receive child benefit payments and tax deductions.

Turkey's labor minister said over the weekend the government was also looking at extending maternity leave from four to six months.

The family and social policies minister announced late last year a project to provide fertility treatment to 2,500 families who currently had no children and were not eligible for state health insurance.

REJECTS ABORTION AS "MURDER"

While the incentives will be welcomed by many parents-to-be, some may see the government's moves as further evidence of an increasingly authoritarian state.

Often brusque in manner, Erdogan sometimes comes across as a stern father figure, lecturing on the dangers of alcohol and cigarettes and rousing resentment among some who see him as intruding on their lifestyles.

He sparked outrage last year by attacking abortion as a secret plot to stall Turkey's economic growth, calling it "murder", and has hit out at Turkey's high caesarean birth rate, saying the procedure limited population growth because mothers who used it could be advised to have no more than two children.

Abortion has been legal in Turkey since 1983, but only 10 percent of pregnancies are terminated through abortion, a far lower rate than the 30 percent in Europe. Turkey suffers the highest infant mortality rate in the OECD, although this gets little mention in public debate.

(Editing by Nick Tattersall/Ruth Pitchford)

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