Irish women are among the oldest mothers in the world, having babies later than in all but nine other countries.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) looked at reproductive trends in 200 countries, for its latest report, to be published today.
Ireland’s mean age of childbearing in a given year is 31.4, the tenth-highest. It is the fourth highest in Europe, after Spain, Switzerland, Italy, and Luxembourg, and beaten elsewhere only by Libya, Korea, Djibouti, Saudi Arabia, and Hong Kong.
The report does not examine the reasons behind Ireland’s placing, but it does offer explanations for why women may be delaying having children, which will strike a chord with many Irish couples.
Traditionally, weaker sexual and reproductive rights are associated with poorer and less-developed countries, and while the report bears this out, it says the right of women to choose the number and timing of children is limited in many wealthy countries, too.
Reasons include the need to spend longer in education, for the purposes of securing a job, job instability in fast-changing western economies, the unaffordability of housing and childcare, insufficient parental leave supports, and inability to achieve work-life balance.
“The concept of reproductive rights is often thought of as the ability to directly control pregnancy and childbirth, through contraception or other means,” the report states. “But that definition fails to describe the full range of factors that can constrain an individual’s decision to have one, many, or no children.
Most [governments] could do more by asking a basic question that should be central to public policymaking: Are people — men and women, in all locations, in all income categories, at all ages, and in all other groups — having the number of children they want? If the answer is no, reproductive rights are compromised.
Access to contraception is an issue here, however, with 11% of women reporting an unmet need for contraception and 20% reporting an unmet need for a modern form of contraception.
Ireland is considered to have a medium fertility rate, after the fertility rate rose to two children per woman in 2016, a rate maintained last year, and again this year. Below two is considered low.
While the report says that “low fertility means that parents with fewer children can invest more time and resources in their children’s well-being”, it also warns that the flip side is that “populations are ageing, with attendant health-care costs and a shrinking labour force”.
It says the maternal mortality rate here is eight women for every 100,000 live births, the same for the last three years. Births have numbered around 63,000 annually, so the actual number of deaths will have been lower than eight.
Life expectancy has stabilised at 80 for men and 84 for women, having jumped from 76.5 for men and 81.4 for women, 10 years ago.