Why Italy’s “Fertility Day” is backfiring

Aging populations and declining birthrates are a demographic concern of many developed countries, but Italy’s take on how to solve the problem has only delivered reprisals.

Italy has a fertility rate of of 1.4 children per woman, or below that of 1.9 for the United States and 2.45 for the world’s countries on average, according to the World Bank. In 2014, Italy saw only 509,000 live births, the lowest number since the country was formed in 1861, prompting its health minister to declare it a “dying country.”

Faced with this demographic cliff, Italy is holding its first “Fertility Day” on Sept. 22, which will emphasize “the beauty of motherhood and fatherhood” and host roundtable discussions on fertility and reproductive health. That may seem inoffensive, but the country’s health department is trying to raise awareness with an ad campaign that’s striking many as misguided and, worse, sexist and alarmist.

The campaign was promoted with a series of ads that included lines such as “fertility is a common good” and “beauty has no age. Fertility does,” with the latter including an image of a woman holding an hourglass. On social media, the campaign was compared to something reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” while others called the ads “offensive, sexist and dangerous.” One writer noted that it insulted people who can’t have children but would like to.

Aside from the questionable decision of a government agency shaming and alarming people into having children, the Italian government appears to miss the chance to tackle some bigger issues that could actually have a positive impact on birthrates.

Economic opportunity is often linked with higher birthrates, at least in the developed world. In the U.S., birthrates declined as the recession hit in 2008. Unfortunately for Italy’s baby-focused health ministry, the unemployment rate for people under the age of 25 hovers near a staggering 40 percent. The jobless rate for people of all ages is about 11.6 percent, or more than double the U.S. unemployment rate. That’s not exactly a recipe for creating the kind of economic stability that many adults want before starting a family.

Then there are Italy’s cultural issues when it comes to motherhood. As Quartz points out, some Italian women are asked to sign a “dimissioni in bianco” letter when they are hired. The letter is an an undated resignation that their employers can use to dismiss them if they become pregnant. Italy has one of the lowest gender equality rates in the European Union, with the country suffering from a lack of child care services and inflexible work arrangements, an European Parliament report found in 2014

“By the time you achieve anything resembling job stability, you’re in your thirties; and God forbid that a woman should actually want a career,” wrote blogger Giulia Blasi on Medium​. “Gender-based discrimination is illegal, but it is not uncommon for job interviews to include personal questions about fertility and having children.”

It seems that a better tactic, rather than resorting to shame and fear, would be to take a hard look at those economic and equality issues first.