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Brazil's Falling Birth Rate: A 'New Way Of Thinking'

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Brazil has undergone a demographic shift so dramatic that it has astonished social scientists. Over the past 50 years, the fertility rate has tumbled from six children per woman on average to fewer than two — and is now lower than in the United States.

Demographers say the fertility rate is declining because the country is richer and more urban, but they also point to Brazil's hugely popular soap operas and their portrayal of small, glamorous families.

Veronica Marques has a husband, a career she loves and a nice apartment in a trendy district in Rio de Janeiro. In a restaurant near her office, Marques explains that she's 31 and doesn't have children.

"I'm planning to have kids when I have a bigger career, when I raise more money, and maybe when I have my life in another step," she says.

When she does have kids, she says, it'll be two — tops. Smart, educated, ambitious, Marques is typical of a growing number of Brazilian women who are focused more on their careers.

If she does have two children, it'll be right in line with the average these days for a Brazilian woman.

Barely two generations ago, it was six children per woman. But the fertility rate then began to plunge throughout Latin America, and it was most pronounced in Brazil.

A Modern Approach To Family

The latest figures show that the fertility rate stands at just under 1.9 children per woman, says Suzana Cavenaghi, a demographer in Brazil's census bureau.

"There are a lot of reasons for the drop in Brazil, and most of them have to do with the modernization, this new way of thinking," she says. "Women are modern, and they take care of their own lives."

Brazil's fast urbanization means millions of rural poor migrated to cities where big families are a financial strain.

In a country where abortion is illegal and the Catholic Church frowns on birth control, women have embraced family planning any way they can, says Cavenaghi.

"They have more to say about their reproductive lives than the men. Men interfere less in their lives than [they] would in other countries," she says.

Fake Drama, Real Influence

There's another factor in the trend, one documented in studies by the Inter-American Development Bank and the University of Texas: the role of the telenovela, or soap opera.

In Fina Estampa, the most popular of Brazil's telenovelas these days, the characters are often rich and cosmopolitan and have few children, if any at all. It's been a recurring theme in soaps for decades, says Maria Lopes of the Center for the Study of the Telenovela.

She says there's "no doubt" that the appealing lives presented in the soaps play a role in the falling fertility rate.

Other factors also are at play, including the expanding role in the workforce for Brazilian women, whose educational levels have soared.

Still, it's not just the educated and affluent who have seen the fertility rate plunge — demographers say they see it among the poor, too, and in rural as well as urban areas.

An Economic Incentive

At a new restaurant in a working-class district on Rio's outskirts, the five female owners all came from big families.

Priscila da Silva chops tomatoes in preparation for the lunchtime crowd. She says times have changed.

"Before, I wanted four children and had even picked out names. But now I just want one," she says. "It's too hard these days; you have to pay for schooling, for health care — there are all kinds of costs."

Besides, she says, she has a growing business to run.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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