Birthrate down in Estonia, up in Latvia over three years

Liis Velsker
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The Baltic states' health behavior compendium reveals that while birthrate took a nose dive in Estonia in 2010, it started growing in Latvia instead. Demographer Ene-Margit Tiit believes the fall could be the result, among other things, of outdated parental benefits system.

Data collected in 2004-2014 shows that while the birthrate per 1,000 residents has steadily been lower in Latvia than in Estonia, the trend was reversed towards the end of the period.

Demographer Ene-Margit Tiit said that it is quite difficult to find concrete reasons behind the data. «It might be a case of random deviations; however, it might also have to do with changes in family policy,» she said.

Tiit said that Estonia's parent's pay system had a positive effect on birthrate. «However, all measures lose their effect over time, provided they remain unchanged. It seems this is the problem: Estonia failed to take further steps to prioritize having children,» she found.

That said, scientists believe the difference between Estonia and Latvia is less than considerable. The government is planning changes to the parent's pay system that Tiit believes will be able to produce a slight upward spike in birthrate.

Having children postponed

Why did the birthrate start growing abruptly in Latvia around 2011?

Tiit said there is no single reason. The demographer also said birthrate has remained lower in Latvia than in Estonia since the 1990s. It is believed Latvia lost 300,000 people to emigration during the economic crisis, whereas people started returning home in 2011-2012.

«It could also be that people postponed having children,» member of the board of the Estonian Gynecologists Association Made Laanpere offered.

The number of births grew in Estonia the year before last, while growth picked up speed last year: from 13,551 births to 13,907.

Statistics also revealed, however, that while life expectancy is higher for both men (72.4 years) and women (81.9) in Estonia, compared to Latvia and Lithuania, the relative importance of healthy years in life expectancy is lower for both men and women in Estonia than Lithuania.

Tiit believes that because the latter indicator is based solely on people's statements, its adequacy cannot be verified. «The assessment is provided based on data from verbal statements. It is not based on medical diagnoses but rather how people see themselves coping – it might not be entirely adequate,» she said.

Tiit pointed out the so-called Põlva and Võru county paradox where people have few healthy years but one of the longest life expectancies in the country. «One explanation suggests the phenomenon goes back to the years of economic troubles when one part of the population could no longer make ends meet. People tended to find more wrong with their health to qualify for work exemption,» she said.

On the other hand, when you ask people about their health, complaints come from those living in difficult conditions in rural areas. «People with the same medical problems who live in cities do not feel they have trouble coping,» Tiit explained.

Another distinctive trend in statistics is that Estonia seems to have had a lot more induced abortions per 100 births the year before last than its southern neighbors: 38 in Estonia, 24.8 in Latvia, and 17.2 in Lithuania.

Different records-keeping

Gynecologist Laanpere said that this kind of statistics is very misleading, and that the number of abortions can only be compared in countries where statistics is collected in the same way. She said that there is a very simple explanation for the difference in figures: Latvia and Lithuania do not register all abortions, for example when pregnancies are terminated in private practices.

«Our national register includes all terminations of pregnancies, while Latvia and Lithuania lack such registers. So this data cannot be compared at all,» she said. Laanpere said that national registers like the one in Estonia only exist in the Nordic countries.

«The abortions coefficient is definitely higher in Latvia and Lithuania, especially in Latvia, where birthrate is lower and use of birth control very modest compared to Estonia. So the coefficient is definitely higher than official statistics suggests,» she added.

Laanpere went on to explain that Latvia and Lithuania have not deemed it necessary to create such comprehensive registers. «We all have colleagues in Latvia and Lithuania, and we know full well how things really work there,» she said.

The abortion coefficient remains higher in Estonia than in the Nordics, Laanpere admits; however, it has fallen a lot over the years. The coefficient has remained stable in the Nordic countries as contraception has been available for a long time.

«Looking at the teenage abortions coefficient, we see that we have exhibited the fastest drop in the world,» the gynecologist noted. She added that in a situation where the abortion coefficient is falling, birthrate is going up in Estonia – a sign that people know how to avoid unwanted pregnancies.