Hungary has taken a dramatic step to reverse its below-replacement birth rate: it has nationalised six IVF clinics and plans to offer citizens completely free fertility treatment. The government’s long-term goal is to raise the current birth rate from 1.48 per woman to 2.1 by 2030.
Hungary, like many European countries, is suffering from demographic decline, but the anti-immigration stand of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government precludes increasing the population by allowing foreigners to settle there.
According to official statistics, fewer and fewer children are born in Hungary every year. The most recent figures show that 74,064 children were born in Hungary by the end of October, compared to 75,306 last year. On current trends, the population of 9.7 million could fall to 6 million by 2070.
The state secretary for Family and Youth Affairs, Katalin Novák, says that there are 150,000 infertile couples in Hungary. If each of them had a child, depopulation would no longer be a problem, she says.
The government has bought six clinics: four in Budapest, one in Szeged, and one in Tapolca.
Both the government’s policies and rhetoric are unconventional in Europe, to say the least. About a year ago, the Prime Minister offered a special loan to young families which would not need to be repaid after the birth of the third child. Women bearing four or more children will be exempted from income tax for life.
Last August Speaker of Parliament László Kövér told a gathering of ethnic Hungarians in Romania that “good Hungarians are not those who speak Hungarian but those who have 3-4 children and 9-16 grandchildren who all speak Hungarian and are committed to the nation’s cause.”
Hungary’s unique language and its tormented history have affected its demography. It was on the losing side in World War I. After the 1920 Treaty of Trianon it lost two-thirds of its territory; the pre-war population of 20.9 million shrank to 7.6 million. Neighbouring countries absorbed large Hungarian-speaking minorities.
During the Stalinist era the Rákosi regime introduced a tax on childlessness and strictly prohibited abortion. This led to a spectacular increase in the birth rate in the so-called “Ratkó era”, after Anna Ratkó, the Minister of Public Welfare.
But after the 1956 Hungarian uprising the tax and the ban were repealed. Birth rates again sank and by 1962, Hungary had the lowest fertility rate in the world, due to widespread use of abortion and contraception. Between 1960 and 1973, there were more abortions than births. The population peaked at 10.7 million in 1980 and has been declining ever since.