Italians went to the polls on Sunday to vote in a referendum on constitutional reforms. The centre-left government of Matteo Renzi is on the line, while anti-establishment, Eurosceptic, and anti-immigrant parties are on the rise andstand to gain from a “no” vote. Our country is facing a financial — and perhaps political crisis. But there is another, more fundamental crisis staring at us.

A few days ago, the Italian Institute for Statistics (ISTAT) published the official demographic data for 2015; and, hard as it is to believe, the already abysmal fertility rate of Italy managed to reach a new low. There were only 485,780 baby Italians in 2015; and the most striking aspect is that this figure represents a loss of 17,000 births in comparison with 2014, almost -3.5%.

Mamma mia! as we Italians like to say when in need of a mild interjection. But calling on our mammas is not going to do us much good if fewer and fewer women embrace that glorious title. In fact, the Italian mamma seems to be a species at risk of extinction.

The fertility rate is 1.35 (it was 1.46 in 2010), well below the replacement level of 2.1 (deaths actually exceeded births by 167,000 in 2015); moreover, the mother’s average age is rather high (31.7 years). There are more Italian mothers who give birth at over 40 years of age (9.3%) than under 25 (8.2%).

The data for the first quarter of 2016 are even more alarming: we are minus another 15,000 new-borns in comparison with the same period of 2015. Many Italians are leaving their country (128,000 people in 2015), while Italy’s average age is as high as 44.6 years. Marriage rates are also declining, with 52,000 fewer weddings between 2008 and 2015.

The number of Italian residents without Italian citizenship increases steadily (+39,000 people) and represent today an 8.3% of the entire population. This could in principle reduce the effects of the demographic crisis since, normally, the immigrant families are among the most fecund. In 2015, children born in Italy to couples with an Italian and a foreign parent were 101,000 (about 20.7% of the total), while children born to foreign couples were 72,096. While these figures are proportionally high, there is little to celebrate: even non-Italian families gave birth to 3,000 less babies in 2015 than in 2014.

Correspondingly, there is little to celebrate also in the decrease of abortions: while 2014 was the first year since the legalisation of “pregnancy termination” in 1978, when less than 100,000 children were aborted, this still means that there is an abortion for every five new-borns.

The reasons for all of these figures are multiple, of course: the effects of the economic crisis, which continues to strike our country, in spite of official reassurances; the high age of mothers and the reduction in marriage rates; the lack of policies in favour of family and natality.

A few months ago the Ministry of Public Health launched a disastrous campaign to promote fertility: while the pictures and slogans were particularly ill-chosen, the exaggerated public reaction to the campaign’s appearance overshadowed the importance of its actual meaning. If a smiling girl indicating an hourglass is hardly likely to foster a greater openness to life among Italian couples, the need for a greater involvement and concern on these topics should raise awareness in our country. Otherwise there will be no mamma mia to invoke.

Dr Chiara Bertoglio is a musician, a musicologist and a theologian writing from Italy. She is particularly interested in the relationships between music and the Christian faith, and has written several books on this subject. Visit her website. 

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is a New Zealand journalist with a special interest in family issues. She began her working life as a secondary school teacher but always fancied the life of the scribe. Too late, she...