Action Needed to Save Ukraine – Literally

August 25, 2010
James George Jatras
Deputy Director, American Institute in Ukraine

As Ukraine observes the 19th anniversary as an independent state, the urgent question of whether Ukraine has a future at all can no longer be postponed. Simply put, what can be done to restore Ukraine's demographic vitality and reverse the catastrophic decline in the country's population?

During the presidential campaign, President Viktor Yanukovich promised action to reverse the staggering demographic trends that have plagued modern Ukraine. This is indeed a noble cause – the country’s birth rate is among the lowest in all of Europe, and its death rate has been steadily climbing over the past almost fifty years. Eastern and Central areas of the country experienced a death rate of 2:1 compared to births in 2008 – a dreadful reminder that there is much work to be done.

Several factors contribute to low birth rates and high death rates of able-bodied-age citizens. Smoking and drinking are serious causes of disease, the latter accounting for the great number of alcohol-related accidents in the country. Additionally, the lack of regulatory presence in the food and drug industries often leads to an inadequate and unhealthy food supply. Fertility rates are also a major issue – Ukraine ranks among the lowest in the world at about 1.2 births per woman of birthing age. Some regions of the country average less than one child per woman, while the number of unwed women giving birth rises and the size of the average family shrinks.

At the same time, death rates are climbing rapidly among men of normal working age. The most common causes of high death rates include circulatory disorders, neoplasms, external causes, and respiratory disease – all in higher proportions than most economically advanced countries. As of 2001, a Ukrainian man had a 63% chance of living past normal working age.

While campaigning for President, Viktor Yanukovich declared that the demographic situation in his country was “unacceptable,” and vowed that he would increase the population if elected: “My goal – fifty million citizens in Ukraine by 2020.” Getting the country “to work” is of primary concern; the president believes that if this occurs, his people will have greater confidence in their ability to sustain the nation.

In his first four months in office, however, there has been little indication of these hopes coming to fruition. The 2011 budget, now almost near completion, will focus on the economy and improving the country’s credit ratings, which is good as far as that goes. And while the Ministry of Family, Youth and Sports has embarked on a public relations campaign to tout the joys of raising multiple children, and there was a small upturn in 2009, there is little evidence of sustained increase in births. Single-child homes remain by far the most common in Ukraine.

One explanation for the modern trend of the single-child family is the pervasiveness of abortion of second pregnancies. Emerging from the early 1990s, when Ukraine had the highest abortion rate in the world (a social remnant of the Soviet era), a recent study from the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research shows that “Ukrainian women [still] strongly believe that aborting a first pregnancy may lead to infertility, and therefore they prefer to take their first pregnancy to term, whether it was planned or not.” This suggests that the mothers of these single-child families are often quite young – a notion in line with “long historical tradition” – meaning the abortion-based mentality inherited from the previous era.

This tradition is evident in official policy, which allows even underage girls to visit a gynecologist and have an abortion without parental notification. Supposedly justified by prior increases in the number of illegal and unsanitary abortions, this is nonetheless paradoxical in the face of Ukraine’s need to boost its population.

While one might assume also that the Church has an influence over abortions and family planning, this has not been the case. True, abortions are more accessible in cities and are less common for Catholics in the west – the only area with a growing population despite a higher-than-average emigration rate –– than for Orthodox Christians. However, with over 80% of women identifying as Orthodox, their abortion rate remains appallingly high.

In order to widen this trend and grow the population to the President’s stated goal, five elements should be given top priority:

First is follow-through: The Yanukovich Administration must deliver on its promises to provide incentives for family growth. During the campaign, Mr Yanukovich suggested that the 2011 budget include an incentive of “25,000 UAH for the first child, 50,000 for the second child, 100,000 for third and subsequent.” That needs to be done. Lowering mortgage rates, as Mr. Yanukovich has proposed in addressing the separate but related matter of Ukraine's housing crisis, is also a step in the right direction.

Second and third concern the healthcare system: Medical advances will be key in preventing early deaths as well as sustaining the lives of middle-aged and elder Ukrainians. Life expectancy is dreadfully low, and a proper healthcare system would be key to keeping the country running. Paradoxically, male health and longevity is as important as female: women are less likely to abort if they have faith that they and their children will be taken care of. At the same time, abortion must cease to be the “default option.” Close attention should be paid to the availability and cost of abortions in both state and private facilities, with the monetary cost being raised.

Waiting periods, such as Germany and some American states have, requiring would-be mothers to see an ultrasound of their children, listen to their heartbeat, and learn of abortion alternatives several days prior to a final decision, should be instituted. Training of healthcare professionals – who are called upon to heal and preserve life, not destroy it – should be reformed to eliminate abortion as an item of the curriculum.

Fourth is improving the economy. The President is correct in his conviction that putting the Ukrainian people back to work will spur social and population growth. Increased investment and a sound fiscal policy will prevent emigration due to job loss. The recent possibility of a 2022 Olympic host bid could be a step in the right direction here – such a symbol of national pride and something to build for may be just what Ukrainians need to remain in the country and make things better.

Fifth, and perhaps most fundamental: Without addressing the moral, psychological, and spiritual dimensions of the problem, the physical aspects of the problem will not be amenable to solution. “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” (Proverbs 29:18) In this case, literally, people are perishing. It should be a particular reproach to Orthodox Church authorities that Orthodox women and girls are more likely than their Catholic counterparts to abort their children. Changing that fact, including the need for the Church, in cooperation with state authorities, to step up moral and spiritual focus on this problem, backed up with material support for women, children, and families as a moral obligation, is essential to Ukraine’s future. There can be no future for Ukraine without more Ukrainians.