National Geographic : 2011 Sep
• weeks of talking to Brazilian women recently, I met schoolteachers, trash sorters, architects, newspaper reporters, shop clerks, cleaning la- dies, professional athletes, high school girls, and women who had spent their adolescence home- less; almost every one of them said a modern Brazilian family should include two children, ideally a casal, or couple, one boy and one girl. ree was barely plausible. One might well be enough. In a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Belo Horizonte, an unmarried 18-year-old a ectionately watched her toddler son one evening as he roared his toy truck to- ward us; she loved him very much, the young woman said, but she was nished with child- bearing. e expression she used was one I'd heard from Brazilian women before: "A fábrica está fechada." e factory is closed. e emphatic fertility drop is not just a Brazil- ian phenomenon. Notwithstanding concerns over the planet's growing population, close to half the world's population lives in countries where the fertility rates have actually fallen to below replace- ment rate, the level at which a couple have only enough children to replace themselves---just over two children per family. ey've dropped rapidly in most of the rest of the world as well, with the notable exception of sub-Saharan Africa. For demographers working to understand the causes and implications of this startling trend, what's happened in Brazil since the 1960s pro- vides one of the most compelling case studies on the planet. Brazil spans a vast landmass, with enormous regional di erences in geogra- phy, race, and culture, yet its population data are by tradition particularly thorough and re- liable. Pieces of the Brazilian experience have been mirrored in scores of other countries, in- cluding those in which most of the population is Roman Catholic---but no other nation in the world seems to have managed it quite like this. "What took 120 years in England took 40 years here," Carvalho told me one day. "Some- thing happened." At that moment he was talking about what happened in São Vicente de Minas, the town of his childhood, where nobody under 45 has a soccer-team-size roster of siblings any- more. But he might as well have been describ- ing the entire female population of Brazil. For although there are many reasons Brazil's fertil- ity rate has dropped so far and so fast, central to them all are tough, resilient women who set out a few decades back, without encouragement from the government and over the pronounce- ments of their bishops, to start shutting down the factories any way they could. Encountering women under 35 who've al- ready had sterilization surgery is an everyday occurrence in Brazil, and they seem to have no compunctions about discussing it. "I was 18 when the rst baby was born---wanted to stop there, but the second came by accident, and I am done," a 28-year-old cra s shop worker told me in the northeastern city of Recife, as she was showing me how to dance the regional two-step called the forró. She was 26 when she had her tubal ligation, and when I asked why she'd cho- sen irreversible contraception at such a young age---she's married, what if she and her husband change their minds?---she reminded me of son number two, the accident. Birth control pills made her fat and sick, she said. And in case I'd missed this part: She was done. So why two? Why not four? Why not the eight your grandmother had? Always the same answer---"Impossible! Too expensive! Too much work!" With the facial expression, the widened eyes and the startled grin that I came to know well: It's the 21st century, senhora, are you nuts? Population scholars like José Alberto Carvalho maintain a lively argument about the multiple components of Brazil's fertility plunge. ("Don't let The young woman loved her toddler son very much, she said, but she was finished with childbearing. The expression she used was one I'd heard from Brazilian women before: "A fábrica está fechada." The factory is closed.