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Portugal’s birthrate plummeting, a sign of more economic trouble ahead

For an enterprise in the business of welcoming life, the birthing ward inside Portugal’s largest maternity hospital is eerily quiet. On a recent morning, not a single expectant father nervously paced the orange laminated floors. Unhurried nurses shuffled by rows of darkened rooms with empty beds, busying themselves with paperwork and a mere three women in labor.

Elsewhere in the hospital, signs of Europe’s crisis within a crisis are everywhere. Serving a country that was battling a low birthrate even before the region’s economy fell off a cliff, Alfredo da Costa Maternity Hospital still delivered about 7,000 babies a year until recently. But with economic uncertainty now causing young couples to rethink family plans or leave these shores for other countries, the number of births crashed to 4,500 last year, leading the facility to mothball an entire wing and slash 20 percent of the staff.

The recent fall in births across Portugal – to 89,841 babies in 2012, a 14 percent drop since 2008 – has been so acute that the national government is moving to close a slew of maternity wards nationwide. In an increasingly childless country, 239 schools are closing this year and sales of everything from baby diapers to children’s shampoos are plummeting.

At the same time, in the fast-graying interior, gas stations and motels are being converted into nursing homes even as stores selling toys and baby clothes shutter their doors. In Lisbon, Alfredo da Costa – founded in 1932 when the once great maritime nation still commanded a global empire – is on the chopping block to close this year.

“We used to hear the best kind of cries in these halls, of babies,” Teresa Tome, Alfredo da Costa’s head pediatrician, said as she strode down the quiet birthing ward. She later added, “The recent decrease in births has been dramatic. This is because of the economic crisis, all the unemployment, all the uncertainty about the future. It is making a bad problem for the country worse.”

Portugal is at the forefront of Europe’s latest baby bust, one that is shorting the fuse on a time bomb of social costs in some of the world’s most rapidly aging societies.

As in many corners of the industrialized world, Europe has faced a gradual decline in birthrates since the 1960s. But in a number of the region’s hardest-hit countries, a modest rebound during the 2000s - when European governments welcomed immigrants and rolled out cash benefits for young couples starting families – has now gone into reverse.

Birthrates are falling again in several nations including Portugal, Spain, Greece, Ireland and Cyprus that are confronting massive unemployment. The baby shortage, economists say, is set to pile on the woe for a swath of the continent that may already be facing a decade or more of economic fallout from the debt crisis that started in 2009.

By 2030, the retired population in Portugal, for instance, is set to surge by 27.4 percent, with those older than 65 then predicted to make up nearly one in every four residents. With fewer and fewer future workers and taxpayers being born, however, the Portuguese are confronting what could be an accelerated fiscal reckoning to provide for their aging population. Portugal is ahead of other nations in Europe in planning for the explosive costs of an aging population. But even some government officials here concede that far deeper cuts - as well as a push toward a united social security system within the European Union - may be needed to cope with what is turning out to be an even worse than expected demographic crisis.

At the same time, a diminishing pool of young Portuguese risks creating a vacuum of dynamism and innovation in the years ahead, signaling what could be a long-term decline in the fortunes of nations in a region harboring some of the largest U.S. trading partners and closest political allies.

With deaths regularly outpacing births and both native-born Portuguese and immigrants from former colonies such as Brazil and Angola departing this crisis-hit country in large numbers, the population is already falling here. Some are holding out hope that the birthrate will bounce back if and when the economy improves and young Portuguese feel more secure about their future.

But experts predict that the population loss ahead could be beyond even the worst-case predictions of nearly 1 million inhabitants fewer - or almost 10 percent of the current population of 10.56 million - by 2030. It has many here bemoaning the “disappearance” of a nation, leaving them to ask: Who will be left to support a dying country of old men and women?

“This is one of the biggest problems we face as a nation,” said Jose Tavares, political economics professor at the Nova School of Business and Economics in Lisbon. “If we don’t find a way to fix this, we will be facing a disaster.”

Along the narrow, hilly streets of the inland municipality of Vila Velha de Rodao, Mafalda Diogo Sabino’s fame is already legend. The local newspaper heralded her arrival last September with a half-page spread and a sycophantic goodie basket of oils and lotions delivered to her door. Every day since, seemingly everyone has wanted a piece of the fickle little celebrity, with her adoring fans shadowing her in the hopes of pinching an unsuspecting cheek or catching a glimpse of her now-fabled smile.

In this graying corner of the Iberian Peninsula, the 9-month-old’s claim to fame is merely being born.

Communities like this one, a conglomeration of villages with a population of 3,600 – nearly half what it was in the 1970s - have become the ghost of Portugal’s future. Her mother, Susana Diogo, 27, had to travel two hours by car in the summer heat to give birth at the nearest hospital able to handle an expecting mother with diabetes. Diogo and her husband, Mario Sabino, 32, worry about their daughter’s future in a town with only three other newborns and just one school.

“I wonder what Portugal will look like for both her and us by the time she gets older,” said Diogo, who lost her job when a nearby call center closed after she became pregnant.

The burdens ahead are also clear in this community, where elder care is the largest single public expenditure. Recent national cuts have meant a reduction in the number of seniors the town is able to aid in its main adult day-care facility.

To breathe new life into the area, officials have sought to lure young people back, offering cash subsidies for new homebuyers in an attempt to stem years of losses of working-age residents to inland cities and more prosperous countries. The town is providing preschool for next to nothing, with children currently being minded in one corner of a nursing home.

Seniors living in that nursing home, such as Maria Jesus Rodrigues, 87, relish the contact with children during occasional mingling sessions.

“We used to have children everywhere when I was young. We never thought about the economic side; we just had them,” Rodrigues said. “But there are not so many now. Young people today are thinking more about how they will pay for children with so few jobs. I guess I understand.”

A few minutes later, Rodrigues, who moved to the home from her nearby village where the youngest resident is now 57, burst into a local folk song.

“I have to sing now,” she crooned, “because when I die, there will be no one left to sing for me.”

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