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CHISINAU, Moldova – The number of unplanned births could increase in Moldova as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, new research suggests.

The UNFPA-supported research— The Impact of COVID-19 on Fertility behaviour and Intentions in the Republic of Moldova—used Generations and Gender Survey (GGS) data and was conducted partially before and partially after the pandemic. The researchers found that the pandemic reduced contraceptive use by 40 per cent. In addition, couples were 41 per cent less likely to try to conceive after the onset of the pandemic, although medium-term fertility intentions were unchanged.

“The consequence of the pandemic on fertility in middle income countries could therefore be an increase in births amongst those who were not planning on having children and a decrease in births amongst those who were,” said Tom Emery, associate professor at Erasmus University, Rotterdam and one of the authors of the study. “If this were the case, it would represent a shift in fertility from the planned to the unplanned and a reduction in reproductive agency of women.”

Many women in the region bear the burden of care taking at home and have been forced to leave the workforce. For others—who were only precariously or informally employed to begin with—their jobs have vanished under pandemic restrictions. For these women, as the pandemic compounds their burdens and deepens gender inequalities, the choice to become a mother increasingly looks like no choice at all.

“At the beginning of this crisis, the last thing I would think of was to have another child,” 32-year-old Anastasia Ciuleacu told UNFPA in Chisinau, Moldova.

Ms. Ciuleacu and her partner Vitalie Maistru wanted their toddler to have a sibling, but just as they were about to start trying for their second, the pandemic hit. The crisis meant Ms. Ciuleacu not only had to weigh the risks of becoming pregnant amid the pandemic, but also the increased financial burden.

“The pandemic forced us to opt for a private kindergarten,” Ms. Ciuleacu said. “It is expensive, but we did not have another choice. That was the only way we could continue working at home during the pandemic, as the public institutions were closed.”

These individual hardships, in aggregate, have the potential to influence demographic trends. This has driven alarmist headlines in mainstream media, stoking fears of baby busts, in some countries. These concerns are premature, and the alarmism is misplaced, experts say.

“People across Europe generally say they want two children,” wrote Alanna Armitage, Director of UNFPA’s Regional Office for Eastern Europe and Central Asia in an opinion piece on World Population Day 2021, “but many end up having one or none at all. This gap between desired and actual fertility is what governments should focus on – not with the intention to boost population numbers, but to help people realize their reproductive rights so that they can have the number of children they want.”

After Ms. Ciuleaucu saw her mother recover from a critical case of COVID-19, she decided she was willing to take on the risks of having another child during the pandemic.

Her husband’s support as a partner and parent was one of the deciding factors. “For a woman who wants to develop a career,” she said, “the partner’s support and equal engagement during pregnancy and childbirth is very important in the decision to have another baby or not.”

Their next child is due in November.