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pope francis at right shakes the hand of giorgia meloni at left, both are wearing white clothes in front of a dark backgroundPope Francis greets Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni at the end of a conference to discuss the "demographic winter" and "empty cribs" problem Italy is facing. Panel introduced by Gigi De Palo, president of Birth Rate Foundation, at Auditorium della Conciliazione, in Rome, Friday, May 12, 2023. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

ROME (AP) — Pope Francis joined Italy’s conservative premier on Friday in encouraging Italians to have more children, denouncing the financial precariousness facing young couples and “selfish, egotistical” choices that have led to a record low birth rate that is threatening the country’s economic future.

Francis urged concrete political action to invert the “demographic winter,” which in population terms resulted in the disappearance of a city the size of Bari last year. Blasting couples who have pets instead of children, Francis called for resources to be dedicated to helping couples grow their families, saying it was necessary to “plant the future” with hope.

“Let us not resign ourselves to sterile dullness and pessimism,” Francis told an annual gathering of pro-family organizations. “Let us not believe that history is already marked, that nothing can be done to reverse the trend.”

Italy recorded a record low number of live births last year, 392,598, which combined with an elevated number of deaths, 713,499, has accelerated the demographic trend that threatens to crash the country’s social security system. The government of Premier Giorgia Meloni is backing a campaign to encourage at least 500,000 births annually by 2033, a rate that demographers say is necessary to prevent the economy from collapsing by growing the wage-earning population as retirees draw on their pensions.

Meloni came to power last year on a pro-family campaign of “God, family, fatherland” and her government has proposed a host of measures to try to encourage families to have more children, including tax cuts to increase spending power, given Italy’s fertility rate of 1.24 children per woman is among the lowest in the world. Numerous studies have pointed to a combination of factors that discourage women from having children, including a lack of affordable child care spots, low salaries and precarious work contracts, and a tradition of women often bearing the burden of caring for older parents.

Meloni came to power last year on a pro-family campaign of “God, family, fatherland” and her government has proposed a host of measures to try to encourage families to have more children, including tax cuts.

Meloni, who has a daughter with her partner, told the family association congress that it was time to reverse the trend. But she said it must be done without resorting to surrogacy, hitting on broader conservative political talking points that have surrounded the demographic debate as the government’s crackdown on migrants and aversion to registering both parents of children of same-sex couples.

“We want a nation where it is no longer scandalous to say that — whatever the legitimate, free choices, inclinations of each person — we are all born of a man or a woman,” Meloni said to applause. “Where it is not taboo to say that motherhood is not for sale, that wombs are not for rent and children are not over-the-counter products that you can choose on the shelf as if you were in the supermarket and maybe return if then the product does not match what you expect.”

National statistics bureau ISTAT has been sounding the demographic alarm for years, given the number of live births in Italy has tanked steadily from 576,659 in 2008 to the 392,598 last year — the first year since Italy’s unification that the number has fallen below 400,000.

Given the trend, ISTAT president Gian Carlo Blangiardo said perfectly reasonable forecasts point to the Italian population shrinking from 59 million inhabitants today to 48 million by 2070.

While the increase in migrants can help mitigate the problem, it can’t offset the overall trend of a shrinking population.

While the increase in migrants can help mitigate the problem, it can’t offset the overall trend, Blangiardo said on the sidelines of the conference. “Even with an additional 260,000 immigrants each year, as foreseen by Eurostat, we’ll still easily lose 5 to 6 million inhabitants,” he said.

Meloni didn’t refer to the role of migrants in her remarks but other ministers have when discussing the demographic trends, casting the migrant issue as a threat to Italy’s very identity.

Agriculture Minister Francesco Lollobrigida, who is also Meloni’s brother-in-law, sparked an outcry in recent weeks by warning of “ethnic replacement” if Italians don’t increase their birth rate. At the family congress on Thursday, Lollobrigida acknowledged his words “weren’t appreciated” by some, but doubled down on the general idea.

“I think it’s evident that there’s not an Italian race,” he said on the sidelines. “There is however an Italian culture and ethnicity that the dictionary defines as a linguistic cultural group that I imagine this conference wants to maintain, because otherwise it wouldn’t have sense.”

Elly Schlein, head of the opposition center-left Democratic Party, acknowledged the demographic problem but pointed to measures to fix it: reduce precarious, part-time contracts, help young couples get mortgages and increase access to subsidized day care centers.

Given the “deeply patriarchical structure” of Italian society, women will choose to stay home if they don’t have adequate day care, she said. “They will continue to be crushed, and this depresses their potential not only in terms of employment but also in terms of family.”

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