By David Gordon Smith
That may sound a little strange, given that nature and not humans decides when babies are going to come into the world. Then again, new laws can have surprising effects on nature.
Parents of babies born in Germany on or after Jan. 1 will benefit from generous new federal family subsidies. Whether little Hans is born at 11.59 p.m. on December 31 or 00:01 a.m. on January 1 could make a difference of tens of thousands of euros to the happy (or not so happy) parents.
"From Christmas onwards, I will be standing on my head," expecting mother Antje Grimm (not her real name) told the German news agency DDP. Grimm is one of many parents swapping tips on keeping Junior inside long enough to see in the New Year and cash in on the family subsidies bonanza.
Under the new Elterngeld, or "parents money" law, parents who stay home to look after the new-born child will receive 67 percent of their last net income tax-free, or up to 1,800 ($2,380) a month, for the first 12, or in some cases 14, months after the birth. The already affluent, in particular, will be significantly better off. Currently, parents whose annual net income lies below a certain level -- 30,000 ($39,600) per couple -- can choose between up to 24 monthly payments of up to 300 or 12 monthly payments of up to 450.
Critics have noted that while the subsidies will be a boon for many families, they will also put the unemployed at a disadvantage for having children. Under the new scheme, the jobless may only get 300 a month for up to 14 months.
Demographic time bomb
But the motivation behind the plan to get Germans reproducing is based on sheer pragmatism: The German birth rate has fallen to an average of 1.3 children per woman -- far lower than the 2.1 child per family replacement rate needed in industrialized countries. The Federal Statistical Office has ominously forecasted a drop in the population from today's 82 million people to just 69 million by 2050 -- a decline it warned "cannot be halted."
That kind of demographic implosion would spell disaster for the country's creaking pension system, which is based on a so-called "contract between the generations." Under the scheme, contributions from the current working population finance pension payments for those who have already retired. "With fewer people paying into the system, it comes up against its limits," explained Hanno Schaifer, a spokesman for the Federal Ministry for the Family. The shrinking population could also result in a shortage of skilled workers and lack of innovation, he says.
German lawmakers hope the legislation can help reverse that trend. "The aim of the law is to support the family and make it easier for parents to afford to have children," said Schaifer. He emphasizes that Elterngeld by itself is not enough to ensure that Germans will have more kids. "It's part of an overall plan that includes other measures, such as improving child care and providing tax breaks for child care," he says.
Practical tips for keeping Junior inside
Though the law may help in the long-run, it has expectant mothers in their last days of pregancy feeling a bit anxious. In recent weeks, soon-to-be parents have inundated doctors, midwives and the Internet for advice on how to prolong pregnancy to ensure their ability to cash in.
"A number of parents have asked us if it is possible to delay the birth without harming the child," said Dr. Christian Albring, president of Germany's Professional Association of Gynecologists. "But we as gynecologists have said that's not an option, from both a medical and ethical perspective. Doctors across Germany are going to refuse to carry out such nonsense."
Andrea Bolz, managing director of the German Association of Freelance Midwives agreed. "We say you cannot delay a birth, which is a natural event. We argue very strongly that you should not intervene unless the health of the mother or baby is in danger. None of us would interfere with a birth just because of some cut-off date."
But Albring offers some more practical advice. "It's good for the woman to have peace and quiet if she doesn't want to go into labor ahead of schedule," he said. " So she shouldn't be afraid of the birth, and she should keep calm over Christmas, which is obviously a time when there's a lot going on."
Other, ahem, distractions should also be avoided. Couples should avoid sexual intercourse near the due date if they do not want an early baby, Albring advised. He explained that a substance called prostaglandin is applied to the cervix by doctors to bring on labor if a baby is overdue. The compound is also found in sperm, meaning that sex in the late stages of pregnancy can also trigger an early birth. "If you don't want the baby to come early, then you have to avoid that kind of thing," Albring explained.
Albring suggests other no-go zones in order to prevent the danger of inadvertently bringing on the birth. "Sometimes when people are having sexual intercourse or enjoying foreplay, they kiss each other, or kiss nipples or the stomach and so on," he explained. "All of this can induce labor."
And even seemingly innocuous pre-birth preparations could lead to a loss of Elterngeld. "Some women give themselves nipple massages or rub a rough sea-salt sponge over the nipples to prepare them for breastfeeding," Albring explained. "The idea is to make them harder and more resistant so they do not get sore when the baby sucks on them." This too, should be avoided, he said.
Happy New Year
But if Mohammed won't go to the mountain, then perhaps the mountain will come to Mohammed. After all, what ultimately counts for the bureaucrats is the time on the birth certificate. But Albring is adamant that gynecologists will not be tempted to add a few minutes to birth times to push baby into the financially lucrative future. "I don't believe doctors will falsify the time," he said. "We are trained to record the birth of a child accurate to the minute." Besides, witnesses are also included in birth records and all could be prosecuted if caught.
But what if the birth took place at home, which is the case for around 2 percent of births in Germany? "Theoretically it is imaginable," he admitted. "But home births have far more risks than hospital births. I don't believe a mother would take that risk just to qualify for the new payments."
Andrea Bolz of the German Association of Freelance Midwives is confident that midwives would not be tempted to stretch the truth. "I assume that midwives will carry out their work correctly, irrespective of whether some kind of cut-off date is pending or not," she said with conviction.
Regardless whether expectant parents have their child on Dec. 31 or Jan. 1, Albring for one thinks the new law will lead to more people having children. "I think it's a good start to make having children more palatable to people," he said. "The average age of a German woman having her first baby is 30. People want financial security. They want to get their career going, build a house or buy a flat, and then have a baby. When people realize that the support from the state has gotten a lot better, I can imagine that will lead to women wanting to have babies earlier, and more often."
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