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World

Italian Fertility Campaign To Boost National Birth Rate Backfires

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Italy's birthrate is among the lowest in Europe, so the government launched a social media campaign encouraging people to have more children. After just one day, it has gone viral, though not in the way that Italy had hoped. Christopher Livesay reports from Rome.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY, BYLINE: Valentina Ognissanti works full time for a travel company in Rome. She's 36, single and doesn't have any kids yet.

VALENTINA OGNISSANTI: Yeah, I do want kids, but I'm, yeah, maybe trying to build a career that will help me to have a family.

LIVESAY: So she got a rude awakening when she opened Facebook and saw a meme that the health ministry is passing around. There's a picture of a woman holding up an hourglass and touching her belly. A caption in Italian reads...

OGNISANTI: (Speaking Italian). Beauty doesn't have an age. Fertility has. This is pretty offensive, especially because of her smug expression she's got on her face.

LIVESAY: It's part of a government campaign to encourage parenthood in Italy. The health minister, Beatrice Lorenzin, is launching the country's first-ever, quote, "Fertility Day" later this month. There are 12 promotional images, and they don't just target women. One shows a shriveled banana peel. The text reads - male fertility is much more vulnerable than you think. Countless imitation memes have followed. One features an old man saying, when I was your age, I had three kids, and I lost one testicle in the war - hashtag #fertilityday.

Patrizio Nissirio is an author and journalist at the Italian news agency ANSA. He says the campaign isn't just a misstep. It also brings back haunting memories of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who made childrearing a question of national duty.

PATRIZIO NISSIRIO: And this can be said fertility is a common good. Again, it kind of echoes that idea that, you know, it's not your own business whether you have children or not, but it's, like, the nation's need, which is kind of stupid, frankly.

LIVESAY: But the government does have reason to worry. Last year, fewer babies were born in Italy than any time in history. Meanwhile, its population is both shrinking and living longer. That puts a heavy burden on the country's pension system. But critics argue the government should instead concentrate on improving the conditions for couples to have children, like offering the kind of generous maternity benefits seen in France and Germany. Even Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi seems to agree.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATTEO RENZI: (Speaking Italian).

RENZI: He told Italian radio station RTL that young people have a hard time family planning when they often can't find steady work. He added, quote, none of my friends ever decided to have children after seeing an advertisement. For NPR News, I'm Christopher Livesay in Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.