Revisiting the birth rate in "The Handmaid's Tale"

Continuing the discussion from Margaret Atwood and "The Handmaid's Tale":

I remembered near zero when I read the book originally. I re-read the book (been meaning to, anyway) about a year ago and this time I made specific citations of anything relevant in the text this time.

The chances are one in four, we learned that at the Center.

“Chances are one in four”, presumably whether a pregnancy once started – and pregnancies already extremely rare – will carry to term. So a contributor to low effective birth rate.

There was no one cause, says Aunt Lydia. She stands at the front of the room, in her khaki dress, a pointer in her hand. Pulled down in front of the blackboard, where once there would have been a map, is a graph, showing the birthrate per thousand, for years and years: a slippery slope, down past the zero line of replacement, and down and down.

Birth rate “down past the zero line of replacement, and down and down”.

We’re already at the zero line in the US, other countries have been there for a while. So the zero line itself isn’t particularly interesting or shocking, it’d need to be far lower.


Those are the two most substantive refences to specifics about the birth rate in the book. But they are clear.

As for the TV show, there are also graphs presented at the Handmaid indoctrination center in episode 1, season 1.

It’s kind of hard to tell if this is the complete graph (can’t see the height of the two left-most bars) … I just checked again and aha, you can see a zoomed out version briefly!

that’s 22 → 10 → 8 → 4 → 1. So the birth rate in 2015 is at most1/22nd or 4.5% of the birth rate in 1960, and presumably still declining? In 1960, 107 million children were born. So 4.5% of that would be under 5 million.

As of 2011 per this data there were 2.3x as many births as deaths

The 2011 rate is close enough to 2015 to be good enough for more back of the envelope estimations … if 5 million children were being born per year (at the fertility rate of the dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale) and 55 million people were dying per year in 2011 … that’s 50 million people lost every year. If we take the earth’s population as of 2015, how many years are left until things … er… stabilize?

÷  50,000,000

This is… very primitive… math that breaks down because it doesn’t account for the overall age of the population to begin with, increasing human longevity, or declining rate of birth among smaller populations. It takes the current 2015 population to produce 5 million children per year, and that keeps going down. Say you eventually get to 5 million people left on the earth, at such a low fertility rate, those 5 million people can’t possibly produce 5 million more people. I am sure someone else can math this so much harder than I can, but this gives you an idea of the best case scenario in the world of Handmaid’s Tale, which is … grim.

Also in the dystopia of Handmaid’s tale, the population is already lower than what we’d show in 2015; their birth rates were halved by 1980 and kept declining, so they likely are not producing 5 million children per year by then.

In season 1, episode 6, the Mexican ambassador to Gilead notes that in a Mexican city the size of Boston there have been zero live births in six years.

Back-of-the-enveloping it, Boston’s population in 2015 was 669k people. So per the TV show – and corroborated by the book – specifically, one live birth in 6 years for 669k people. If the earth’s population in 2015 was 7,358,000,000 (7.3 billion) this means

÷     669,000

That means roughly 10-15 thousand children born per year in 2015, for the entire world? That’s why I was thinking “near-zero” since that effectively would be. I admit it’s way off the first graph which is ~5 million children per year, but maybe the birth rate is still declining … or, more likely, Mexico is a poorer country and can’t afford mass fertility policies and treatment?

Both of those scenes in the TV show are consistent with the book’s portrayal, and would put the birth rate at, if not near zero, so low that the survival of the human race is very much in question – 147 years.

Where did the decline in fertility come from? Unfortunately Margaret Atwood (no relation, my last name is Atwood, though I do like to joke that my mom writes some dark stuff, and I do enjoy a good abyss gazing) is a liiiittle bit on the extreme side when it comes to the whole “GMOs / chemicals are gonna destroy the world” thing:

The reasons for this decline [in birthrate] are not altogether clear to us. Some of the failure to reproduce can undoubtedly be traced to the widespread availability of birth control of various kinds, including abortion, in the immediate pre-Gilead period. Some infertility, then, was willed, which may account for the differing statistics among Caucasians and non-Caucasians; but the rest was not. Need I remind you that this was the age of the R-strain syphilis and also of the infamous AIDS epidemic, which, once they spread to the population at large, eliminated many young sexually active people from the reproductive pool? Stillbirths, miscarriages, and genetic deformities were widespread and on the increase, and this trend has been linked to the various nuclear-plant accidents, shutdowns, and incidents of sabotage that characterized the period, as well as to leakages from chemical- and biological-warfare stockpiles and toxic-waste disposal sites , of which there were many thousands, both legal and illegal—in some instances these materials were simply dumped into the sewage system—and to the uncontrolled use of chemical insecticides, herbicides, and other sprays.


The air got too full, once, of chemicals, rays, radiation, the water swarmed with toxic molecules, all of that takes years to clean up, and meanwhile they creep into your body, camp out in your fatty cells. Who knows, your very flesh may be polluted, dirty as an oily beach, sure death to shore birds and unborn babies. Maybe a vulture would die of eating you. Maybe you light up in the dark, like an old-fashioned watch. Deathwatch. That’s a kind of beetle, it buries carrion.

Climate change is much more likely in my opinion, but the book (and thus the TV show) goes with “toxic hellstew of chemicals, GMOs, and radiation” as the cause for the massive drop in fertility to near-zero.

The book also hints at a weaponized virus that makes men sterile as a secret part of the cause, but that hasn’t appeared in the TV show yet.

Professor Wade and I have speculated in our joint paper, “The Notion of ‘Seed’ in Early Gilead,” that both—like many of the Commanders—had come in contact with a sterility-causing virus that was developed by secret pre-Gilead gene-splicing experiments with mumps, and which was intended for insertion into the supply of caviar used by top officials in Moscow. (The experiment was abandoned after the Spheres of Influence Accord, because the virus was considered too uncontrollable and therefore too dangerous by many, although some wished to sprinkle it over India.)

Having seen Children of Men (which is literally zero birth rate), and having children myself, I believe that there is no collective human insanity as profound as the one that would descend once there were effectively no more babies. It would literally be the end times. It would make previous world wars look like tea parties. Gilead would be possibly among the least of the things happening in the world at that point:

Anyway, just thinking about all this because I continue to watch Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu, which is on season 3 and we’re finally seeing some comeuppance for Gilead…


Oops. In that city in Mexico, one birth for the city in six years, so I can’t extrapolate to “every year”. Still, I think the safer estimate is to go with the graph from the center that showed 4.5% of the 1960 births, or 5 million children per year. But that’s likely high (and thus generous) for the actual population of the world depicted in Handmaid’s Tale.

Zero births, as in Children of Men, would be the end of the world in the lifetime of the current youngest person.

(I am reminded that Children of Men has one of the most incredible opening sequences of any movie, maybe ever.)

But a birth rate as low as shown in the Handmaid graph is only a slightly longer death sentence for humanity…

Let’s assume someone lives 70 years, at -50 million population growth per year (only 5 million born each year, but 55 million people dying)

×          70

(and again I know these are super sucky numbers because they depend on age of population, plus the population is changing constantly so you’d need … again I suck at math… derivatives that represent rate of change? IDK)

That is a … sobering number.


A baby born in 2015 under the fertility levels depicted in Handmaid would see almost half :scream: the world die in its lifetime. And this trend would accelerate over time as there are fewer and fewer people to procreate at all.

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Near zero fertility is a unique end of the world scenario that would result in massive collective psychosis. It’s one of the darkest scenarios there is in my opinion. Everything would break down rapidly.

I deleted my post for a reason dude.

Sorry, didn’t realize that was deleted. I’ve removed the quote.

I think the finale of Season 3 is soon (next week), sooo glad to see Gilead getting some payback at last. Part of the reason this show was so hard to watch – Gilead appeared to be winning.

Also my prediction for surprise in the S3 ending. Nick will suddenly return, and not in a good way.

Now THAT was a season finale. The show is maybe the most unrelentingly brutal experience of… well, any show I’ve ever watched… but that was worth it.

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You’re telling me! The opening scene was very difficult to watch. It really gave me a feeling that the above mentioned birthrate figures should consider those born with physical afflictions (unbabies in the TV show, ‘shredders’ in the book) based on that scene. It hurt so much to see these women be herded like cattle to be either killed, sent to the colonies, or shipped to the Rachel and Leah (Red) center to become handmaids. This show is masterful at creating repulsive imagery to show how truly evil Gilead is, regardless of their attempts to save a dying population. Just when you think Gilead couldn’t get any worse, boom, June gets knowingly raped by Fred to “speed up the birthing process.” It’s remarkable how the showrunners manage to outdo themselves each season. Rocky start or not, S3 was very well done. I am so happy to see Gilead really getting a kick in the teeth now that more than 50 of their stolen children have returned to the safety of Canada, eh?

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You might want to put some [spoiler]rosebud was his sled[/spoiler] tags on that text though – it’s awfully early to be spilling all the beans.

Wow this is complicated.

Basically this:

I think the most useful number is the General Fertility Rate which reflects births per 1000 women aged 15-44.


So the 1960 GFR was 118, but today it is 59.0.

I wrote a little program that starts with 2015 USA population age statistics, and in brute force style iterates through each “person” once per year, looking for natural deaths based on actuarial stats by age, aging everyone by one year per loop, and checking for births to women 15-44 based on the GFR.

Here’s what I got with the current 59.0 GFR.

Setting stats for initial population size of 10,000,000
year 1 born: 120511 died: 123914 pop: 9996597
year 2 born: 120403 died: 120204 pop: 9996796
year 3 born: 120904 died: 121314 pop: 9996386
year 97 born: 85060 died: 117682 pop: 7963600
year 98 born: 85051 died: 117788 pop: 7930863
year 99 born: 84388 died: 117235 pop: 7898016
starting pop: 10,000,000 ending pop: 7,898,016 (change -2,101,984 78.98%)

You can see on birth alone we’re already below the replacement rate, assuming zero immigration. (This is also another reason why being anti-immigrant is incredibly dumb.)

Assuming the Handmaid’s rate is 1/22nd of that 1960 GFR or 118 / 22 = 5.36, I’ll round it up to a 6.0 GFR:

Setting stats for initial population size of 10,000,000
year 1 born: 12167 died: 123860 pop: 9888307
year 2 born: 12112 died: 120196 pop: 9780223
year 3 born: 12264 died: 121439 pop: 9671048
year 97 born: 29 died: 12590 pop: 193039
year 98 born: 29 died: 11489 pop: 181579
year 99 born: 29 died: 11116 pop: 170492
starting pop: 10,000,000 ending pop: 170,492 (change -9,829,508 1.70%)

Technically by 1985 the GFR was ~60 which is roughly half of what it was in 1960, so that’s the same as Handmaid :exclamation:

It’d be worse than this because in the Handmaid’s universe this birth decline is more dramatic but only after 1980:

1960 – 22×
1980 – 10× (same!)
1995 – 8×
2005 – 4×
2015 – 1×

The math sucked, but it wasn’t such a bad estimate after all. Assuming the fertility rate didn’t continue to get worse, per the more accurate simulation, by year 138 at a GFR of 6, a population of 10 million humans would decline to just ten thousand :scream:

year 101 born: 41 died: 9965 pop: 151314
year 102 born: 21 died: 9233 pop: 142102
year 103 born: 19 died: 8753 pop: 133368
year 136 born: 0 died: 756 pop: 10755
year 137 born: 0 died: 683 pop: 10072
year 138 born: 1 died: 663 pop: 9410

I humbly submit that 10k remaining humans at year 138 isn’t a meaningfully better outcome than zero remaining humans at year 110 you’d get with no fertility ala Children of Men.

It is above all the look of “Children of Men” that stirs apprehension in the heart. Is this what we are all headed for? The film is set in 2027, when assorted natural disasters, wars and terrorist acts have rendered most of the world ungovernable, uninhabitable or anarchic. Britain stands as an island of relative order, held in line by a fearsome police state. It has been 18 years since Earth has seen the birth of a human child.

Watching “Children of Men,” which creates a London in ruins, I realized after a point that the sets and art design were so well done that I took it as a real place. Often I fear it will all come to this, that the rule of law and the rights of men will be destroyed by sectarian mischief and nationalistic recklessness. Are we living in the last good times?

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