Like so many young families throughout Brazil, Ricardo Pires and Fabiana Oliveiro plan to only have one child together in order to provide a better life for their newborn son, Arthur. (John Stanmeyer/VII)

Priscila da Silva once asked her grandmother why she had 12 children, and the answer was simple: “Because I wanted to.”

These days, Silva, like many women in Brazil and the rest of Latin America, has other plans. At 24, she thinks about having one child, if that.

“The situation today is different, and raising a child is difficult,” said Silva, slicing tomatoes at a restaurant that she founded with four other women, only one of whom has planned a family of any size. “This is another time, and it’s not the same.”

Fertility rates have dropped in many parts of the world in recent decades, but something particularly remarkable happened to the once-prolific family across Latin America. From sprawling Mexico to tiny Ecuador to economically buoyant Chile, fertility rates plummeted, even though abortion is illegal, the Catholic Church opposes birth control and government-run family planning is rare.

A frenzied migration to the cities, the expansion of the female workforce, better health care and the example of the small, affluent families portrayed on the region’s wildly popular soap operas have contributed to a demographic shift that happened so fast it caught social scientists by surprise.

At their new restaurant, Saborearte in the Rio de Janeiro suburb of Batan, Priscila da Silva, left, and Jaqueline Ramos, both 24, are focused on making their business a success. If she ever has children, Silva wants one. And Ramos said, for now, she's happy raising her dog. (Juan Forero/The Washington Post)

In 1960, women in Latin America had almost six children on average. By 2010, the rate had fallen to 2.3 children.

“When I started out, the cutting-edge thing to do was to explain why people had lots of children,” said Joseph Potter, a demographer at the Population Research Center at the University of Texas, who began working in Latin America in the 1970s. “In fact, people were more disposed toward low fertility than we oh-so-sophisticated social scientists thought. . . . The idea that lots of children was the way to go went down the drain a lot earlier than we were prepared to realize.”

Brazil’s declining fertility rate has been particularly fascinating for demographers. This is a country of continental proportions whose population is an ethnic stew of almost 200 million. There is also a great gap between rich and poor, although millions have joined the middle class during Brazil’s recent economic expansion.

The country’s fertility rate has fallen from 6.15 children per woman in 1960 to less than 1.9 today. That is a lower rate than in any other Latin American country except Cuba, which has state-sponsored family planning and legalized abortion. It is also lower than the rate for the United States, which at 2 per woman is just enough for the population to replace itself.

Demographers were astonished that Brazil’s fertility rate fell almost uniformly from cosmopolitan Sao Paulo, with its tiny apartments and go-go economy, to Amazonian villages and the vast central farming belt.

“Brazil started coming down and had this big drop that amazed everybody, everywhere,” said Suzana Cavenaghi, a Brazilian census bureau demographer. “We wouldn’t expect that in a country that’s so diverse, with a lot of poverty in so many places and so unequal, economically speaking.”

Contributing factors

Cavenaghi said a confluence of factors accelerated the trend.

Women were empowered by a pro-democracy movement that rose up against a 1970s-era military dictatorship. That dictatorship, which wanted to populate Brazil’s remote areas, inadvertently contributed to fewer births by promoting industrialization. That led rural families to crowd into cities, where a brood of children could be a financial drain.

Cavenaghi said women began to look for means of birth control, easily obtained without a prescription. Doctors in the public health service provided sterilizations, which became common, and women sought out pills that induced abortions long before those pills became the subject of controversy in the United States.

“Women nowadays, they understand that they have to change their lives,” said Veronica Marques, communications director for Elas, a group that helps women start businesses across Brazil. “This idea of doing what she really wants to do, and having the power to do it, is the thing that has changed this country.”

Marques, who is 31 and married and who doesn’t have any children, said that for many Brazilian women, the top role model is the country’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff. She went from being a daring 1960s-era Marxist guerrilla to a brainy, no-nonsense technocrat. Now Rousseff, whose only child, a daughter, is a lawyer, leads the world’s sixth-largest economy.

And it is not hard to find young women, college-educated and climbing the ladder of success, who say they may do without children.

For instance, Elisangela Batista, 37, was a banker for 10 years and now does public relations work. “I have no intention of having children,” Batista said, adding that most of her friends have one child or none. “My priority has been other things: to study, to work.”

The aspirations of Brazilian women are underscored by a report issued this month by the Center for Work-Life Policy, a think tank in New York. The report, “The Battle for Female Talent in Brazil,” says that 59 percent of Brazilian women consider themselves “very ambitious” and that 80 percent of college-educated women aspire to upper-echelon positions. U.S. women were far less likely to give those responses.

The telenovela effect

The lives of Brazil’s career women are often reflected in the country’s elaborate soaps, or telenovelas, which numerous U.S. and Brazilian researchers say have been an important factor in the drop in Brazilian fertility. The protagonists may be perpetually anguished about lost love, but they inhabit an appealing, affluent, highflying world, whose distinguishing features include the small family.

“They are all young. They live well. They are comfortable. They are beautiful,” said Maria Immacolata Vassallo de Lopes, coordinator of the Center for the Study of the Telenovela in Sao Paulo. “Why do they need children?”

In real life, Brazil’s career women tend to be like Priscila da Silva and her four partners at the restaurant. One of the partners has three children, but the others are more like Jaqueline Ramos. Her grandmother had 19 children, but Ramos, 24, said she may not have any.

“It is too much work to have children,” she said, busily chopping cilantro.