PM’s Alistair Currie looks at a disturbing rise in restrictions on women’s rights due to coercive population growth policies that put pressure on women to have larger families.
By Alistair Currie
Last year, the policy of the Chinese government to force women in its Muslim Uyghur minority to be sterilised, have abortions, or get fitted with intrauterine devices, was a chilling reminder of how the threat of coercive and eugenics-inspired population control policies has not gone away.
However, there is another, and more widespread and insidious threat to women’s rights emerging today: the overlap between a deeply conservative ‘family values’ agenda, and government policies intended to increase national populations.
In the most disturbing example of a coercive population growth policy, last year, Iran blocked public hospitals and clinics from providing contraception and performing vasectomies in an attempt to boost birth rates. Meanwhile, many populist, nationalist and/or far-right governments are pursuing domestic pro-natalist policies, encouraging or pressuring women to have larger families. The trend is strong in countries with authoritarian systems, or leaders with authoritarian tendencies, including China, Russia, Turkey, Hungary, Belarus and Poland.
In many countries concerned about the economic effects of a very low birth rate, financial incentives for larger families are used, without any coercive element or other agenda. However, significant increases in births have not yet followed in places like China and Poland, and this is where more sinister motivations can come in.
A common central theme in European pro-birth policies and rhetoric is a reactionary and often religiously driven promotion of the traditional nuclear family, which in practice pushes women back into the kitchen and bedroom. Financial benefits for having children are often limited to those who are married or heterosexual, for instance.
Frequently in harness with this is a disturbing ethnic nationalism. Many East European populists subscribe to the idea of the ‘great replacement’ of white European Christians by other cultures and ethnicities. Poland’s Prime Minister has said his government: “want[s] to reshape Europe and re-Christianise it”. Hungary’s Victor Orban has put it as simply: “We want Hungarian children. Migration for us is surrender.” Disentangling population growth and nationalistic goals from policies intended to limit women’s freedom is not straightforward, but the shared agenda is evident, not least on the critical battleground for abortion rights. In 2018, one Hungarian minister declared that its population would be double if abortion had not been legal. Meanwhile, the pushback on abortion freedom in Russia forms part of the government’s demographic agenda. Vladimir Putin has said: “Russia’s fate and its historic prospects depend on how many of us there are … it depends on how many children are born in Russian families”.
A TOXIC ALLIANCE
Few places exemplify this more than Poland, where a toxic alliance of conservative and religiously driven ‘family values’, concern over depopulation, and hostility to immigrants drives policies on family. In January 2021, it effectively introduced a total ban on abortion.
This nationalistic neo-eugenicist agenda is not restricted to nominally Christian countries, however. Turkey’s President Erdogan has accused Western powers of wanting to suppress the Turkish population through birth control, whilst also calling for members of the Turkish diaspora to have families of five or more. Abortion is technically legal in Turkey, but is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain.
There’s no room for complacency regarding potential abuses in pursuit of reduced population growth, but if the international community in the 2020s focuses on the history of population control rather than the Handmaid’s Tale future threatened (and in some respects, already here) of the nationalistic pro-natal agenda, critical gains in women’s reproductive rights and freedom stand to be lost.
This article was originally published in issue 38 of the Population Matters magazine.