Central and Eastern Europe’s demographic decline has until now been presented by nationalist governments as an existential problem. But are policy makers looking at the issue from the wrong perspective?
A growing number of countries – including two in Central and Eastern Europe – are adopting coercive pronatal policies in a bid to make women have more children, a new report has found.
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The report, Welcome to Gilead, raises serious concerns about the abuse of reproductive rights by nationalistic governments, echoing the pronatal dystopia of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
The report, produced by UK charity Population Matters, details how right-wing, populist and/or nationalist administrations are stigmatising women who choose to have smaller families as unpatriotic and describes how policies intended to limit women’s reproductive choices are linked to population goals.
“Coercive pronatalism is not simply a manifestation of patriarchy or misogyny but can be a product of political and economic forces entirely indifferent to women, for whom they exist simply as productive or non-productive wombs,” says Population Matters Director Robin Maynard.
“These regimes are instrumentalising women’s bodies to serve nationalistic, economic and patriarchal interests. Violating sexual and reproductive health and rights is never justified. It is imperative we all defend them, wherever they are threatened, and for whatever reason.”
In many countries, leaders fear the impact on their economic and political goals of women choosing to have fewer children.
As a result, the percentage of countries with pronatal policies grew from 10 per cent in 1976 to 28 per cent in 2015, according to the UN’s most recent data.
Not all such policies abuse reproductive rights, but increasing numbers are doing so.
The report examines examples of such restrictions in China, Iran, Russia, and Turkey, as well as the emerging Europe states of Hungary and Poland.
It identifies how politicians in the US and Germany are starting to promote the same agenda and policies.
It details in particular how pronatalism is often linked to a restrictive, patriarchal “pro-family” agenda and the promotion of ethnic nationalism, based frequently on religious orthodoxy and hostility to multiculturalism and immigration.
These motivations include subscription at the highest political level to the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory that Christian and European culture and civilisation will be extinguished by immigration from Muslim countries and high birth rates among immigrants.
Population Matters Policy Adviser Monica Scigliano, who wrote the report, says: “When people think of coercive population policy, their minds often go to examples like China and India, in which leaders wanted to limit population growth by forcing women to have fewer children.
“Now, however, with birth rates declining and in some cases emigration reversing population trends, that has changed.
“As people continue to choose smaller families, more governments across the world are resorting to coercive tactics, depriving people of their reproductive rights in order to increase their populations.
“In particular, nationalistic agendas can lead to a toxic brand of pronatalism that represents an almost inevitable threat to sexual and reproductive health and rights.”
Hungary and Poland
In Hungary, the right-wing populist government of Viktor Orbán is now inching towards a total abortion ban. Orbán states, “we want Hungarian children. Migration for us is surrender”.
Earlier this year, former US Vice President Mike Pence told a summit in the Hungarian capital Budapest that “plummeting birth rates” represent “a crisis that strikes at the very heart of civilisation”, adding that he hoped the US Supreme Court would overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion ruling.
In Poland meanwhile, the ruling populist and pronatalist Law and Justice party recently increased abortion restrictions, banning abortion on the grounds of foetal abnormalities, which had been the reason for 98 per cent of all abortions in the country. Its law has recently claimed its first victim, a pregnant woman named Izabela who died after being denied an emergency operation because doctors insisted on waiting until they could no longer detect her baby’s heartbeat.
Polish reproductive rights campaigner Antonina Lewandowska, who wrote the foreword to the report, says:
“The Polish pronatalist movement drove doctors into such a state of fear that they would rather let Izabela go into septic shock than terminate the pregnancy earlier and save her life. They are terrified of prosecution and stigma, as the pro-natalist/anti-choice movements would probably eat them alive.
“On the other hand, there is a group of medical professionals that are rather comfortable with the current situation, as it lets them argue that medical negligence happens due to that ‘freezing effect’ of an abhorrent law rather then their own incompetence, mistake or deliberate choice to not provide their patients with necessary medical care – an abortion – due to their personal beliefs.
“In both cases, it is clear – aggressive, fundamentalist pronatalism paved the way for violating human rights in Poland.”
The economic value of older people
Central and Eastern Europe’s demographic decline has until now been presented as an existential problem. But have we been looking at the issue from the wrong perspective?
Even relatively poor countries such as Romania and Bulgaria are currently placing more demands on the renewable resources of their land than it can provide, and lower populations reduce that demand, as well as relieving pressure on biodiversity.
“Romania is one of Europe’s more biodiverse countries, for instance, with great forest cover and wetlands in the Danube Delta – both of value to the world, not just Romania,” Alistair Currie, head of campaigns and communications at Population Matters tells Emerging Europe.
“As it becomes more affluent, it has an opportunity to manage that land and natural environment more sustainably. Agriculture is the primary driver of habitat loss, and where countries aren’t scrambling to feed their populations through intensive agriculture and monocultures, that can give nature a break.”
Fears of labour shortages are often exaggerated because of continued population growth and automation, but Currie suggests that any shortages which do arise can be addressed through measures such as increasing labour force participation, judicious immigration policies, further automation and increasing retirement age.
“Fiscal challenges presented by ageing populations can be solved by pension reform, increasing the productivity of older workers, later retirement, investment in preventative health to reduce associated health care costs, and, where appropriate, equitable increases in tax,” he says.
“One thing that really came out strongly in our research is the economic value of older people. That means things like potentially increasing retirement age – low across much of Central and Eastern Europe. To do that, you do need healthy populations, however, which requires investment in preventative health care.
“Pronatal policies, meanwhile, are not productive. They’re often costly, in the short term they increase the number of dependent children, and in the longer term, they drive up consumption and resource use.”
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