As the world marks the birth of its eight billionth inhabitant this week – three times the total in 1950 – the paradox is that many governments are worrying about too few citizens, not too many. About 60% of the global population live in places where fertility rates have dropped below the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman, the point at which a country’s population would remain stable. In South Korea, which already had the world’s lowest rate, it fell to just 0.81 this year.
By 2050, populations will be declining in more than half of European countries; in five – Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Serbia and Ukraine – they are projected to drop by more than 20%. China – soon to be overtaken by India as the most populous nation – saw a fifth consecutive fall last year to a new record low, with just 10.62 million births despite a population of 1.4 billion and a sustained push to persuade people to have more children. As experts warned when the party maintained its “one child” policy for more than three decades, it is easier to reduce births than increase them.
Yet faced with populations that are living longer, but not always in good health, and with fewer working-age people to support them, many governments have concluded they must do so, often rejecting increased migration. Since many people want to have more children than they actually do, supporting them through housing and childcare subsidies or grants, flexible working policies and better parental leave is sensible and welcome. The problem lies in target-driven, often coercive policies that seek to reimpose conservative family roles and reverse the rights of women and LGBTQ+ communities. Iranian state hospitals and clinics have stopped distributing contraception and banned vasectomies. Poland’s near-total ban on abortion took effect shortly before the government announced its strategy to boost fertility. As Vladimir Putin’s recent revival of the Stalin-era “Mother Russia” medal for women with 10 or more children demonstrated, such measures are often accompanied by a supposed sanctification of motherhood which in fact reduces women to babymaking machines.
But authoritarian governments do not just demand more citizens; they insist on what they regard as the right ones. China has discouraged abortions and most recently has promised to extend maternity benefits to single mothers, who were previously excluded. Yet fertility rates have plummeted in Xinjiang, with Uyghur women reporting forced sterilisations and IUD implants. It is no coincidence that the anti-abortion movement in the US gained strength as the racist “great replacement theory” conspiracy took hold. Viktor Orbán made the point explicit: “Instead of just numbers, we want Hungarian children. Migration for us is surrender,” Hungary’s prime minister said.
Pronatalism dates back to at least Louis XIV’s France, which gave tax privileges to men who had 10 or more legitimate children; political writers at the time saw the patriarchal order of the household as the foundation of social order and ultimately national greatness. Given these roots, the convergence of misogyny, overbearing state power and now racism should not surprise us – but it is all the more reason to oppose the infringements of human rights.