I was struck today by the news that the Italian region of Lombardy is going to start paying women not to have abortions. As a demographic move, it is a comparatively small and insignificant one, in a nation already well below replacement rate. If this resulted in the cancellation of every abortion in the region, it wouldn’t matter very much in the great human scheme of things. What matters is whether this has effects on other nation’s policies – and of course, that reproductive policies never take place fully in the great human scheme of things.
Generally speaking, I’m strongly in favor of policies that shift economic benefits towards those who are most needy, and pregnant impoverished women obviously fall into that category. I’m also in favor of reducing coercion *into* abortion for women (as well as coercion out of it, obviously). This is something that I don’t think gets talked about enough in the discussion of abortion, but the fact is that many women who would rather not have abortions are pressured into them, sometimes by partners, and often, by economic circumstances. Indeed, both are often brought to bear – the “I’ll pay for the abortion but you’ll have to fight me for every penny if you have the baby” story is one that I’ve heard all too often, and that gets erased from the discussions of women’s choice that frame this as though the choice to have an abortion is always a free one, while restraint of that choice is sometimes coerced.
That said, however, I’m troubled by the idea that you’d be offered a check at the point of pre-abortion counseling, which strikes me as manipulative and ugly – and that the funds then leave women after a year or so of motherhood unable to support a child, and poorer than before. A bribe to give birth is a weak thing, and a coercive one to women in vulnerable positions. The truth is that if the state is going to get involved in encouraging population growth, the state is going to have to be fully committed to the well-being of the children it encourages.
What strikes me about this isn’t that the fact itself is so important, but that there is no way to get away from the fact that when states of any kind determine they have an investment in reproduction – in encouraging or discouraging it, it is very difficult to balance a broad commitment to a certain demographic future with the real bodies of the women – the bodies into which devices and hormones are inserted, the bodies from which children come, the bodies into which surgical instruments are inserted. It is so easy to erase those realities,to speak about birth rates and TFR, and so hard to bring them back.
I honestly don’t have a good answer on the subject of our demographic future – in a general way I’d like to see states stay out of reproduction altogether, on the theory that a state that feels comfortable encouraging or discouraging will feel more comfortable coercing in the direction that serves it. I do not feel that this opinion of mine (I’d like to see the child tax credit taken away and replaced with a different progressive tax model that didn’t reward people for having children – and yes, this would suck for my family, but so what?) will actually matter – that is, nations and states have always used demography to serve their ends, encouraging some people to reproduce, discouraging others. And in fact, we may well have no choice but to permit this. My own take is that the most important thing I may be able to do is to bring us back to the material reality of the bodies involved, and the lives that follow them, the stories that underly the numbers – because it isn’t just the numbers.