Casaubon's Book

Demography is Always Political

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.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 darwinsdog
    June 3, 2010

    Seems I remember reading awhile back that evangelical Christian groups in the United States were paying Israeli women not to have abortions – so long as they weren’t Muslim. Don’t remember the details. A good blog topic might be the difference in birth rate between Jewish & Muslim Israeli citizens, and the long-term implications of that difference. If I remember right those evangelicals were concerned that Israel would eventually end up a majority Muslim state.

  2. #2 D. C. Sessions
    June 3, 2010

    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.

    And once again reality confronts my distaste for viewing human beings as equipment in an industrial process.

  3. #3 D. C. Sessions
    June 3, 2010

    OT: Sharon, I like the new comment-section CSS. Gives the right emphasis to blockquotes and original text. Hmm … wonder what happens to nested quotes?

  4. #4 Cath the Canberra Cook
    June 3, 2010

    In Australia, our government offer a simple “baby bonus” to anyone who gives birth. You don’t have to pretend you want an abortion first and go to a clinic to get a cheque. And you bet any sensible poor and pregnant woman will do that! Someone didn’t think this through…

  5. #5 Tony61
    June 3, 2010

    Well, what are your thoughts on tax deductions for dependent children, thus leaving the childless to pay more taxes?

  6. #6 Jadehawk
    June 3, 2010

    it should maybe noted that these policies are at least partially racist. Italy is a main arrival point for refugees from Africa, but many of them, even the children, are “turned away” (read: let to drown, because they’re refused the right to land). Italy’s demographic problems could easily be solved by better immigration laws, but that would increase the “non-Italian” percentage of the population.

  7. #7 Brad K.
    June 3, 2010

    Sharon,

    Raising children without the culture of the family is an effective way to honor one’s parents, and transmit your own values, rituals and traditions, on to the next generation.

    http://www.itsaboutmakingbabies.com/2010/06/03/cb-italian-baby-bounty-and-marriage-isnt-just-about-feelings/

    Merely looking at whether a pregnancy is wanted or not, or whether deliberately terminating the pregnancy without a live birth is allowed or desired, misses the whole point. An unwanted pregnancy is a parent unable or unwilling to raise a child. You have to address both the unwilling and unable, to credibly change the dynamic. I happen to think encouraging people to form families instead of encouraging (through provocative fashions, media, and advertising) getting laid, is a better idea.

  8. #8 Tony P
    June 4, 2010

    Consider that a goodly chunk of the Italian population uprooted and came to the United States in the early 20th century. That put a big drain on Italy.

    Around here you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting someone whose name ends in a vowel. Yes mine does too.

  9. #9 Paul Murray
    June 4, 2010

    You keep using the word “coerced”. I think that word does not mean what you think it means.

  10. #10 Jadehawk
    June 4, 2010

    I happen to think encouraging people to form families instead of encouraging (through provocative fashions, media, and advertising) getting laid, is a better idea.

    just what the world needs… another slut-shaming, anti-sex d00d telling women what to do with their own bodies.

  11. #11 Sharon Astyk
    June 4, 2010

    Paul, do you really think there’s no such thing as economic coercion of women? Really?!?

    Tony61, I don’t have the slightest problem with childless people paying taxes to send kids to school, any more than I have the slightest problem paying taxes myself to support the elderly, even though I’m not one. I don’t believe that there is a useful or credible case for “I only want my taxes to go to me.”

    That said, however, I’d like governments to be as little as possible in the business of either incentivizing or disincentivizing childbearing, and would encourage shifting the dependent child tax credit towards other progressive taxes that are less focused on children. I also would be delighted to see adults caring for disabled other adults or for elderly family members being able to get the kind of tax credits that parents get.

    Sharon

  12. #12 P.J. Grath
    June 4, 2010

    Yes, it’s the bodies and the lives and the stories that are real, and you will hear politicians citing the stories that suit their purposes, but government policies–on whatever and in whatever direction–will always be based on the numbers. Ot so it seems to me.

  13. #13 mpatter
    June 4, 2010

    Thanks for this post, Sharon, I loved it and just wanted to make the obvious related point: the world as a whole has a very significant demographic problem, there are too many of everyone. Where were the interfering states when they could have actually done some good? China tried quite hard to stop its population ballooning, but it still happened.

    Good point Jadehawk, indeed most of the developing world’s population is heavily skewed towards the young, so it’s not only Africa that could help out Italy’s elderly.

  14. #14 mpatter
    June 4, 2010

    Oh yeah, and my local example: the UK is about to stop giving families £250 to each child at birth – it was ostensibly to encourage saving by starting trust funds, and was stopped by the new government amid other spending cuts.

    http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/chancellors-statement/ctf-announce-qa.pdf

  15. #15 Paul S.
    June 4, 2010

    Governments have been encouraging some people to have more children and discouraging others for thousands of years, though with varying degrees of success. When it works, it often has unexpected consequences and causes new problems, like the imbalance between young men and young women in China. Unfortunately, I don’t think that it will ever go away as long as governments and other groups think that it is in their interests to do it.

  16. #16 Ewan R
    June 4, 2010

    Sharon – I’m a little surprised you’re completely against a disincentivation of childbearing – imo this is in principle a good idea as a long term solution to overpopulation and resource limitations in the future – it’d be great if everyone were on the same page and willing to reduce the number of kids they had without any immediate gain to themselves, but assuming this is unlikely some sort of scheme to reduce birth rates just seems like a good idea(tm)

    I guess there are all kinds of pitfalls to an approach which incentivizes not having kids (ie it could end up looking like a plot to eradicate minorities amongst other things) but if it is approached purely as a methodology to reduce population growth (and preferably reverse it) I still think the principle is sound.

  17. #17 Sharon Astyk
    June 4, 2010

    I should be clear I’m strongly in favor of government interventions to disincentivize childbearing such as providing full educational parity for women, making education up through college financial accessible to the poor, giving women political power, reducing infant and early childhood mortality so that the children women do have get to live to grow up and they don’t have to have so many, giving women access to good reproductive health care, educating men about women’s rights and issues, and a whole host of other things. What I’m opposed to is the kind of heavy-handed direct subsidy approach, because I think it is a risky strategy in a whole host of ways. I don’t see a version of this that ever can be applied equitably or fully justly – so like Paul, I think states are going to do it, but I don’t think they should, and I don’t trust it when they do. Observing that it would be a good thing if it was equitable and just seems like ignoring the fundamental difficulty – that it isn’t equitable or just in any real iteration available to us.

    Sharon

  18. #18 Eleanor
    June 4, 2010

    Excellent discussion with many important points.

    With regards to paying taxes that go to educating children, I feel it is to the benefit of society as a whole to do so. In the long run, it’s much better for society to make sure that all children are well educated, nourished, and cared for, than to try to fix the messed-up adults who frequenly result when children don’t get such necessities. Even when we will never know most of those children personally. If we follow such a course, the educated, nourished, and cared for person (now an adult) that results would be more likely to have the skills, life experiences, health and intellect often required to become/be a good participant in society. It would be much less likely these children would grow up to be burdens on society. I’m not saying this would fix every problem, but it sure would go a long way to giving everyone a fighting chance.

  19. #19 darwinsdog
    June 4, 2010

    I feel it is to the benefit of society as a whole …

    “Society” is a composite abstraction composed of individual human beings. It is all too easy to do things for “the benefit of society” that isn’t at all to the benefit of any given individual or group of individuals. Who is to decide what the “benefit of society” consists of? Should an individual be expected to sacrifice his or her personal benefit for the sake of the benefit of an abstraction? I would have thought that such group selectionist thinking went out in the 1960s but I guess not.

  20. #20 mpatter
    June 4, 2010

    @19 – I don’t think it’s unreasonable for an individual be expected to sacrifice his or her personal benefit for the sake of the benefit of other people, and the reference to group selection is rather condescending, unless you are reducing all human impulse to the desire to propagate their individual genes.

  21. #21 Jadehawk
    June 4, 2010

    I find the attitude @19 to be highly ironic on a blog that deals with adapting to and possibly preventing future disaster by being willing to sacrifice and go on less.

    but hey, that’s the same person who thought that not having the infrastructure to get anywhere on foot, and having to risk getting run over by a car whenever not driving one, cannot possibly be a contributing cause to obesity.

  22. #22 Donna B.
    June 5, 2010

    Thank you, Sharon. I may not always agree with you (in this instance I certainly do) but I always appreciate the thoughtful way you approach things. You make me think.

  23. #23 Ed Straker
    June 5, 2010

    There is a large subset of people who are cognizant of the population problem, but have chosen not to worry about carrying capacity directly, but rather shake in their boots over the government response. The outcome of this way of thinking is for people to continue to make the wrong reproductive choices and push us straight over the cliff, in which case any notion of human rights goes out the window anyway as it reverts to every man for himself.

    I mean, it’s kind of a “give me liberty or give me death” sort of issue. Some people would rather be reduced to eating mud cakes and long pork than subject themselves to the indignity of, let’s say, 1-child policies.

    To me, this is misplaced priorities.

    What makes limits to growth such a maddening thing is that it forces one to make these tough moral choices and live (or die) with the downstream consequences.

    But the idea that everyone will somehow have an epiphany on population and “do the right thing” is extremely polyanna. And yet this is the stock prescription you see in these sorts of discussions, since it’s the only one that can possibly avoid angry blowback from the mainstream.

  24. #24 Anna
    June 6, 2010

    I’m glad you mentioned the child tax credit, because that’s what I was going to say — our policy amounts to pretty much the same thing. As part of a couple who have decided not to have kids for environmental reasons (as well as personal ones), it makes us a bit mad that the U.S. encourages other families to have as many kids as possible by giving them a financial incentive. In our economically impoverished neck of the woods, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a lot of unwanted children are conceived because they will increase the household’s allotment of food stamps and their tax refund. Surely there’s a better way to protect kids than by encouraging overpopulation?

    I’m not saying that we should pay less tax since we’re childless — I agree that we’re part of a society and I like the idea of my taxes supporting people who need services. But I don’t like the idea of my taxes increasing the number of unwanted children.

  25. #25 Sharon Astyk
    June 6, 2010

    Well, Ed, given that quite a few nations have achieved the same TFRs as China, including developing nations, there’s really no evidence whatsoever that government coercion is more effective than empowering women. In order to make the case for government intervention that interferes with women’s civil rights, you’d have to make a compelling case that that’s the best way to achieve the results – and I don’t think anyone can, given that other countries can achieve precisely the same results without them.

    I’m sure there are a few people who have more kids to get more food stamps out there but like the “welfare queen” stereotype, it seems wildly overstated. There is simply no situation in the US where having children actually results in net gain from the child tax credit and food stamps. Try feeding an actual kid on food stamps and see if you make any money doing it. The majority of low income households see the total value of their subsidies disappear on diapers and formula in the first year. You only have to do it once to begin to figure out that it makes no sense, and even the poorest math skilled folks would begin to notice.

    Sharon

  26. #26 Isis
    June 6, 2010

    Sharon,

    Do you know any predominantly RURAL state, that’s not significantly richer than China (per capita), that has managed to achieve results similar to China’s simply by empowering women etc. (Where ‘empowering women’ does not mean or entail encouraging migration from rural to urban areas.)

  27. #27 Sharon Astyk
    June 7, 2010

    It isn’t a country, but Kerala’s TFR is comparable to China’s, and the state is very much rural.

    Sharon

  28. #28 Isis
    June 7, 2010

    Kerala is doing much, much better than the rest of India, and it should be congratulated on it. It is not, however, doing anywhere near as well as China. First of all, Kerala’s population growth is higher, but that’s only half the story. From Wikipedia:

    CHINA
    Population growth rate: 0.606% (2007)
    Birth rate: 13.45 births/1,000 population (2007)
    Death rate: 7 deaths/1,000 population (2007)
    Net migration rate: -0.39 migrant(s)/1,000 population (2007)

    KERALA
    Population growth rate: 0.87% (1998 est.)
    17.1 births/1,000 population: (1994-2001 est.)
    6.4 deaths/1,000 population: (1998)
    Net migration rate: (-)3.1 migrant(s)/1,000 population (1991 est.)

    Unfortunately, the numbers don’t all come from the same year (I assume that up-to-date information for Kerala is not available; if you have newer statistics, please share), but the point is that Kerala has a much higher birth rate than China, and a much lower net migration rate (i.e. there are many more people leaving Kerala than there are leaving China). If you’re keeping your population growth low by ‘exporting’ a part of your population, then you aren’t really keeping it under control, are you?

    (Of course, it should be added that China doesn’t exactly have its population growth under control either: its population is still growing. But it’s doing significantly better than Kerala.)

  29. #29 Electronic Cigarettes
    March 28, 2011

    I’m glad you mentioned the child tax credit, because that’s what I was going to say — our policy amounts to pretty much the same thing. As part of a couple who have decided not to have kids for environmental reasons (as well as personal ones), it makes us a bit mad that the U.S. encourages other families to have as many kids as possible by giving them a financial incentive. In our economically impoverished neck of the woods,I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a lot of unwanted children are conceived because they will increase the household’s allotment of food stamps and their tax refund. Surely there’s a better way to protect kids than by encouraging overpopulation?

    I’m not saying that we should pay less tax since we’re childless — I agree that we’re part of a society and I like the idea of my taxes supporting people who need services. But I don’t like the idea of my taxes increasing the number of unwanted children.