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The Handmaid’s Reality

Across the world, reproductive rights and women’s rights are being increasingly curtailed by governments which want to boost birth rates. Head of Campaigns Alistair Currie looks at the disturbing linkages between nationalism, “family values” and panic over population loss.

Despite the wide success of empowering and choice-based approaches, the history of policies intended to stem population growth also includes abuses such as China’s notorious one-child policy and forced sterilisations in India and Puerto Rico. News last year of the Chinese government forcing 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 politically or racially motivated population control policies has not gone away.

The more widespread and insidious threat to women’s rights today, however, is in policies intended to prevent women from accessing contraception and abortion. These are emerging strongly in some countries that are seeking to boost their national populations. In many cases, those policies clearly overlap with nationalistic and misogynistic agendas.

Restricting access

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. Disturbingly, the trend is strong in countries with authoritarian systems, or leaders with authoritarian tendencies, including China, Russia, Turkey, Hungary, Belarus and Poland.

“The UN’s Sexual and Reproductive Health Agency is concerned that the focus of some population policies currently being implemented in the Eastern Europe and Central Asia region could have a negative impact on women’s and reproductive rights.”

Alanna Armitage , UNFPA Regional Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia

Misplaced concern about the economic effects of population “decline” and ageing societies is growing in many countries. This has led to a number of governments employing measures such as financial incentives for larger families, without any coercive element or other agenda. However, it is generally recognised that such measures have had very limited effectiveness, so far, and for some governments, these positive incentives are not enough.

A toxic mix

Eastern Europe is a hot-bed of pro-natalist policies – many countries there are experiencing or facing declines in population due to low birth rates and high levels of emigration. Their policies and motivations are not purely economic, however.

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”. For these hard right governments, this means that using immigration as a mechanism to stem populaton loss is not an option. Hungary’s Victor Orban has put it very simply: “We want Hungarian children. Migration for us is surrender.”

The director of a pro-government think tank in Hungary has stated that the pro-family agenda there is ” a sign that we are not a multi-coloured country, we believe that while everyone is free to do what they want, there is a hierarchy, and a family made up of a husband and a wife is at the top.”

Viktor Orban
Viktor Orban

Disentangling population growth and nationalistic goals from policies purely intended to limit women’s reproductive 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”.

Few places exemplify this more than Poland, where a toxic alliance of conservative and religiously driven “family values”, concern over depopulation, and hostility to immigration drives policies on family. In January 2021, it effectively introduced a total ban on abortion.

Handmaids Tale drawing
Handmaids Tale drawing

Weaponising family planning

This nationalistic neo-eugenecist agenda is not restricted to nominally Christian countries, however. Turkey’s President Erdogan has accused Western powers of wanting to supress 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.

Erdogan’s argument that contraception and reproductive health and rights are tools of colonialism is increasingly being used as part of the pushback against reproductive freedom. In 2018, Tanzania’s President Magufuli, called on women to have large families and ignore advice on family planning, which was promoted by “foreigners with sinister motives.

The explicit argument that family planning is being used to reduce the number of  people of colour has also become part of wide-ranging conspiracy theories surrounding Bill Gates and vaccines, threatening to impede the very positive work undertaken by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The same argument has also been deployed by anti-abortion campaigners in the US and Africa.

Worldwide, 270m women have an unmet need for ccontraception.

“Under his eye”

There is no room for complacency regarding potential abuses in pursuit of reduced population growth, but if the international community in the 2020s focusses 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.


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