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Pronatalism on the Rise to Counter Growing Push for Gender Equality

This 14-year-old Ugandan girl was forced into marriage by her parents at 8 years old. Credit: UNICEF/Stuart Tibaweswa
According to the United Nations, at least 12 million girls are married before they reach the age of 18 every year, and more than 650 million women alive today were married as children. Around 257 million women globally face unintended pregnancies due to lack of access to contraception, abortion care, and counseling.

ST PAUL, Minnesota, USA, Oct 4 2023 (IPS) - There’s an insidious new tactic emerging for selling right-wing ideology to wider audiences, evident in last month’s Budapest Demographic Summit for “family-friendly thinkers and decision-makers,” the upcoming pro-birth Natal conference in Austin, Texas, and the recent film “Birthgap.”

They all peddle pronatalism, a set of norms and policies that exhorts and often coerces women to have more children to raise fertility rates, often coupled with alarmism over alleged “population collapse.”

Pronatalism is on the rise to counter the growing push for gender equality, contraceptive access, and women’s educational and economic empowerment. It is connected to totalitarian policies dictating reproductive choices, the racist Great Replacement conspiracy theory, the religious anti-abortion movement, tech elite futurism.

Elon Musk, for example, is an avowed pronatalist who donated $10 million to population collapse “research” and liked the idea of denying voting rights to childless people. He wanted to attend the Budapest summit, but couldn’t make it so he met last week in Texas with Hungary’s President Novák instead to draw attention to the “demographic crisis.”

Lately, pronatalists are trying to pull a more appealing game face. The Budapest Summit says it wants to support the “psychological health and security of families,” so they can “plan for a secure future.” The Natal conference claims it “has no political or ideological goal other than a world in which our children can have grandchildren.”

The “Birthgap” film purports to help cure an epidemic of “unplanned childlessness” and proposes “re-engineer[ing] our societies to reduce [it so] many more people would go on to have…children just like parents naturally do.” It conducts tearful interviews with regretful women who lament that their natural drive to have children was thwarted by society, and now it’s too late.

Who could object to standing up for families’ health and security, and for the right of people who want children to have them? Yet behind this innocuous-seeming family-friendly rhetoric lurk unsavory connections to right-wing propaganda, manipulation, and straight-up lies.

The Budapest summit touts Hungary’s achievement of the “highest rates of marriage and childbearing in Europe, while divorce and abortion rates are falling,” a nice way of saying that its right-wing populist leader Viktor Orbán adopted and implemented the Great Replacement ideology, which motivated mass-shooters in the U.S., as state policy. “We do not need numbers, but Hungarian children,” he said. “In our minds, immigration means surrender.”

The Natal conference has demonstrable links to far-right eugenicists and racists. “Birthgap” filmmaker Stephen Shaw is feted by right-wing talk show hosts like Jordan Peterson, Neil Oliver, and Chris Williamson, and presented as a “renowned demographer” despite having no credentials in demography. Shaw and Peterson both gave keynotes at the Budapest summit.

But ad hominem objections to the people behind the conferences and the film aside, the assertions they make are discreditable and counterfactual. Decrying imminent “population collapse” while the global population grows by 80 million each year and is projected to hit 10.4 billion in the 2080s is absurd.

To make depopulation seem like a threat, “Birthgap” resorts to lying about data on the reasons for declining birth rates. It cites a 2010 study (which it calls a “meta-analysis”) by Prof. Renska Keizer which the film says indicates that just 10% of women chose not to have children and 10% can’t have them for medical reasons, which “leaves a whopping 80% of women without children childless by circumstance” as opposed to by choice.

But that’s not at all what Keizer’s research says. The 2010 study Birthgap cites is not a meta-analysis, not quantitative, and does not indicate 80% of childless women didn’t choose to be so. In fact a 2011 study by Keizer et al. analyzed a 2006 dataset surveying women in the Netherlands who were childless at age 45, and found that 55% of them were childless voluntarily, while 45% were childless due to medical or other reasons.

Other studies found similar results: 56% of those without children were voluntarily childless according to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey, 72% according to the CDC National Survey of Family Growth, and 74% according to a 2022 Michigan State University study. Researchers working on my organization’s fact-checking project Birthgap Facts found no credible data supporting the film’s claim that 80% of childless women were “childless by circumstance” as opposed to by choice.

What the data does show is that women exercising their right to choose if and when to have children results in delaying childbirth, smaller families, and a decline in teen pregnancy. Those outcomes are beneficial and should be celebrated, not stigmatized.

According to the United Nations, at least 12 million girls are married before they reach the age of 18 every year, and more than 650 million women alive today were married as children. Around 257 million women globally face unintended pregnancies due to lack of access to contraception, abortion care, and counseling.

At current levels of consumption, today’s population of eight billion is driving resource depletion, soil erosion, water shortages, species extinctions, and climate catastrophe. Over a billion children are already at “extremely high risk” from climate change.

High fertility rates and population growth undermine climate resilience and complicate efforts to end poverty and hunger and ensure basic services and infrastructure.

These are the real threats to the future, not some imagined conspiracy to stigmatize reproductive choices and hold fertility rates down. They make Shaw’s proposal of “social engineering” to reverse the imaginary threat of depopulation all the more reprehensible.

By distorting and lying about childlessness, he’s trying to manipulate young people and their governments into prioritizing procreation over education and career. This purports to avoid a dystopian future, yet it would actually usher one in.

Rather than manufacturing a crisis whose remedy entails “social engineering” to roll back progress on human rights and women’s control over their own lives, we should focus on the real crisis fueled by pronatalist pressures from family, religion, and governments that force millions into motherhood against their wishes, often by means of coercion and sexual violence.

The rhetoric of the Budapest summit, Natal, “Birthgap” and their ilk claiming they’re simply trying to help families and alleviate the heartbreak of “unplanned childlessness” is insidious, and we should recognize and call it out for what it is: another arrow in the pronatalist quiver, another weapon wielded against hard-fought gains in gender equality and reproductive autonomy.

Nandita Bajaj is the Executive Director of the NGO Population Balance and an adjunct lecturer at the Institute for Humane Education at Antioch University. Her research and advocacy work focuses on the combined impacts of pronatalism and human expansionism on reproductive, ecological, and intergenerational justice.

IPS UN Bureau


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