Coercion, money, and the rise of reproductive freedom.

Science, technology, and life.
March 5 2008 11:47 AM

Girl Power

Coercion, money, and the rise of reproductive freedom.

Renuka Chowdhury. Click image to expand.
Renuka Chowdhury

Two and a half billion people live in China or India. That's eight times the population of the United States and more than one-third of the world's total. But it's less than it would have been by hundreds of millions of people, thanks in part to two brutal practices: a Chinese limit of one child per family and widespread abortions of unborn Indian girls.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Those practices may be on the way out.

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India has just announced a plan to pay families for raising girls. Give birth to a daughter, and you'll get a cash installment. Vaccinate her, and you'll get another. Enroll her in school, keep her there, nourish her adequately, and you'll keep collecting. "We will pay the money in stages and monitor how they are brought up," the country's minister for women and children, Renuka Chowdhury, said this week. Total payout: up to $5,000 per daughter. Chowdhury is explicit about the program's first objective: stopping sex-selective abortions.

Meanwhile, China is rethinking its one-child policy. Last year, dissenters within the Communist Party moved to abandon the policy. A week ago, Zhao Baige, vice minister of the country's family-planning commission, told reporters that the policy had "become a big issue among decision makers" and that the government was studying whether to phase it out. The commission denies that the policy will change, but the fight is now out in the open.

What's going on? Coercive state power, even under communism, is failing. In procreation, as in profit-making, governments are increasingly working with individual choice instead of against it. They're learning to respect both the value of women and the ecology of the family. And it isn't ideology that's selling this change of mindset to governments or to the citizens they're trying to influence. It's sheer pragmatism.

Twenty years ago, China commonly enforced its one-child policy through forced sterilizations and abortions. This produced outrage at home and abroad. Citizens with money or connections evaded the limit. When the government shifted its enforcement methods from compulsion to fines, the evasion became explicit. The rich can pay to have extra kids; the urban poor can't.

The policy's purpose was to limit population to a level that the country's resources could support. Defenders of the policy still make that argument. But critics, even within the government, say the limit has backfired. There aren't enough young workers to support the aging older generation. Labor shortages are slowing economic growth. Kids used to grow up and take care of their parents; now they can't because this has become a one-on-two assignment, not counting their day jobs. Critics also argue that a generation of kids who grew up without siblings has become psychologically warped and socially destructive. What unites these indictments is a sense that messing with the ecology of the family has done more harm than good.

The shift in enforcing the policy, from force to fines, was a concession to this ecology and to personal choice. It mirrored the government's concessions to capitalism. If you really want something, including a second child, you can pay for it, provided you have the money. And if you and your spouse have no siblings, the policy now allows you a second kid without a fine. Your kids will have a fighting chance at taking care of you.

Defenders of the policy have always feared that if the cap were lifted, population would explode. What's driving the reform movement is growing confidence that this calculation is mistaken. Zhao says surveys show that today's young Chinese don't want the big families of yesteryear. Sixty percent want no more than two kids; few want more than three. Over the last 30 years, the number of kids each family would produce if given total freedom has fallen from 5.8 to 1.8. That's below the replacement rate. What's needed now, Zhao suggests, is policies that facilitate this preference, such as contraceptive education.

The one-child policy has also warped China's male-to-female ratio. If you live in a traditional, sexist society, you probably want a boy. If you're allowed only one child and you find out you're carrying a girl, things get ugly. At birth, the normal boy-girl ratio, if you let nature take its course, is about 105 to 100. In China, it's 118 to 100. Leaving aside the fact that it's just plain wrong to abort girls for being girls, a ratio of 118 to 100 leaves 18 boys without a girl. Even a Communist knows that's a social disaster. To avert it, Zhao says, the government is trying to persuade the public that girls are valuable. It's also subsidizing rural areas that have regarded sons as financial assets and girls as liabilities.

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