The Temptation of Totalitarian Birth Control

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Jan. 22 2009 9:46 AM

The Temptation of Totalitarian Birth Control

People in a democratic country wouldn't let their government restrict family size ... would they?

Yes, they would. Agence France Presse reports :

William Saletan William Saletan

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

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More than 80 percent of Filipinos support family planning and almost half believe the government should limit the number of children a couple can have, according to a survey released here Monday. ... 44 percent believed that "the government should pass a law specifying the number of children."

Why would Filipinos say this? "The Philippine population now stands at around 90 million, with an annual growth rate of 2.04 percent, one of the highest in Asia," the article explains. And guess who's behind the high birth rate?

The findings come despite a widespread campaign by the dominant Roman Catholic Church opposing a draft law that would make family planning services more widely available in the Philippines. ... The Catholic Church, which counts over 80 percent of Filipinos as followers, has said the reproductive health bill, which has been pending in Congress for months, is headed for defeat after a high-pressure campaign by bishops.

What a mess. On one side, we have the Catholic bishops, who are so adamantly opposed to contraception that they're blocking the provision of birth control for voluntary use. On the other side, we have an emerging near-majority of the population that now favors coercive limits on family size. Do the math: The Church claims to represent 80 percent of the population, yet more than 80 percent reject its teachings on contraception, and 44 percent think the government should impose laws in precisely the opposite direction. It looks as though the bishops' anti-contraceptive absolutism is driving their own flock into the arms of a totalitarian remedy.

But in a modern society, no government could really enforce a cap on family size, could it?

Sure it could. Look next door at China, which uses state-controlled subsidies to punish couples who bear more than one child. It's quite effective. And here's what's really scary: The Chinese government has learned to treat children like any other state-allocated resource. It doesn't just impose a quota. It does what it can to guarantee your share. This helps the population accept the system.

In effect, China provides a " warranty " on children: You're limited to a state-prescribed quota, but you can refill the quota if you lose your child under specified circumstances, such as last year's earthquake . And what a warranty! The central planners don't just offer you the right to have another kid. They really deliver. Here's the report from Xinhua :

Officials of the National Population and Family Planning Commission told a conference here Friday that 757 Chinese mothers who lost children in the May 12 quake have become pregnant again, reflecting special exceptions to national and local population policies. As of Dec. 31, the officials told the agency's annual work conference, 5,724 bereaved mothers had received free reproduction services, including counseling, guidance, health exams, sterilization reversals and fertility treatments.

This is exactly what the government promised seven months ago. And, sure enough, according to the New York Times , the regime has "sent teams of doctors to carry out reverse sterilization operations." Now, that's what I call service. The state uses financial penalties to close up your reproductive system. Then, if you end up below quota, the state reopens you for business. In fact, if necessary, it does the business itself. Even the fertility treatments are free.

But state manipulation of family size is just an Asian thing, right? It couldn't happen here.

Think again. Guess which country now has Europe's highest birth rate? France . How has it achieved this? "State-provided child care and family support payments," including " nanny subsidies ."  Australia has " cash payments for newborns." Spain pays " 2,500 euros per new child." Austria offers " monthly payouts of $547 for the youngest child until the age of 3, and additional monthly checks ranging from $132 to $192."

These are governments that think they need more births. Most governments think they need fewer. If their citizens decide to support state-enforced limits on childbearing, and if agencies help each family fill its allotment, it's easy to envision a world where population growth is finally brought under control by the financial power of the state.

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