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  • Eleonora Voltolina

Supporting the birth rate, the Achilles’ heel of Conservative policies

Updated: Apr 25

The news has spread throughout the world that Italy’s newly formed government has established a “Ministry for Birth Rate”. Technically, the name of an existing ministry, “Equal Opportunities and the Family”, has been altered to “Ministry for the Family, Birth Rate, and Equal Opportunities” – but the fact remains that the birth rate has officially become Ministry material.


There are no other ministries or departments of state officially dedicated to the birth rate anywhere in the world, despite the fact that the matter is on practically everyone’s mind, especially in the industrialised countries, where there has been a vertiginous demographic drop for years. Politicians are finally recognising that this is an issue, particularly regarding the sustainability of public finances, because when the number of individuals retiring surpasses the number of working-age people, the balance between income and expenditure ultimately breaks down.


The new Italian government, led for the first time by a female leader of a right wing party, Giorgia Meloni, has chosen to seize the subject – starting with the name of a ministry. While not going that far, conservative parties around the world have long been concerned about the birth rate, raising warnings and proposing solutions.


The problem is that conservative solutions to declining birth rates are almost always linked to an antiquated view of women’s roles, in which motherhood is considered “natural”, just as gender roles in the family are considered natural. Although it is now widely accepted that women belong in the workforce, there is still the notion that women’s most important job is motherhood, and that other commitments and priorities must be put on hold in favour of taking care of the family.


Additionally, the debate over birth rates is sometimes cast as a us-versus-them conflict, with the idea that immigrants invade western nations and “pollute” and “colonise” them with their offspring. So, in order to combat the demographic threat posed by the rising immigrant population, having more children is a patriotic act.


The tenet of the “sanctity of life” and the “natural family” as a cornerstone of society, while the moral judgement of people who choose not to have children, to remain single, or those in LGBTQ households do the rest.


It is no accident that Marine Le Pen, the extreme right-wing candidate who nearly won the last presidential election in France, proposed several measures to increase birth rates in her Rassemblement National party platform while making a distinction between children born in France and those born to immigrants. This “natalism”, a political doctrine that advocates and promotes more births, is essentially an ethnic-nationalist goal common of far-right political movements.


While the government has the freedom to pursue whatever policies it deems appropriate, assuming it has the parliamentary support to do so, there are two boundaries that should never be broken when formulating birth rate plans, regardless of their political colour.


The first error is conflating support for the birth rate with the restriction of personal reproductive rights. This occurs when access to sexual education, family planning information, and contraception is restricted. All of these policies were recently enacted in the United States, for example, by the Republican former president Donald Trump, who, during his term in office, slashed funding for teenage pregnancy prevention programmes in schools and, above all, for Planned Parenthood, a large non-profit organisation that has worked for over a century with health workers, educators, and family planning activists.


Access to abortion is made difficult or impossible, to the point where it is practically made illegal again, which is another method of denying the right to choose. Trump, who served as president for only four years, was incredibly fortunate to pick three new Supreme Court justices (out of a total of nine), all of whom were carefully selected from the ranks of anti-abortionists. In 2022, the Supreme Court of the United States broke fifty years of legal tradition by renouncing the federal right to abortion, clearing the way for new laws prohibiting and criminalising abortion in the most conservative states.


Restricting access to contraception and abortion has little effect on the birth rate, though. It actually increases female mortality – because abortion has never been and will never be entirely banned. Only legal abortion can be outlawed, and by doing so, we reintroduce backstreet abortionists, knitting needles, homemade potions, and other tragic consequences of underground abortions.


To put it simply, if people can’t get birth control or can’t end unwanted pregnancies, they won’t have any more children. There may be a few more babies in the near future, but there will be a lot less in the long run. This is because being forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy often makes women decide not to get pregnant again (as acclaimed American writer Ursula K. Le Guin explained in a few illuminating autobiographical lines).


The second error to avoid when developing birth rate strategies is to buy into the idea that we must “help mothers”. As though they are the only ones to have children.


Help them exclusively monetarily, of course: with a handful of bonuses, grants, and cheques. But no increase in services, rights, or gender equality.


Giving financial incentives to “help mothers” is the furthest thing from a smart birth policy. Which is instead a policy that recognises that children, at least in most cases, are made by two people, and thus promotes shared parenting and acts practically to even out the grim dichotomy between “motherhood penalty” and “fatherhood bonus”, that situation investigated by researchers in which women who become mothers are penalised by the labour market (“because they become distracted and unreliable!”), while men who become fathers are rewarded (“because having to provide for their offspring makes them more serious and responsible!”). Any effort to increase the birth rate that only involves women, such as rewarding them for remaining at home to care for the children, without prioritising the progressive attainment of an equitable balance in childcare obligations, is utterly misguided.


In Southern Italy, where there is frequently a traditional cultural fabric with codified gender roles and families whose members are very present in the lives of the new generations, it is no coincidence that the exceptionally low rate of female employment does not correspond in any way to a higher fertility rate. In essence, southern Italian stay-at-home women have fewer children on average than their working northern counterparts. A clear indication that the “angel of the hearth” method does not work.


The risk of conservative rhetoric on having children – “children for the motherland”; “because otherwise we will be invaded by immigrants”; and “because the traditional family is sacred” – is not only that these populist and propagandist messages exalt an outmoded ideal of society and family, undermining decades of struggle for gender equality and work to dismantle gender stereotypes.


The other risk, which is paradoxical yet more than tangible, is that these measures simply... fail to succeed. And they waste valuable time. According to the Italian demographer Alessandro Rosina’s TEDx talk, if a country’s birth rate remains persistently low, it «enter a trap that then forces the demographic curve to become increasingly negative». That is, if you fail in your policies today, there will be fewer children tomorrow, making it more difficult for them to reverse the trend and begin having more children once they reach adulthood.


With all due respect to the Ministers for Birth Rate. Image credits / Flickr Creative Commons: - Goodnight babies" by Dave Hergolz - Marine Le Pen by European Parliament - Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore

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