Scapegoats of declining fertility rates: women as the problem and the solution? 

Written by Sol Zeev-Ben-Mordehai

The discussion of population decline following the global population surpassing eight billion people may seem absurd and perhaps contradictory. However, certain global demographic trends are increasingly worrying. Advancements in healthcare prolonging human lifespan, paired with declining fertility rates have led to ageing populations in some parts of the world. As a result, the population age structures are changing, with a notable increase in the median age. There is a general consensus that to maintain its population countries should aim for a fertility rate of 2.1 assuming there is no migration. This means that there should be 2.1 live births per resident woman in the population. However, in 2021, the fertility rate was only 1.53 in the European Union, 1.36 in Japan, 1.28 in China, and 0.84 in South Korea to name a few. One dangerous societal impact of the maximalist alarmist discourse on declining fertility rates is that the unit is births per woman, as such, the burden of maintaining population demographics is often placed on the women.   

Environmentalists may argue that the world is overpopulating and this decline is in fact positive due to a need to reduce consumption and the toll on the climate’s resources. However, the insufficient fertility rate is concerning for policymakers as an ageing population comes hand in hand with a burden on social services and pension systems, a declining workforce and rising healthcare costs. This, in turn, has propelled policymakers to advance various pronatalist policies which aim to increase fertility rates. Examples include tax advantages for women with more than one child or family-friendly employment conditions encouraging couples to have children. As aforementioned, fertility rates are measured by natural births per woman, as such, pronatalist policies and campaigns often target women. In and of itself, pronatalist policies do not deteriorate women’s rights, conversely, they could even help with women’s emancipation. However, some of these policies and discourses negatively affect the perception of women’s standing in society. 

These policies and campaigns often position women as the object which needs fixing in the process of combatting declining birth rates. Examples of this are widespread, from Hungary to Japan. For example, Prime Minister Viktor Orban specified that immigration, which may help with declining births in other countries, should not be relied on in Hungary and that Hungarian children are needed from Hungarian women. Similarly, in 2021 Iran made family planning a national security issue. 

The discourse on the existential risk of the declining fertility rate and framing mothers as the sole entities responsible for bearing children inadvertently creates an environment in which motherhood is equated with patriotic duty. Women have a responsibility to the country to give birth and support the population. This subsequently results in the stigmatisation of women who choose not to have children or cannot have children. This occurred in 2016 when a campaign pushed by the South Korean government showed a national birth map which rated regions based on their fertility rates while showing possible governmental child benefits which could be received. The maps have subsequently been taken down after facing public backlash. Conversely, framing women as the entities responsible for bearing children paints pronatalist policies such as restrictions to safe abortion services and birth control in a more legitimised light. These restrictions serve as a means of exerting control over the bodily autonomy of women, highlighting the tangible concerns with reducing women’s role to mere child-bearers. 

Fertility rates have disproportionately declined among developed countries with improved women’s rights. This is often attributed to women entering the labour market, increased level of education and better access to contraception. Unfortunately, this has simultaneously meant that women’s empowerment is scapegoated as the enemy of the global birth rate crisis. South Korea provides a good example of this discourse. Since the late 2010s, impressive progress has been made by feminist movements to progress women’s standing in society. For instance, abolishing the country’s abortion ban, harsher punishments for spy-cam crimes and exposing systematic sexual misconduct. However, the success of feminist movements prompted backlash from men who thought these actions had gone too far and were harming Korean society. This culminated in the openly misogynistic electoral campaign of South Korea’s current president Yoon Seok-Yul who now runs a conservative government which has worked hard to regress women’s rights. He publicly blames feminism for the country’s low fertility rates. His administration has rebranded state offices tasked with promoting gender equality and women’s rights as those for ‘family’ and ‘children’ focusing on women’s childbearing and childrearing roles, reinforcing traditional gender roles and gender inequalities. This again relates to framing women as having a patriotic duty to maintain the population and have children. Needless to say, this phenomenon is not unique to South Korea. In China, the media propagates the idea that women will only find fulfilment through marriage and motherhood. This once more places women’s role in the domestic sphere.  

The return to traditional familial structures can have far-reaching consequences that hinder women’s rights in the long run. The shift, which minimises the abilities of women in the domestic sphere, impacts women’s role in the labour market, contributing to the persistence of the gender wage gap. South Korea, for instance, faces a significant gender wage gap of 64.6 per cent. Furthermore, additional factors not exclusive to South Korea such as the difficulty of returning to work after a long career break like maternity leave, make it challenging for women to advance professionally. In China, for example, women are granted long maternity leave (the same privilege is not granted to new fathers) while facing intensified societal pressures to have children. The long maternity leave seems like a positive advancement, however, it ultimately reinforces the rigid familial roles and exacerbates labour market gender discrimination as employers are less likely to hire them

As previously illustrated, pronatalist policies run the risk of corroding the progress made in women’s rights and empowerment, which have shown improvements in recent years. Of course, this doesn’t always happen. For example, in certain Nordic countries policies have been implemented aimed at reducing inequalities and obstacles to child-raising. These policies not only reduce the cost of child care but also minimise the impact on career prospects of women. Thus far they have been quite effective in slowing the fertility decline, for instance in Iceland, which surprisingly experienced a baby boom since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

In conclusion, the alarming demographic trends need to be addressed in order to unburden future generations. We need to be able to overcome the issues associated with population decline without minimising women’s roles to mothers. If we don’t, we risk heading towards an apocalyptic handmaid’s tale scenario where pronatalism rules supreme, even over women’s bodily autonomy. Solutions can occur through pronatalist policies that adapt to changing gender roles, address economic inequalities and new forms of employment, as well as confronting other societal challenges that prevent family growth such as unaffordable housing costs. That being said, reforms in the healthcare and welfare structures are still needed to meet the unavoidable future demands of ageing populations. 

Edited by Maria Shamray, artwork by Lila Ozture