Are Coercive Population Policies Ever Warranted?

Written by Marian Starkey | Published: February 7, 2017

How about I answer that question with a question: Are you comfortable with your government deciding how many children you may have, and also how any births beyond that number will be prevented?

We aren’t either.

No government is ever justified in dictating the number of children its citizens may have. Freedom from reproductive coercion is a fundamental human right and must be protected for all people worldwide. Draconian, top-down policies result in horrific instances of coercive sterilization and abortion, and, in the case of China, the punishing of “extra” children through denial of healthcare, education, and employment.

In addition to being wrong on an ethical and human rights level, reproductive coercion is completely unnecessary for reducing population growth.

China is the only country in the world that has (until recently) had an official one-child policy, and its fertility rate is higher than many countries’ rates in East Asia that haven’t had such policies. Sovereign East Asian countries with lower fertility rates include Singapore, Thailand, Japan, and South Korea. Many more Asian countries have fertility rates below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman (see table).

Total Fertility Rate (2015-2020 medium fertility projection)
Singapore 1.26
Hong Kong 1.30
South Korea 1.33
Macao 1.34
Cyprus 1.42
Thailand 1.46
Japan 1.46
Armenia 1.51
China 1.59
Iran 1.62
Lebanon 1.71
United Arab Emirates 1.73
Brunei 1.82
Georgia 1.82
Malaysia 1.90
Bhutan 1.93
North Korea 1.94
Qatar 1.95
Viet Nam 1.95
Bahrain 1.98
Maldives 1.98
Turkey 2.01
Sri Lanka 2.03
Kuwait 2.04
Bangladesh 2.08
Nepal 2.09
Myanmar 2.13
Source: United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2015). World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision.

Surveys consistently show that, on average, women in persistently high-fertility countries want to have fewer children than they actually have (wanted* vs. actual fertility). In Cambodia, the actual fertility rate is 2.7, but the wanted fertility rate is 2.4; in Indonesia, the actual fertility rate is 2.6, compared to the wanted fertility rate of 2.0; in the Philippines, the actual fertility rate is 3.0, but the wanted rate is only 2.2. You get the idea.

When women have access to family planning and other opportunities that increase gender equality (education, choice in when and whom to marry, employment prospects, etc.), the total fertility rate declines. When women can choose when to have each of their children (if they choose to have any at all), they ultimately have fewer than they would if pregnancy were the perennial consequence of being sexually active.

It is not the place of any government to control the bodies of its citizens, whether through forced sterilization and abortion or through the denial of access to birth control and safe abortion. The latter is the focus of most of our advocacy work, as there are still 225 million women in the developing world (and an unknown number here in the United States) who do not want to get pregnant but aren’t using contraception and are therefore at risk of unintended pregnancy. Each country has its own population challenges, and the aim of any government should be to address those challenges with respect for citizens’ preferences and bodily autonomy.

* In the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS), wanted fertility is determined by asking respondents whether each birth in the five years preceding the survey was planned (wanted then), mistimed (wanted but a later time), or unwanted (wanted no more children).