How the spread of conservative pronatalism threatens women’s hard-won rights

Written by Olivia Nater | Published: December 12, 2023

With birth rates declining across the world as women gain more choices over their bodies and lives, governments and certain influencers are increasingly expressing concern over a supposed shortage of babies. Pronatalism (aka natalism), a political ideology that promotes childbirth, is gaining traction, and in its most conservative forms, presents a real danger to women’s rights.

The politicians fretting (and crying?) over low birth rates

The vast majority of higher-income countries now have fertility rates below the replacement rate of 2.1 births per woman. However, the notion that continuous population growth is required for a thriving economy remains a prevailing doctrine, which is why many of these countries are actively trying to increase births. According to the UN, the proportion of governments implementing policies with that aim increased from 9% in 1976 to 28% in 2019.

Pronatalist policies in the form of financial incentives for childbearing, such as baby bonuses, can benefit families but they haven’t proven to be very successful at convincing people to have more babies. Worryingly, many of the governments and politicians that seem the most troubled by shrinking family size are also hostile to women’s rights, creating a high risk of coercion.

North Korea’s Kim Jong Un made headlines last week after bursting into tears while discussing the country’s birth rate. According to the United Nations Population Division, North Korea’s fertility rate has declined slightly from 1.88 births per woman in 2014 to around 1.79 today. Speaking at a meeting for mothers in Pyongyang, the Supreme Leader got emotional as he urged North Korean women, who are still treated as second-class citizens, to have more children.

Kim Jong Un is not the only autocratic leader making this plea. In a speech last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin (who himself is believed to have three children), stated,

“Recall that in Russian families our grandmothers and great-grandmothers had both 7 and 8 children. Let us preserve and revive these traditions. Having many children, a large family, should become a norm, a way of life for all the peoples of Russia.”

Russia’s fertility rate now stands at 1.52, down from a 20-year high of 1.80 in 2015. Russia introduced a flurry of new laws to limit abortion access in recent months, a move which activists believe is linked to fear of population decline amplified by Putin’s war on Ukraine.

China’s Xi Jinping is also increasingly urging citizens to have more babies as the country’s massive population begins a slow downward trend, falling behind India — now the world’s most populous nation — earlier this year.

While extreme financial insecurity, poor healthcare, suppression of freedom of thought and action, and in Russia’s case, war, are understandably not conducive to baby booms, low birth rates are not restricted to authoritarian states. The most extreme example is just across North Korea’s southern border — South Korea has the world’s lowest fertility rate, which has been reaching new record lows every year and now stands at only 0.88, according to the UN.

In September, European right-wing politicians gathered at the biennial Budapest Demographic Summit, hosted by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, to discuss how to increase birth rates. The speakers included Orbán and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, whose countries have fertility rates of 1.58 and 1.30, respectively. Both Orbán and Meloni espouse nationalist agendas that are anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ rights, and anti-immigration.

In the U.S., some of the most vehemently anti-choice politicians promote the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, which contends that there is a covert plot to replace white people with people of color. In April this year, for example, while arguing for a six-week abortion ban, Nebraska State Senator Steve Erdman made comments that align with this conspiracy theory:

“Our state population has not grown except by those foreigners who have moved here or refugees who have been placed here. Why is that? It’s because we’ve killed 200,000 people.”

He claimed that if abortion had been illegal, it would have resulted in more people “that could be working and filling some of those positions that we have vacancies.”

Sen. Erdman has argued that teaching about racism in schools “seeks to completely overthrow our traditional American culture” and has criticized the University of Nebraska’s plan to hire a Vice Chancellor of Diversity and Inclusion, claiming that it would create a hostile environment for “White Christian conservative males.”

The influencers calling for more (wealthy, white) babies

Politicians aren’t the only ones jumping on the conservative pronatalism train. Another speaker at the Budapest Summit was Canadian anti-feminist polemicist Jordan Peterson who has said that women’s growing access to education is driving “population collapse.” A bizarre “Natal Conference” was held in Austin, Texas, earlier this month, featuring speakers who openly support eugenics and misogyny.

While not publicly listed as affiliated with the Natal Conference (despite it taking place very close to Tesla’s headquarters), the most influential pronatalist is probably billionaire Elon Musk, who has called low birth rates the biggest threat to civilization and is funding dubious population research. Musk never acknowledges the fact that population in lower-income countries is still growing rapidly, in many cases overburdening local services and infrastructure. By turning a blind eye to Africa (the continent where he was born and raised), which has a population that is expected to almost double by mid-century, and by calling exclusively for larger families instead of more immigration, he’s sending a clear message that he only cares about boosting the number of privileged westerners.

Libertarian, pro-growth think tanks, including the Cato Institute and the Hoover Institution, are also spreading concern over low birth rates and a shrinking consumer base.

It is obvious that those most alarmed about the trend toward smaller families wish to maintain the power structures that place them at the top of the food chain. Conservative pronatalists would like women to return to traditional, submissive domestic roles and produce more bodies for the military, more voters for their party, and more consumers and taxpayers for the economy. It is no coincidence that crackdowns on abortion rights often go hand-in-hand with underpopulation concerns.

Extremely low birth rates can be a problem — but there’s only one right way to address it

While declining fertility rates largely result from greater opportunities for women, and while ending global population growth is a prerequisite for a sustainable future, there is a problem when people are having far fewer children than they would like to have. South Korea’s extremely low fertility rate, for example, is a reflection of women’s deep dissatisfaction with their social standing and the unjust expectations placed upon them. Similar sentiments seem to be behind China’s declining fertility rate. The South Korean Government has spent more than $200 billion on policies to increase births, with no success, because it is failing to address the root cause of widespread childlessness: harmful patriarchal norms and values. Instead, President Yoon Suk Yeol is actively working to exacerbate the problem by criticizing feminism and dismantling institutions aimed at improving gender equality.

There are many countries in which modest fertility rate increases could likely be achieved by improving quality of life. Even here in the United States, we seem to be moving backwards on gender equality and empowerment. American women had their constitutional right to abortion taken away with the reversal of Roe v. Wade last year, and a sobering new report by the Population Reference Bureau has revealed that Millennial and Gen Z women are worse off than previous generations regarding health and safety, with higher death rates from suicide, homicide, and maternal complications.

To be effective, pronatalist policies need to tackle the issues that prevent people from fulfilling their desired family size, such as by improving gender equality and financial security, and by creating safe, nurturing environments, including through affordable education and healthcare, as well as ambitious climate action.

In addition, governments should ditch the goal of increasing births for the sake of growth, and instead aim to ensure people can have the number of children they want. This would require accepting that fertility rates in countries where they are very low may never again reach the replacement rate. Governments need to actively prepare for population aging, and transition to more sustainable economic systems that are not based on the absurd notion of infinite growth. Let’s pursue a better future, not a Handmaid’s Tale dystopia.