When it comes to controlling family size, China is probably the most notorious country. But the British government has just announced plans to cut welfare payments for larger families. This might not seem as draconian as outlawing the birth of more children but it effectively amounts to a two-child policy.
The details are yet to be released – and there will be exceptions – but the new rules will have serious implications for reproductive rights and family wellbeing.
It’s not new for states to intervene in reproductive decision making. Governments across the world have introduced rules and regulations to encourage or discourage their citizens to have children. In Romania – one of the most extreme examples – Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu banned birth control and severely restricted abortion. As a result, large numbers of poor families had to place their children in orphanages which could not care for them properly.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, China’s one-child policy made contraception and abortion almost mandatory. Women with unsanctioned pregnancies avoided doctors and went through unsafe births, while the use of orphanages grew, particularly for abandoned girls.
Other states have less extreme policies to influence family size, but all have implications for women’s health and family life.
The myth of planning
The UK government has used the old stereotype of the feckless poor, who breed for benefits, to justify its own policy. This mythology suggests that respectable people consider their financial position carefully when planning their families – and that the poor should do the same.
Except that doesn’t necessarily happen. There are no methods of birth control which are 100% effective and, even when it works, life can get in the way. Cherie Blair found that out when she left her contraception at home before a trip to stay with the Queen because she was embarrassed by the idea of the royal staff unpacking it for her. The result was an unplanned pregnancy.
The first is that it might restrict choice over contraception, with women feeling forced to opt for “safer” methods – such as the contraceptive implants or injections. At first glance this might seem reasonable, but given that many experience significant side effects, this could have implications for women’s health.
The evidence also suggests that women who feel pressured into a contraceptive method that doesn’t suit them are more likely to stop using it. Policies that strongly promote safer methods often see larger numbers of women discontinuing contraception.
Limiting financial support to two children could also result in an increase in the number of abortions. Women over the age of 20, many of whom are already mothers, make up the majority of people having abortions. If the choice is between increased poverty for their existing children or an abortion, then women may feel they have little choice but to opt for the latter. Abortion should be freely chosen, not an outcome of state policy.
Parenting by numbers
The two-child policy also fails to consider what happens when people see their financially situation change. A parent of two or more children might suddenly find themselves divorced, unemployed or in ill-health. Without the safety net of the welfare state, how many families can afford to take the risk of having more than two children even if they don’t currently claim tax credits?
There is a long history of concern about “undesirables” reproducing. Eugenic thinking in the 19th and 20th centuries played out in different ways, from the enforced sterilisation of women with learning disabilities to the motherhood medals awarded in Nazi Germany to women who had larger families.
The aim of the British government’s plan seems to be to restrict the number of children that the poor can have and needs to be understood in this context, even if it is using a carrot rather than a stick.
And what happens to children whose parents do not restrict themselves to two children? Whether through religious beliefs, accidents or any other reason many families will be bigger than the state-sanctioned size. As austerity bites and the safety net is removed, children will be punished via poverty just because they have been born. This is not something that I think is acceptable.
Many households now consist of step-parents and blended families, and the welfare system recognises this through assessment of household income rather than marital status. The imposition of a two child policy has implications for the future formation of these families. Should one or both adults have two children already, which two children count for child tax credits? Will residency be decided by financial considerations rather than the best interests on the child?
Dealing with the complications of family life may of course be part of the “exceptional circumstances” that are yet to be published by the government, but given that a large number of relationships fit this category, this would be a large number of exceptions. Even couples who stay together might be tempted to form two households rather than one when faced with a third or fourth wanted pregnancy and a lack of financial support.
The image of the feckless family and the badge of austerity are being used to introduce significant change in the ability of families to make decisions over their family life.
The UK’s two-child policy may not be as immediately shocking as what has unfolded in China or Romania, but rules on family size rarely come without repercussions.
Directly or indirectly, it will restrict women’s decision-making over their reproductive bodies, favours the reproduction of the elite and attempts to impose a particular form of family life on the rest of the population.