Updated: Aug 30, 2022
Reproductive control prevents people from reproducing. Coercive pronatalism does the opposite—forcing women to reproduce when they don’t want to.
Contemporary attacks on reproductive rights are motivated by many things. Least among them is a genuine concern for the lives and well-being of the babies our system abandons shortly after birth. Chief among them is a penchant for coercion, hostility to women’s autonomy and self-determination, and a desire to enforce our status as mothers first, and human beings a distant second.
Forcing people to have children when they’re not inclined to do so is a kind of extension of the “great replacement” conspiracy theory propagated by the far and not-so-far right. It contends that as birth rates fall and immigration rises, “real” nativist populations are getting replaced by outsiders ready to do the will of globalist political elites. That’s absurd, but no less absurd is the proposed “solution:” forcing women to have more children.
That’s part of the import of rising coercive pronatalism. Beyond the subtle messages in movies, art and culture glorifying parenthood, and unsubtle messages from family members telling women point-blank they are expected to produce children, coercive pronatalism puts institutional pressure on people to have babies. This is often done in the service of nationalist, religious, ethnocentric, racist and/or nativist and xenophobic agendas. It may take the form of restrictions on contraception, or propagandist myths around contraceptive use, or loan forgiveness and other financial incentives in exchange for having large families.
If these inducements don’t convince women to have children, then abortion bans are instituted to force them into it against their will. Anti-democratic abortion bans are in effect in China, Russia, Hungary, Brazil, the U.S.and Poland, among others, often justified by nativist, baby-bust alarmism. According to the U.N., such policies lead to more unsafe illegal abortions, greater maternal mortality risks from unintended pregnancies, and a rise in unwanted births.
Even subtle pronatalist pressures are enormously powerful in shaping women’s life paths and self-esteem.
As a result of failed family planning policies and pronatalist cultural narratives, 45 percent of the 6 million pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended, and approximately a million unwanted children are born each year. Unintended pregnancy rates are highest among low-income women, women aged 18–24, cohabiting women and women of color. For mothers in marginalized communities, unintended pregnancies rob them of education, empowerment and career opportunity. For babies born into families missing the material and emotional resources needed to flourish, unintended pregnancies cause suffering and documented adverse physical and mental health outcomes.
In the course of my career studying, teaching and raising awareness about reproductive rights, I have come to realize that even subtle pronatalist pressures are enormously powerful in shaping women’s life paths and self-esteem. I grew up in India, the second most populated country in the world, where cultural expectations that women will procreate are overpowering. But even in the so-called “industrialized” world, there is no escaping the pressures to have children even when it is not what we truly desire.
These pressures are the water in which we swim, so ubiquitous that for many of us, it’s difficult to even discern what we truly desire. People make their “voluntary” reproductive choices in a cultural and institutional context that constrains them not to remain single, not to choose a child-free path, not to bear only one child, not to have elective sterilization, not to experience ambivalence or regret about choosing parenthood, and to only choose biological parenthood (including IVF over adoption). We would do well to ask what women would choose if they didn’t have to navigate this treacherous landscape.
Reproductive control through coercion has been associated with preventing people from reproducing, especially those in marginalized communities. Coercive pronatalism does the opposite, forcing women to reproduce when they don’t want to. But it’s still an abrogation of reproductive rights, just as forced sterilization programs are. The fight for reproductive liberation must combat coercive pronatalism. It’s just as much a violation of our bodies and our psyches as other forms of coercion.
As an instructor of the first-ever graduate course on pronatalism and overpopulation, I see daily the impact of pronatalism on young people of different genders. When they are offered the opportunity to examine the pressures put on them to reproduce, and to see the alternatives that lie beyond, they experience an enormous sense of relief and liberation. If we truly value human life, and not just in an embryonic state, we must extend those opportunities to all people of reproductive age and break out of the coercive pronatalist narrative that surrounds us.