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Enough labouring over the nation’s wombs

Facing stalled economies and less-than-optimistic political futures, leaders of many countries have been lashing out at the wombs of millions of women. Impotently unable to control their economies, they are desperately trying to nudge up their labour forces demographically.

Listen, for example, to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He has devoted much of this year, when he has had much else on his plate, to a pointless campaign to populate his country's wombs.

"Come, please donate to this nation at least three children," he told party supporters in August. Earlier this year, he explained the logic behind this demand: "One or two children mean bankruptcy. Three children mean we are not improving but not receding either. So, I repeat, at least three children are necessary in each family, because our population risks aging."

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And this week, he amplified it: "Three children are not enough," he told women: "Have four."

This is a moment when Turkey, along with many other Middle Eastern countries, should be celebrating the end of out-of-control population growth. Turkey's fertility rate has dropped to a non-growth 2.06 children per woman, the same as France. It already has 74 million people. This should be celebrated.

As the United Nations Population Fund concluded last year, Turkey's working-age population – which will peak in 2040 even as the total population shrinks – is a "demographic window of opportunity," as long as focus is placed on the employment of young people, particularly women (who are woefully underemployed in Turkey), rather than on turning them into baby factories.

Instead, Mr. Erdogan, like too many of his fellow leaders, has panicked.

Sadly, he is not alone in this fallopian fallacy. Iran's fertility rate has plunged from a terrifying seven children per family in the 1980s to 1.64 today – the same rate as Canada – as a result of urbanization and the education of women. But in response, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spent his entire eight-year presidency badgering Iranian women to get knocked up more frequently, often on spiritual grounds.

It didn't work; nor will Mr. Erdogan's campaign. But these fertility panics can have devastating effects.

Look at China. The world's most populous country's obsession with birth rates has caused immeasurable damage since 1979, when the so-called One-Child Policy was born.

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The policy's name is misleading: Chinese have, on average, between 1.2 and 1.8 children, depending on how you measure, which means there are probably as many families with two children as there are with one. In villages, where the policy isn't as strictly enforced, two children is almost universal. In cities, among those who can pay for the privilege, you'll find a good number of families with three or more. That's revealing: The one-child policy was never really necessary as a population-control measure – urbanization and education achieved that effect much more efficiently. Instead, it serves almost entirely as a revenue source, a tax on motherhood.

Lawyer Wu Youshui recently discovered, through diligent research, that 19 of China's 34 provincial governments together collected $2.7-billion in fines last year from parents who ran afoul of the one-child law. Those fines are negligible for wealthy families, and punitive for farmers. The result is awful: "Village family-planning officers vigilantly chart the menstrual cycle and pelvic-exam results of every woman of childbearing age in their area," Chinese essayist Ma Jian wrote recently. If unacceptably pregnant, they face forced abortions – or they pay a fine worth a couple of years' earnings.

Now, there is a serious movement afoot among senior Chinese officials and academics to change the law – unfortunately, by making it into a two-child policy, which would likely be just as punitive and revenue-rich as "one" child. A report published in August by Bank of America economists projected that this would produce 9.5 million more babies per year – an insignificant stopgap for China's labour force.

The reason for this movement is that last year was the first in decades when China's working-age population shrank. Meanwhile, the pension-dependent population grew dramatically – a situation many other countries are now facing, as well.

That does pose economic challenges. But real solutions involve education, social safety nets and expanded productivity. The short-sighted political solution is to push for more workers, by cajoling them into the nation's wombs.

It won't work, but it will make plenty of women's lives miserable.

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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