By Daniel James
June 16th, 2020
Politicians and pundits of all kinds are in agreement that the current birth rate in most industrialised countries is below replacement level, the number required to maintain the population. Accounting for mishaps and variations such as child mortality, this level is generally considered in Western societies to be only slightly higher than the number of males plus the number of females, or about 2.1 children per woman.
What is far from agreed is whether Western population decline is good or bad, in a global context of continuing population growth; and if this decline is considered problematic, what the causes and remedies might be. Jenny Brown tackles the question from the point of view of a feminist labour organiser working in the United States of America, in the particular context of a free market economy with minimal state support for new parents and an influential anti-abortion lobby.
Brown’s key point is that the debate over women’s reproductive rights is fundamentally economic, rather than religious or ethical. Birth rates must be sustained to provide workers and soldiers, in order to maintain economic power, while ensuring that wages are kept down. This point might explain why a president who apparently becomes emotional when talking about innocent babies is more than willing to launch a missile strike against a civilian area in some other country.
The origin of current anti-abortion legislation in the United States is traced to the Comstock bill in 1873, when a nation depleted by a vicious civil war could not grow quickly enough, for some, without larger families. Not only abortifacient drugs, but contraceptives and literature on how to use them were made illegal. Brown makes the link between population growth and economic growth straightforward, but also points out that the USA’s tried-and-tested solution of mass economic immigration is now problematic for politicians pandering to a fearful base.
The book skips over, rather too quickly, the links between eugenic movements of the early 20th century, birth control campaigners, and white supremacists. A difficulty with recruiting historical personalities for a particular standpoint, in our time of highly polarised debate, is the selective use of evidence. We routinely ignore uncomfortable facts to claim a hero or heroine for our point of view, who must be entirely good and without blemish.
However, it is a matter of record that Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger was an avowed eugenicist, who could not be recognised as a feminist today, except perhaps in an alt-right caricature of feminism as authoritarian ideology. For instance, Sanger advocated in the April 1932 edition of the publication ‘Birth Control Review’ that men and women refusing sterilisation should be forced to work in segregated agricultural labour camps. Not only the disabled, but sex workers, drug users and anyone else deemed ‘unfit’ had no reproductive rights, in Sanger’s view. They could be compelled to work through the chaos of the Great Depression, though.
That Sanger was comfortable enough with the Klu Klux Klan to appear on the platform at Klan rallies on at least one occasion is also a matter of record, as described in the first edition of Sanger’s autobiography of 1938. It would be helpful for Brown to dig further into the origins of the birth control movement, and acknowledge the mistrust of affluent white ‘do-gooders’ in low-income and black communities which persists today. Brown does cover the subject of racism in birth control, and the testing of the contraceptive implant Norplant and Depo-Provera injections on poor black women in the United States.
A compelling feature of the book, especially for the reader outside the Americas, is how limited government support for pregnant women and parents is within the world’s richest country. In the United States, giving birth in a hospital costs money, so that a ‘bundle of joy’ might come with a bundle of receipts. This brings into sharp focus the economic pressures on women’s reproductive choices for readers who may be accustomed to government support in their own countries such as universal free healthcare, paid parental leave or subsidised childcare.
Brown’s argument is that women in the United States are, consciously or unconsciously, participating in the titular ‘birth strike’ against poor working conditions in both paid and unpaid domains. Many American women effectively work a double day shift in the factory and the home. This strike, so the argument goes, has brought the United States birth rate of 1.8 children per woman below that of countries with positive governmental support for pregnant women and mothers, citing France (birth rate 2.0) and Sweden (birth rate 1.9) as examples.
This argument is challenged by the book’s simultaneous demand for easier access to abortion in the United States, which might have a negative effect on birth rate of an equivalent but opposite degree. Brown does not draw a comparison with England, which has de-facto abortion on demand, healthcare for women free at the point of use, and paid parental leave for both sexes. The birth rate in England is about the same as in the United States, at 1.8 births per woman.
The English comparison suggests that the gains from any birth strike over conditions for women in industrial societies, if they exist, have a net neutral effect once greater abortion access is taken into account. If the outcome of the book’s demands are neutral, it is difficult to imagine the collective bargaining power that women have in a birth strike, or what returning to work at the end of a birth strike would represent.
Not covering broadly-similar economies in any detail makes comparison with the situation of women in other countries the weakest part of the book. It would be better to read this work as an account of the domestic situation in the United States, and leave any meaningful comparison with other countries and cultures for another volume. A deep dive into the statistics might be required to tease out evidence for an effect of government support on women’s choices, given the vast number of other possible variables.
The idea that non-immigrant population growth is a prerequisite for economic growth may well be the case, at least in the minds of politicians and think-tank lobbyists unwilling to countenance a non-white America. Brown’s book does not attempt to tackle the future of work, the implications of globalisation for industrialised nations, or what a post-growth economy might look like. This is understandable, given the focus of the book, but it does raise the question of whether reproductive concessions extracted from the sustained economic growth of the United States are desirable or even possible, given the limits of the natural world.
Brown’s book is an activist’s polemic, not an even-handed research document. Nevertheless, the detailed references in the book make a useful starting point for any reader interested in the collision between economics, population and reproductive rights. The book is short enough to digest easily, and very readable in style, without the obscurantism of much contemporary academic work.
This book should interest both women and men confronting the issue of parenting, or not parenting, in an uncertain economy and a resource-constrained world. If the women of the United States aren’t on a birth strike, perhaps they should be.
Jenny Brown is a National Women’s Liberation organizer and former editor of Labor Notes. She was a leader in the grassroots campaign to have “morning-after pill” contraception available over-the-counter in the U.S. and was a plaintiff in the winning lawsuit. In addition to Labor Notes, her work has appeared in Jacobin, Huffington Post, and Alternet, and she is coauthor of the Redstockings book Women’s Liberation and National Health Care: Confronting the Myth of America. She is the author of Without Apology: The Abortion Struggle Now.