By Jenny Brown
January 19th, 2021
How our spontaneous “birth strike” can give us leverage to win universal programs
For the first time since the dawn of the capitalist system, most of humanity is experiencing below-replacement birth rates, and some countries, such as Japan and Korea, are starting to see declining populations as a result. In others, like the U.S., immigration rather than native reproduction is responsible for population growth. This fundamental shift has implications for our organizing, but it is almost never discussed among activists.
It is, however, a big topic in corporate think tanks and journals. The London-based Financial Times has been ramping up panic with recent headlines: “Demographic time-bomb threatens growth in Europe,” “Italy’s plunging birth rate generates alarm,” and “Falling birth rate creates economic time bomb for Beijing.” In the U.S., the American Enterprise Institute published “Declining Fertility in America,” a 2018 report depicting a row of empty bassinets on the cover. Inside, Lyman Stone frets about the decline in demand for housing and other products, and the alleged danger to Social Security and Medicare caused by an aging society.
Why are these establishment entities worried? Until now, capitalism has depended on population growth as an underlying driver of economic growth. More people mean larger markets and abundant workers, and an ever-larger cohort of young people supporting those no longer able to work. Lots of young people makes it easy to staff militaries. But with stable or falling populations, economic stagnation, such as that which afflicted Japan for a decade, limits opportunities to profit. And establishment think tanks worry about how to fund Social Security without taxing the rich.
Capitalist systems have responded to lower birth rates with three general strategies. The first is to try to suppress women’s control over reproduction and promote traditional family arrangements. Typically we’ve seen blockages to abortion, obstacles to contraception, and low-information sex education. The second route, which had seeds in the 19th century but reached its peak in the 21st century in such countries as France and Sweden, has been to dedicate substantial resources to making it easier for working class parents, and women in particular, to have and raise kids. The third strategy is to import people from other countries, which I’ll address below.
Capitalist anxiety over falling birth rates may explain why the last decade has been characterized by intense attacks on abortion, birth control, immigration, and Social Security. We can counter these attacks more effectively if we understand where they are coming from.
Suppressing reproductive control
The suppression strategy was the original method used in both Europe and the U.S. When birth rates flagged in France in the late 19th century—due in part to abortion and better understanding of contraception—the Pope issued an encyclical in 1869 declaring that abortion at any stage was murder. This was a turnaround for the Church, which had until then hewed to more subtle distinctions, arguing that the human soul entered around the fourth month of pregnancy (or “quickening,” when you feel the fetus move). Before that, while ending a pregnancy might be something unsavory you would need to atone for, it was not a mortal sin.
That Papal clampdown aimed at the world’s largest Catholic country saw parallels in the largely Protestant U.S., which was also experiencing a decline in births, from around eight per woman in 1800, to four in 1900. In 1873, U.S. lawmakers saw fit to outlaw contraception, abortion, and any mention of reproductive processes, even destroying medical texts, through the sweeping Comstock Law. Many states followed with even stricter mini-Comstock laws specifying that doctors could not even discuss fertility control with their patients.
One hundred years of illegal abortion followed. Enforcement tended to intensify when women showed signs of independence and a lack of interest in large families. For example, there was a crackdown on abortion in 1940s following the baby bust which resulted from the Great Depression. Abortion providers who had practiced unmolested since the 1920s were arrested and made examples of in luridly reported trials.
Perhaps the suppression worked too well. The post-World War II baby boom stretched into the 1960s, peaking at 3.6 children per woman, while infant and child mortality plunged due to antibiotics and vaccines. Elites reversed course and started to panic about too much population. Cities grew and schools were stuffed to the bursting point. A rollicking high-wage economy also meant employers wanted more (cheaper) women workers, and they certainly didn’t want to pay for childcare. Comstock-era birth control laws were loosened by 1965. By 1973, responding to the rise of a militant Women’s Liberation Movement, the Supreme Court legalized abortion.
Shortly after the Roe v. Wade decision, however, it became apparent that the long post-war baby boom had ended. The birth rate dropped to 1.74 children per woman in 1976, below the 2.1 required for a stable population. Lawmakers rolled back abortion access by stopping Medicaid coverage in 1977. Medicaid had provided 300,000 abortions a year.
Further Supreme Court rollbacks in the 1980s and 1990s blocked teenagers from getting abortions unless they involved their parents or went to court, and created the many obstacles we endure today: Waiting periods, required ultrasounds, doctors forced to read frightening scripts to their patients, and laws targeting clinics. Now, six states have only one clinic, and a patchwork of state gestational time limits have strangled access. As a result, the unintended birth rate in the U.S. is twice that in countries with good access to birth control and abortion.
Still, the U.S. birth rate has never again gone above 2.1 and is now at its lowest point ever, at 1.71, and the pandemic is expected to fuel a further drop. This is no surprise to women in my group, National Women’s Liberation. When we compared our experiences, we discovered that many of us decided not to have children, or stopped at one child, due to the difficult conditions we faced, including expensive childcare, inadequate or no paid leave, long working hours, and uncertain health care. We wanted to have children, or to have additional children, but the prospect was too daunting.
One member reflected, “If I had free quality childcare, I’d have a kid right now.” Another said, “I thought I wanted to have two kids in the abstract but… it’s like the water is up to your neck. The thought of another kid is just being swallowed up and going under.” We have studied with envy the many countries that have free childcare, paid leave up to two years, shorter work time and guaranteed health care.
Based on our experiences, we formed a theory of the lower U.S. birth rate: The U.S. strategy of pushing the work and expense of childrearing onto families is hitting spontaneous resistance. Faces with a crisis, we’re conducting a birth slowdown, or what Emma Goldman in the early 20th century called a “birth strike.” In her day, legalizing contraception was the goal. Today, both abortion and contraceptive access are under attack.
But people don’t think of our lower birth rate politically. When we want children, each of us blames ourselves for not making it work. We think we should have gotten a better job, or we spent too much (or not enough) on education. If only we had chosen better health insurance, or were better at saving money, or better at managing our time, or had more fortitude.
End of the ‘family wage’
But no amount of fortitude or time management makes up for the withdrawal of resources from working families by employers. For most of the last century, the U.S. labor movement struggled for a “family wage” which would allow one breadwinner to support a spouse and children. For unionized workers after World War II this became the standard. While it was sexist—it made women dependent on male breadwinners and was used to justify women’s lower pay—at least it meant employers were putting in money for the family care job.
As the labor movement was forced into retreat in the 1970s and 1980s, families made up for stagnant wages by sending both spouses out to work. As a result, employers now get eighty hours of work out of a family from which they had been extracting forty, for essentially the same price. They no longer pay anything in for the family care job—it’s an additional job after paid work. No wonder parenting felt so crazy, even before the pandemic made it nearly impossible.
We don’t want to go back to the sexist family wage system. And while higher wages would help, for feminists it is essential to increase the “social wage”—things guaranteed whether you have a job or not—because of the specific inequality women face around reproductive work, most of which takes place outside the paid workplace. A social wage requires big universal programs, like a national childcare system. This could raise labor standards for childcare teachers, mostly women, nearly half of whom are non-white, working in the lowest paid profession in the U.S.
The third strategy nations have used to respond to lower birth rates is importing people. Currently, there’s a split in the U.S. establishment over immigration. Democrats have largely settled on immigration as the solution to lower birth rates, providing labor, consumer demand and a young workforce raised to maturity using the resources of other countries. Among Republicans there is a further split. The employers of immigrants want them here, though of course with as few rights as possible (an example is Jeb Bush’s book Immigration Wars).
A more nativist faction is worried about a coming “majority minority” country and how that might interfere with a system that has worked so well for them in which white voters are lured into identifying with their corporate overlords because of a common ethnic identity. These elites can already see their problem in California and Texas, where people of color are a majority. In California, organizing in Latino communities has turned the state deep blue, raising minimum wages and imposing regulations on business. In Texas, frantic gerrymandering and voter suppression have kept a rightwing legislature in place, protecting the interests of employers over workers of all ethnicities.
Both sides of the Republican split agree: Immigrants should be here to work only, so they both like “guest worker” type programs which bring only the worker, not families, and allow employers to eject workers from the country if the economy turns sour, or if the worker objects to exploitative conditions. By suppressing immigration, this faction aims to increase employer demand for despotic guest worker programs, which deny the vote, labor rights, unemployment compensation, and retirement to a whole section of the working population, and drive down these standards for all workers
Family reunification, which may allow an immigrant worker to eventually bring family members to the U.S., has been renamed “chain migration” and attacked by both factions of Republicans. They argue that family members may be too young or too old to work and may need healthcare or schooling “Extended family members typically do not produce the economic benefits that work-based immigrants do, and they impose far greater costs,” writes Jeb Bush. This policy has become unspeakably destructive, as families are separated at the border.
Immigration policy and reproductive policy in the U.S. have a common underlying purpose. Both are strategies to cut spending on childrearing and family care, forcing families into a crisis as they try to rear children with no assistance from employers or the rich. Immigration policy seeks to import “instant adults,” using the care work done by other societies, and eject those workers when they become injured or old. In this way, employers in the U.S. have almost utterly shed the expense of raising and caring for their workforce. No wonder they rake in billions daily.
What does this mean for organizers? The spontaneous “birth strike” now driving our lowest ever birth rate gives us some leverage to make demands.
But to make good on that we need to end the division of feminist demands into separate “issues” such as abortion, childcare, or healthcare. The Black women who originated the concept of Reproductive Justice in 1994 pointed out how this downgrades the freedom struggle and separates our organizing from our lives: It’s not enough to demand the right not to have children, we have to have the positive right to have children and to raise them in healthy conditions.
We can’t do that without addressing U.S. immigration policy, which seeks to rip the bottom out of our already low wage floor by creating layers of workers who have no labor rights or say in their community, whether because they are undocumented or guestworkers or otherwise disenfranchised. The only way to keep this from lowering labor standards for all is to extend full labor and voting rights to every person in the U.S., no matter how they got here.
Rather than a sexist “family wage,” we believe it’s time to demand, based on our spontaneously declining birth rate, several social wage measures: Two years of paid family leave for parents and caregivers; health care guaranteed to all; childcare that’s free and unionized like the public schools, and shorter work hours for all at the same pay. Federally funded and administered healthcare and childcare systems, with fully unionized public workforces, can bring up the pay and living standards of childcare, nursing home, homecare, and other healthcare system workers.
A non-sexist return to family wage levels would have both spouses able to support a family working 20-hour weeks. Rather than making the school day longer to accommodate work, why not make the workday shorter to match school? After all, employers rely on our parenting and care work to provide successive generations of workers. Where do they think this bounty comes from?
And finally, we should view attacks on reproductive rights as an attempt to take away our right to strike for better reproductive working conditions. Rather than looking at abortion as a personal, private decision and defending it on that basis, we should expose how the power structure is using restrictions on abortion and birth control to extract our unpaid labor.