The idea of using birth control to prevent undesirable populations being born and burdening society has been around for a long time. It goes back to the founding godmother of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger, who wanted “More from the fit, less from the unfit,” or words to that effect. By the late twentieth century, however, the job was not quite finished. A new class of undesirables, the welfare dependent, was proliferating.
Enter Norplant, the long-acting contraceptive that would relieve welfare mums of the bother of taking a daily pill and give them a strong hint that, paraphrasing Lady Bracknell, “To have one child without visible means of support may be regarded as a misfortune, but having two looks like carelessness.” As for three… A Kansas legislator seems to have been the first in the US to suggest that states could actually give mothers on welfare an incentive payment to get their implants. The idea of incentivising birth control for the poor is de facto policy in most western countries.
Now it’s New Zealand’s turn. The conservative National Party led government has announced a policy of granting free long-term contraception to women on a benefit and to their daughters. It is designed to complement its policy of penalising those beneficiaries who have further children: “We certainly have concerns about children being born to those on welfare and we see the access to contraception as being a barrier, particularly the cost around it,” says Minister of Social Development Paula Bennett (pictured, helping in a soup kitchen), herself once a solo mum on a benefit. Bennett glibly portrays the initiative as a kind of gift for beneficiaries, “so they’ve got choices”. Many agree. Prime Minister John Key has endorsed it as “pragmatic and common sense”, while a prominent TV talk-show host called it “a sincere attempt to discourage pregnancy amongst the most vulnerable women”.
It’s all a ghastly problem, we’re led to believe, this “beneficiaries-having-babies” syndrome. Leading media are worried. The Dominion newspaper, published in the shadow of the national legislature, has pointed to evidence “that overwhelmingly shows that those born into welfare-dependent homes have far worse health, educational and social outcomes than those born into families with parents who work”. The Listener magazine, beloved of middle-class liberals, tells us that some 220,000 children in this country depend on welfare. Apparently, that’s far too many “far worse outcomes”.
The government’s solution is to contracept the whole class out of existence, by providing beneficiaries with free contraceptives on the one hand, while penalising them financially if they don’t use them effectively. It is difficult in all of this to see what the “choices” are that Bennett speaks of. Of course, it’s well-known that Maori and Pacific Island communities dominate New Zealand’s unemployment statistics, so it is no wonder that the Maori Associate Minister of Social Development, Tariana Turia, has reacted strongly. Perhaps she detects the insidious form of Kiwi-style eugenics the initiative espouses — a baby born in upmarket Ponsonby is a valuable New Zealand citizen, a baby born in working-class Porirua is some beneficiary’s contraceptive failure.
It all has that “just enough of me – way too many of you” whiff to it, a sanctimony aptly attributed to the UNFPA in PJ O’Rourke’s 90’s bestseller, All the trouble in the World: “Going around the poor parts of the world shoving birth control pills down people’s throats… is to assume that those people don’t want babies as much as we do, that they won’t like those babies as well as we like ours, and that little brown and yellow babies are not as good as the adorable, pink, rich kind.” It seems they are just not producing enough Ernest Rutherfords or Jane Campions in Rotorua.
If eugenics isn’t alarming enough, there’s demography and the economy to consider. Although we are one of the few developed countries to have near-replacement level fertility (with a TFR of 2.07) we suffer a net migration loss of one New Zealander every 2 hours, 47 minutes, and some 50,000 Kiwis leave the country each year, many of them young, many headed to Australia. And there are barely 4.4 million of us, all up. We abort on average 16,000 children each year (that’s 160,000 per decade). And by the 2030s, one in four New Zealanders will be aged over 65 years (compared with almost one in ten in 2005) while our population growth will be slowing. Who’s going to be around then to support John Key and PC talk-show hosts and their generation?
It’s not the time to have cynical, eugenically-driven government contraception drives when our country is inexorably headed towards a crisis involving a scarcity of children relative to a burgeoning elderly population. New Zealanders instead need to wake up to the reality that people are the world’s greatest resource, and that we need more of them. Tariana Turia certainly sees it that way: “I’ve always supported the growing of our population, the growing of our hapu and iwi and so I’m certainly not one who’s ever believed that we should be controlling people’s fertility.”
It’s a no-brainer. History shows that people of all socio-economic conditions build countries, societies, cultures, political systems and economies. Mr Key and Ms Bennett are hardly the ones to tell us they don’t, seeing they’re both successful products of the very welfare system they now seek to eugenically modify. Only last August our Prime Minister Mr Key told the country (in a speech on building a more effective welfare system), “I believe very strongly in the welfare state. When I was growing up, my mother was on the widow’s benefit for a time and we lived in a state house. I’m really grateful for the opportunities the welfare state gave me.” Key is living proof that a country that cares about its needy children – rather than coercing their parents to stop having them — produces great success stories. No doubt many other successful Kiwis – and not a few All Blacks, Super 14 rugby players and Warriors — would agree.
It’s at times like this our Prime Minister would be well advised to borrow a little wisdom from the old Maori adage, He aha te mea nui? He tangata. He tangata. He tangata. “What is the most important thing? It is people, it is people, it is people.” As the low fertility countries of Europe head towards demographic and economic oblivion, the one thing our government should not do is tell any New Zealander to stop having kids.
Richard McLeod is an Immigration & Human Rights Lawyer based in Auckland.