Symbolically, female fertility and sexuality has been a direct target of some of the most gruesome violence during wars and genocide. The oppressor’s direct or even subconscious intention is to bar the survival of cultural and social reproduction. This is apparent in targeted violence towards women that involves brutal rape, some form of mutilation of her sexual organs or, if she is pregnant, mutilation of her unborn fetus. In addition to this blatant war, there is an ongoing “silent war” targeting female fertility: what I call “reproductive-takeover conspiracy theories”.
Reproductive-takeover conspiracy theories occur on two levels. The first is the individual level. On this level there is an assumption that high fertility rates are intentional and premeditated by these populations, perpetuating a “blame the victim or culture” mentality. The second is at the population level, in which nation-states systematically implement policies that call for some form of removal of or restrictions upon a high-fertility-rate population.
In an opinion article in Al-Jazeera, Frank Barat states, “To face the ‘demographic threat’ that the Palestinians posed, the Israeli government worked very hard to make certain the law would always be on their side.” Regardless of one’s politics, it is important to seriously consider what Barat means by “demographic threat” and the law being on Israel’s side.
Based upon U.N. fertility numbers, Palestinians make up about 20 percent of Israel’s population. The current fertility rate in the West Bank is 3.05 children per woman, while in Gaza Strip it is 5.19 children per woman. These statistics are the premise of inflammatory language around high fertility rates (i.e. “demographic threat”).
While there is no doubt an imminent need for population control amongst the Palestinian settlements, the question of how that is achieved is at issue. So far, there has been a lack of family planning initiative. At the same time, the current strategy of tightened policy around Palestinian mobility and livelihood (i.e. the “law on [Israel’s] side”) has also failed to achieve positive demographic outcomes.
There are major issues of overcrowding and increased population density in the Palestinian territories as a result of high fertility rates. This exacerbates other problems, not limited to, but including, violence and a lack of access to basic necessities, as well as a violation of the fundamental right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: the right to health.
Another example of policies formed around “reproductive-takeover” is that of the Roma population in Europe. The Roma (referred to as Gypsies) are spread across Europe, but primarily reside in the East. Although France has received the most media attention for its policy-based, mass expulsions of the Roma in 2010, other countries such as Hungary, Romania and Slovakia also heavily discriminate against them. One part of the highly negative rhetoric towards the Roma population is birth rates.
It is easy to say that integration of the Roma into their French host society is not the nation-state’s problem. But even if that were true, if a country wants to preserve social harmony – and encourage some form of population control – it becomes a state problem. More importantly, the situation is not made better with discriminatory and exclusionary policies.
We must question when others say, “Having a lot of children is just part of their culture”, whether speaking of the Roma, the Palestinians or any other group that has a high fertility rate associated with it. Even though issues of education and access to family planning resources are not the only counterarguments to this gross overgeneralization, the policy environment plays a major role in addressing these issues.
In order to create a policy environment that can address these issues, we must consider the following questions. What culturally sensitive, competent medical intervention efforts have been made to encourage family planning amongst these populations? And how much control do women in these populations actually have over their reproduction?
This is important – the policy environment is vital to helping produce more positive outcomes that allow for reductions in birth rates, better maternal health outcomes, and better allocation of economic resources on a family level. Policymakers must think about these questions when developing health and reproductive policy.