The New Pronatalism: Politics / Economics / Fertility / Care

Elizabeth Gregory
4 April 2024

Restrictive policies around contraception and sexuality aim to increase the number of unplanned pregnancies, which will expand the near-term low-wage workforce of desperate parents.

In a recent essay in the Nation I argued that policies that restrict rights for women and LGBTQ people in the US and elsewhere are related, since same sex encounters are per se contraceptive. In a time of rising LGBTQ identification and falling birth rates, bans on LGBT-themed books, on gender-affirming care, and even on acknowledging gay presence in the community aim to push people back into the closet.  Likely outcomes of LGBT restrictions and of bans on abortion and access to contraception are more unplanned pregnancies, not only increasing  the number of workers 20 years hence, but also  increasing the number of desperate parents willing to take any job available, at low wages, now. Ensuring steady population numbers in future was likely a motive behind the prohibition of same sex bonds all along, reinforced by incentives to maintain the current supply of low-wage workers, often locked into that role through parenthood.

Of course this relates to care—and the unpaid care workforce on which the economy as now structured depends. Increased access to reliable birth control of various kinds (including contraceptives, abortion, etc.) has over the past 30+ years played a key role in enabling significant numbers of women to enter civic life for the first time in Western history. That’s because they’ve been able to delay or forgo births until the point when they felt ready for them, however they defined that readiness. The teen birth rate has declined 68% in the past 15 years, due to improved contraception, among other factors. As a result of these changes, many women have finished their education and moved up in paid employment, achieving a new level of clout. That direct connection has been too little emphasized in recent discourse on reproductive politics. Ending access to abortion and contraception threatens women’s civic participation, bringing us to a use-it-or-lose-it moment.

Women’s expanded presence in civic life and at policy tables has expanded demands for a better care infrastructure, for recognition of care work as an essential contribution to society, and for compensation of that work (through various means) – in place of the longstanding assumption that it will be done for “free.” These demands have spurred the pushback against the reliable birth control that so significantly enabled women’s greater civic voice. The closer women get to making real change in this realm, the more vehement the response.

As many feminist scholars have noted, the work of reproduction (both biological and restorative) along with the development and maintenance of human capabilities,  provides business with smart, cooperative workers. Under the current “it’s your family, so it’s your problem” model, employers pay very little for the workers that families deliver to their doorsteps, and many in the business realm evidently fear that more public investment in care would be costly (thus the endless “it’s too expensive” refrain when universal sliding-scale childcare and such like are mentioned).

This complaint ignores the revenues that such social investments would generate: increased tax revenues, higher family incomes, and long-term improvements in human capabilities. Women’s higher salaries would then circulate through their communities, as they buy things at local businesses (anti-abortion on the other hand is pro-poverty, for the individuals affected and their communities). These gains should make sense to most Chamber of Commerce members. But clearly sense isn’t the only criterion in play in the current environment. 

A bigger deterrent to the business community might be the redistributions of power that would result from policies that make women less dependent on a better paid male spouse, lessen their vulnerability to domestic violence, and magnify their political voice. Gender would no longer function as a work-assignment system, as it has for so long, and with that change the wider gender binary could continue to unravel.

Many other changes would follow if women of all races, ethnicities and income levels achieve equal status in civic life with their male counterparts. Change scares those in privileged positions, because it threatens to reduce their share of the pie. We can remind them, loudly, that equity grows the pie—and improves its flavor.

The increased inclusion of women and people who defy inherited gender assignments will threaten the economic status quo – perhaps even requiring the world to actually enact the democracy we’ve been hearing about for the past 250 years. Issues of bodily autonomy and personal freedom are hugely important to debates about restrictions on women’s ability to control their fertility. The economic implications of coercive pronatalism also invite more attention.


Written in March 2024

Elizabeth Gregory (author of Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood) directs the Institute for Research on Women, Gender & Sexuality at the University of Houston (IRWGS). Her current project, Domestic Product, explores the intersections of fertility and economics.

The cover picture is designed by Nancy Folbre
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

One comment on "The New Pronatalism: Politics / Economics / Fertility / Care"

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    Artie Gold

    Because of shifting age demographics, the idea of increasing fertility levels within society has its merits. Imagine if it were done by making housing affordable, being as supportive of parents in the workplace as is at least sometimes the case in some privileged professions, supporting fractional work that is not career inhibiting and other such approaches.

    Nah. That wouldn’t be an exercise in power.

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