Why we should fear populists like Orbán and Erdogan who want women to be baby machines

 “Hungarian people think differently. We do not need numbers. We need Hungarian children.”

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What are women for? It sounds like a trick question. You might fondly imagine that women are human beings, with the right to full, rounded lives, perhaps including work, hobbies and some free time shouting at the Today programme.

Across Europe, though, an old political force is once again gathering strength. Right-wing populists are pushing natalist policies that treat women, instead, as baby machines. Under this doctrine, the right ones – which tends to mean the white ones – must be encouraged to breed.

On 10 February, Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán announced measures to support mothers, including housing subsidies, 21,000 new nursery places, and state help for families who need to buy a people carrier. Women with more than four children will be exempt from income tax for life.

The trouble with “the West”, said Orbán – implicitly making the case that Hungary, a European Union member, does not fall into that category – was that it relied on immigration to deal with low birth rates. The West believes that “for every missing child there should be one coming in and then the numbers will be fine,” he said. “Hungarian people think differently. We do not need numbers. We need Hungarian children.”

Orbán’s policies might look feminist, but they are very far from the egalitarian ideal of supporting all women to have as many children as they want, at a time they choose, without fear of falling into poverty.

Yes, Hungary has a low fertility rate – an average of 1.45 children per woman over a lifetime – compared with the EU average of 1.58. Like other developed countries, it faces a “baby bust”, having fallen below the replacement rate of 2.1. Its demographic dilemma is far from unique. In 1950, the average fertility rate among all countries was 4.7, according to a study by the Lancet last year. By 2017, that had fallen to 2.4.

Those headline figures mask vital differences, however. The highest fertility rate (7.1) now belongs to Niger in west Africa; the lowest to Cyprus, at just 1.0. Scroll down the World Bank’s fertility rate rankings and wherever the number begins with a 2.0 or higher, it’s a safe bet that the country does not have a white majority.

On internet forums and conspiracist YouTube videos, there are people willing to say explicitly what Orbán only hints at: “our” women need to breed, because black and brown women are. Fears of a “white genocide” have become a staple part of alt-right and neo-Nazi discourse. Orbán, who has described refugees from north Africa and the Middle East as “Muslim invaders”, knows his supporters will see his natalism as an inevitable part of his nationalism.

This unspoken link explains why right-wing populists are so often champions of “traditional” gender roles, with male breadwinners and female homemakers. They see the high levels of education among Western women – in the US and UK, female undergraduates outnumber male ones – as a threat to the future population size of their countries. In this analysis, education makes women give up their natural, God-given role as baby machines and choose to have trifles like careers and economic independence instead. Get them back in the kitchen, and the birth rate will perk up.

Natalism offers anti-feminists and ethno-nationalists a compelling way to connect a constellation of data points whose individual existence no one disputes. Women in the global south have more children, on average, than those in developed countries. Poor Islamic countries have high birth rates. Where increased availability of contraception has allowed women to plan their families, most have chosen to bear fewer children than their grandmothers and mothers.

With cheaper people carriers and income tax cuts, Viktor Orbán is offering Hungarian women a carrot. But when this type of politics takes hold, the stick is always lurking. Restricting access to contraception and abortion is the corollary (even though evidence from the Guttmacher Institute suggests that bans don’t reduce abortion rates, just the number of safe abortions).

For maximum effect, abortion can be framed as a plot by outsiders to diminish the country: in 2012, Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that he saw abortion as “murder”, and “a sneaky plan to wipe the country off the world stage”. In Poland, access to the morning-after pill now requires a prescription, and the parliament is debating a ban on abortions in cases of foetal malformation. “In the western city of Poznan,” reported Foreign Policy magazine last month, “anti-abortion campaigners have displayed graphic posters of foetuses alongside images of Adolf Hitler, with text comparing abortion to genocide.”

Elsewhere, women losing their bodily autonomy can be spun as a price worth paying to prop up the current economic model. On 7 February, the president of Spain’s right-wing Popular Party, Pablo Casado, announced that he wanted to limit abortions to situations where a woman had been raped, her life was in danger, or the foetus was not viable. His reasoning? Spain was facing a “demographic winter” and “if we want to fund pensions and health care we need to think about how to have more babies and not about how to have terminations”.

The truth is that natalist policies are expensive, and produce only modest increases in the birth rate. “I suspect Orbán is flying a typically nationalist flag,” George Magnus, who researches demographic change, tells me. “But I think it’s doomed to fail.”

Personally, I suspect that, like anti-abortion campaigns, natalists know they are fighting a forever war. The point is not to win a decisive victory, but to create a vehicle for darker fears. Natalism is about gestating a feeling that the nation is under threat, and that women shouldn’t be treated as humans, when they are needed as baby machines.

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman, who is now a staff writer on the Atlantic. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.

This article appears in the 15 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The revolution that fuelled radical Islam