Governments versus Women in Europe

Editor's Note: Today we welcome Rupert Walder, writing from the United Kingdom. He has experience with reproductive health, women's rights and HIV/AIDS prevention and will be covering these issues throughout Europe.

The Cyprus Government recently announced measures that might include paying couples who have three or more children as much as $45,000 in an attempt to reverse the country's declining population. Over the last decade, similar proposals for birth incentives have been made in other European countries—including Italy, which has one of the world's lowest fertility rates. Is this a progressive approach to a (very real) problem? Or is it population control back to haunt us in another guise.

Countries such as Sweden have taken a typically pragmatic and forward thinking approach to the threat of declining national populations by experimenting with models of allowing young women to take several years ‘retirement' at the beginning of their careers to have their children. Elsewhere, pragmatism has been replaced with panic; Russia is one example, where the population debate has given the anti-choice lobby a strong foothold in their condemnation of contraception and abortion.

And while the anti-choice lobbies see a new opportunity to condemn access to contraception and abortion in emotive terms of damaged economies, dwindling workforces and threats to sovereign security, the reproductive health lobby has dithered, not sure where to stand on the issue.

But in the end of the day, choice is about freedom, and free choices cannot be made where there are financial incentives. The proposals in Cyprus are another form of the Indian transistor radios in the 1970s. It is about incentives that support government expectations, rather than recognition of individual women's reproductive expectations and desires.

The stakes are extremely high on this agenda. Populations in the majority of European countries are falling at unprecedented rates. Nationalism—in its various guises—is being supported with right wing majorities. And yet again, individual women's rights are being questioned as out of step with the ‘greater good'. It has always been much easier for governments to question women than it has been to question government policy on women. And easier to offer financial incentives than to offer democratic economic choices.

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