Fertility as a tool

In the novel of the handmaid’s tale, there shows up a class of women kept for reproductive purposes and known as “handmaids” by the ruling class in an era of declining births due to sterility. And in the movie children of men, the primary plot in the novel has been changed from men’s sterility to women’s. I don’t know why it changes in this way, but I can really feel that this makes the movie be settled in a more hopeless situation because women are those who are expected to produce new lives. Although this happens just in a movie or a novel, we still can capture that fertility is truly treated as one of women’s important “function” in the society.

As we saw in the movie and the book, infertility may cause social disorder, because the basic social unit – family loses its utility. The primary function of the family is to ensure the continuation of society, both biologically through procreation, and socially through socialization [1]. So, it is easy to infer that women’s fertility “function” can be taken advantage by ruling classes to ensure social stability, like birth control policy. In China, to prevent the huge burden on resources and to release the productivity of a family, we used to encourage every family just have one child. Nowadays, aging problems become more urgent, we start to adjust the policy that two children can be accepted in a family. The core of the population policy is based on the control of women’s fertility.

Although birth control often be criticized as violation of human rights, there are voices that birth control is helpful for gender equality. Pande et al take Indian state of Tamil Nadu as the case to analyze the relationship between fertility decline, and changes in women’s lives, gender equality and gender relations [2]. Their results show that following fertility decline, women’s lives have improved in the realms of higher education, marriage spousal choice, and – to some extent – employment opportunities.

While the wage gap between men and women is still significant (particularly for women of color) and must be addressed, access to birth control has helped narrow the gap. The decrease in the gap among 25–49-year-olds between men’s and women’s annual incomes “would have been 10 percent smaller in the 1980s and 30 percent smaller in the 1990s” in the absence of widespread legal birth control access [3]. College enrollment was 20 percent higher among women who could access the birth control legally by age 18 in 1970. And young women’s legal access to the pill before age 21 led to a significant (2.3 percent) increase in the women who were college graduates, and young women with legal pill access were able to both have children and pursue higher education [4].

According to Pande’s study, gender inequality also has decreased in education and employment. However, these changes have yet to lead to notable shifts in societal gender relations and norms, as manifested in marriage practices, dowry, and intimate partner violence.

In turn, we are wondering that if gender equality will be realized one day, would women prefer to have more children?

[1] “The Functions of a Family.” Boundless Sociology. Boundless, 26 May. 2016. https://www.boundless.com/sociology/textbooks/boundless-sociology-textbook/family-12/family-91/the-functions-of-a-family-520-2156/

[2] Pande, Malhotra, Namy. (2012). Decline and Changes in Women’s Lives and Gender Equality in Tamil Nadu, India. International Center for Research on Women http://www.icrw.org/publications/fertility-decline-and-changes-women%E2%80%99s-lives-and-gender-equality-tamil-nadu-india-0

[3] Martha et al. (2012). The Opt-In Revolution? Contraception and the Gender Gap in Wages. NBER Working Paper, No. 17922.

[4] Elizabeth, Hungerman. (2012). The Power of the Pill for the Next Generation: Oral Contraception’s Effects on Fertility, Abortion, and Maternal and Child Characteristics. Economics and Statistics, 94(1): 37–51.


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