The Body Economic

Masum Momaya

The Body Economic

Family, Fertility and Financial Stability

Around the world, women’s economic opportunities and choices have long been impacted by their ability to bear children. Women and their families frequently make tough choices and poignant trade-offs, which are either helped or made more difficult by public policies concerning fertility, work, and social roles. Too often, these policies are driven more by economic interests and national concerns than women’s needs and rights.


Most women, wealthy or poor, face difficult choices about whether, when and how to have children, in addition to social pressures and expectations related to motherhood. Aside from the biological experience of pregnancy and the sheer amount of time and effort needed to raise children, economic costs factor into most women's decisions.

A large percentage of the world's women work a double or triple day. This includes paid employment as well as household and care-giving responsibilities for partners, children and the elderly. Women are rarely paid, financially or otherwise, for care work they provide at home, and few societies provide extra resources--either from the public or private sector--to support women with domestic tasks. Despite this lack of support for the work that arises from having children, governments have long been involved in women's choices about childbearing.

Whether they are dealing with trade, finance or social supports, governments are driven, at least in part, by national economic interests, which in turn are influenced by international politics, business interests and the global marketplace. Not surprisingly, public policies inevitably intersect with personal choices--either explicitly or indirectly. When it comes to childbearing, governments may actively encourage it (through tax credits, benefits or paid parental leave) or discourage it (providing economic incentives to use contraception or get sterilized). While corporations and civil society organizations don't play as large a role, they do affect how easy or difficult it is for women to work outside the home while raising children.

Curbing Fertility

In the 1960s and 1970s, the belief arose among Western industrialized nations that poor women in developing countries were having too many children. Several theories attempted to explain why: because families needed an extra pair of hands to work, because they didn't have access to or information about contraception, and because of high mortality rates. The discussion stirred up fears that the poor were contributing to overpopulation and putting a strain on valuable natural resources.

Beginning in 1979, China, for example, enacted an official "one child" policy, using abortion, forced sterilization and other means to curb population growth, especially in rural areas. Families who tried to have more than one child were punished, and others were given economic incentives to discourage them from having more children (1). The widespread use of abortion to end pregnancies continues today, particularly among migrant workers, who often have limited access to contraception, little or no sex education, and cannot afford to have children for social and economic reasons.

Historically, population control has been a focus of policy efforts in many countries, both wealthy and poor. Many women in developing countries were paid not to have babies and, in some cases, to be sterilized. New means of contraception, like Norplant, were developed, promoted and used aggressively, often without proper information about long-term consequences for women's health. Sometimes, but not often enough, such contraception was paired with education about sexual and reproductive health for women as well as men, and job training programs.

Promoting Fertility

Conversely, in recent years, policy makers in rich countries such as France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Japan and Hungary have introduced economic incentives to reward women for having children. Faced with declining birth rates, leaders in these countries are worried about economic consequences, as younger, working citizens are needed to pay for the social security of an aging population.

However, these new programs are offered selectively. In European countries in particular, where immigrants make up an increasing percentage of the population, governments are encouraging only "native" women to have more babies. For example, educated, professional women can qualify for grants to cover the short- and long-term costs associated with child care, so they can have more children and still continue their careers. Some governments, corporations and large civil society organizations also provide on-site childcare for their employees. While these kinds of solution are presented as "win-win" because they support women's individual ambitions while addressing state economic needs, they are nevertheless driven by fears about changing demographics.

So far, research shows that many women aren't readily taking these economic incentives because, for them, having children is not just about money, but also about how it impacts their domestic obligations, their professional lives and their emotional well-being (2). Even with assistance from the state or employers, most women are still saddled with double and triple work days, especially as they take on more responsibility outside the home. Cash grants are simply not enough to address cultural norms, gender roles, and the challenging conditions under which women are having and raising children.

Value Differences

Taken together, policies that promote or discourage childbearing create a problematic divide between wealthy and poor women--both within the same country and between the Global North and South--because some women's children are seen as desirable while others are simply a burden. Under these conditions, women from developing countries are valued only for their labor and economic productivity as workers, not for their own capacity or desire to become mothers.

While such value differences have existed in one form or another for centuries, globalization has heightened and formalized them into national policy. The recent example of hiring international surrogates makes this painfully clear. In countries like India, poor women are paid to give birth to other people's children--usually wealthy individuals from other countries. The women's reproductive capacity is literally for sale, the "renting" of their wombs made possible by travel and adoption policies that flow in only one direction between rich and developing countries.

Less extreme but still troubling is the large-scale migration of domestic workers to rich locations such as the U.S., Australia, Qatar and Hong Kong. As more women in these countries enter paid, professional jobs outside the home, it creates a demand for paid care givers, many of whom are women who migrate from poorer countries. Often, these women must leave their own children behind in the care of other women-usually elderly female family members-and send money home. Receiving governments often relax immigration policies and add protections for migrant workers to accommodate the demand for this type of care

Women's Needs and Policies Must Converge
While globalization has certainly opened up economic opportunities for both men and women, it's clear that when it comes to fertility, childbearing and women's bodies, there are costs, especially for poor, economically vulnerable women. In the end, whether policies curb or facilitate childbearing or childrearing is not the critical matter; the focus should be on whether or not those policies are aligned with ALL women's needs and rights.

Regardless of context, women's needs rarely inform the policymaking processes in the government, private sector and even in many civil society organizations; rather, reproduction is curbed or encouraged by outside economic factors. Worldwide, women make difficult choices about bearing children, so their experiences should be front and center in policymaking that shapes how families decide the number and spacing of children, how they balance their work and life responsibilities, how care-giving is distributed and how working environments can foster well-being and happiness.

Until care work is valued and shared by multiple groups-women, men, the state, corporations and local community institutions - tough choices about fertility and childbearing will remain at the center of trade-offs that women make.


1. Vanessa L. Fong, Only Hope: Coming of Age under China's One-Child Policy, (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004).

2. Alícia Adserà, "Changing fertility rates in developed countries," Journal of Population Economics, Vol. 17 Issue 1 (2004).

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