The essay written by Petra Bueskens for On Line Opinion, about which I wrote last week, is still drawing comment on that website. The comments are mostly angry, and appear to have been written by men. The women who have entered the lists have been shocked by the vituperative quality of the comments. While some of the comments are so angry that they are not wholly sensible, what is plain is that the issue arouses great feeling. My post today examines why that might be so. The issue is not a simple one.
One theme is that of over-population. Our society has a largely subterranean debate going on about how many people we ought to have in our country. That theme is connected to another: apocalyptic notions that humanity is facing a crisis because human population is on some kind of exponential rise. That isn’t so: on current indications, global population will level out in mid-century to about 9 billion.
Related to that is the ‘baby bonus’, an initiative of the Howard Government, which provides $5000 for the first child and $3000 for subsequent children.These benefits are paid fortnightly over thirteen periods, the largest payment being at the beginning. Those who fear a population increase see the baby bonus as completely wrong — exactly the incentive we shouldn’t have in place.
That theme leads to the picture of women choosing to become ‘breeders’, living off the bonus and the single parents’ benefit, and producing children who must enter our society as deeply disadvantaged, thereby adding to our welfare problems and, in time, to unemployment and crime. I can’t find any statistics that show how many women actually behave in this way. I recognise that any benefit system attracts people who want the benefit but are indifferent to the consequences, but the lack of real evidence suggests to me that the ‘breeder’ picture is largely a fantasy.
Connected to that picture is the notion that all single parents must represent some kind of marriage breakdown, and that society ought to be tougher, insisting that parents sort out their problems, and not leave the rest of society to look after the consequences of the breakdown. The tone of some of those who have commented suggests to me that they have had a bruising encounter with the Family Court system. I do know some men who have had that experience — and for one or two it has become a central focus of their life.
It is salutary to look back and note that the uniform marriage and divorce laws that were seen as such a necessary reform in the 1950s have had effects that were not at all those intended by Joske and Barwick, who had worked hard for decent divorce laws. They would puzzle that reliable contraception, which came into use at much the same time as the new divorce laws, didn’t seem to have had the outcome it should have produced: that people waited until their union was secure, and then had just the right number of babies, who would be brought up in a strong and loving relationship.
That life doesn’t work so neatly is another of the cross-cutting themes in this angry issue. About a third of all marriages in Australia end in divorce, and the figure is even higher for second marriages; almost a third of people never marry, though that does not mean that they refrain from producing children. We are in a different world to that of the 1950s, one in which marriages are not kept going simply for the sake of the children. That is our present reality.
What should we do about it? As I said in my last post, in my view a decent society looks after the most vulnerable of its members: that is what unites us and gives the most disadvantaged a feeling that they belong, which is an important element in maintaining peace, order and good government. At the same time, a sensible government tries to sort out the causes of difficulties that keep recurring. I don’t want a nanny state, but I do expect governments to try to sort problems out. That is one of the reasons we have governments.
I have a few suggestions. First, a general social concern for other people’s babies is not unusual. It is a common practice in tribes, among indigenous peoples, in the Israeli kibbutz, and in large, extended families in our own society. So, don’t cut the income available to parents who are trying to bring up babies on their own; and develop social systems that bring these families more closely into the larger society.
But also encourage people, men especially, to talk about their expectations of relationships. The Howard Government set up a useful website on parenting, and there are other websites that can help. If I were doing it, I would emphasise from the beginning that making a baby is perhaps the most important thing any of us ever does, and it should never be done thoughtlessly or without a lot of discussion between the potential parents. Having made the decision, you are stuck with it, and the new person demands and should get, a great deal of support, love, attention and encouragement. Don’t make a baby if you are going to walk away from it if the going gets tough.
And the government might make a high priority of research into a male contraceptive that is equal to, even better than, the oral contraceptive for women. There is an obligation on both partners to avoid making babies if one is not intended, and it does seem to me that men have accepted all too readily the convenience of the pill. A similar device for men would be a great step forward.