Pronatalism gone wrong? Cash rewards, state-sponsored dating, and exemption from military conscription

By J. Y. Lee.

A South Korean firm is offering to pay its workers $75,000 each time they have a baby,” a recent news headline reads. Pronatalist incentives are not new in South Korea; the South Korean government has spent 270 billion dollars since 2006 in effort to promote childbirth and reverse declining fertility rates. Yet the effects of this spending have been negligible: for the fourth year in a row, South Korea has broken its own record for the lowest total fertility rate (TFR) in the world, which now stands at just 0.72 children per woman (against the global average of 2.3, and the replacement level of fertility which is said to be 2.1).

Alarmingly, the South Korean government has blamed feminism and women for this development, and anti-abortion laws have previously been enforced to boost the country’s birth rate (abortion is now decriminalized, though the country remains without legal regulation on abortion). Hopefully it will be obvious to most readers of the JME Forum why this coercive type of approach is morally objectionable; I will say no more about why such measures ought to be repudiated. My worry, however, is that even the less coercive and seemingly lower stakes proposals to boost birth rates don’t fare much better.

Some of the more creative ideas that have been proposed to combat low fertility include one-off cash rewards, state-sponsored dating events, and even exemption from military conscription for men. These proposals on the surface do not appear to be cause for alarm, although we would be right to be skeptical about whether such pronatalist incentives actually work. In my view, though, it does not even make sense to consider questions of efficacy without having considered their ethical implications and resonance with the everyday citizen’s social reality. It would be especially naïve to proceed with such policies without seriously considering the anticipated normative outcomes for those most likely to shoulder majority of burdens associated with gestation, childbirth, and childcare – women.

Take the idea of exemption from military conscription, for instance: the proposal circulated suggested that young men (30 and under) with three or more children may be exempt from the nation’s mandatory military service, which is both long and underpaid. This type of proposal rightly drew criticism for being out of touch with the fact that young men are unlikely to want to have multiple children just to avoid military service, given all of the other costs and complexities that follow family-making. Moreover, this potential ‘benefit’ would obviously negatively implicate women, who bear the toll of childbearing within this highly patriarchal culture both within and outside of the domestic sphere.

That’s not to say South Korea isn’t continuing to implement many other ‘family-friendly’ policies, such as child benefits worth up to 29.6 million won (around $22,100) as of 2024, alongside the highest father-specific paid leaves in the OECD (tied with Japan at around 12 months). In principle, these changes are a good thing for people who aspire to be parents and appear to benefit mothers and fathers alike. But in the context of a rigid, oppressive, and gender-polarized social landscape against which people are confronting reproduction, we should not be surprised that even the most non-coercive and innocuous of pronatalist incentives and policies are failing to convince. Indeed, some have pointed out the potentially negative impact of paternity leave uptake in gender-divisive South Korea as yet another obstacle for the state-backed project of pronatalism.

The problem with these various pronatalist schemes is that they amount to stopgap measures which attempt to instrumentalize people’s potential fertility, without showing people a sustainable way out of the various social injustices that they must continue to live with in their day-to-day lives. For pronatalism to truly “succeed” – both practically and ethically – the abstraction of ‘population growth’ should not be prioritized over and above the real people for whom existential concerns about reproduction and the future are salient.

 

Author: J. Y. Lee

Affiliations: University of Copenhagen

Competing interests: None declared

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