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In praise of a sacred gift of life

06 November 2015

AFTER 35 years, China is about to abandon its one-child policy. Faced with an ageing population and a shortage of their now adult children, the State has decided, cautiously, to permit families to have a second child.

Some years after the controversial policy was put in place, I watched a Horizon documentary about how it was working out. We heard a predictable defence of the policy from state officials, enthusiastic endorsement from Party members, sadness from poor parents who longed for a large family, spite from spying villagers checking on their neighbours to ensure that there were no illegal second pregnancies, and grief from women dragged off for forced abortions.

At the end of this mix of official satisfaction and human misery, economic and demographic figures were reeled off to prove China’s desperate need to curb its growing population. The conclusion we were meant to draw was that the policy was necessary, and it was a tribute to the rationality of the Chinese leadership to act so decisively.

Only now, it seems, the policy was mistaken. The births that China has avoided have left it without vital human resources. Many are destined for an impoverished old age without the support that larger families would have provided. The better off have adjusted to having only one child, and have enjoyed the economic benefits.

Single children are running scared of responsibility for ageing parents. There is a desperate shortage of girls, as female foetuses are regularly aborted, in the hope that the single permitted child will be male.

China reached its one-child policy through rational prediction. An authoritarian society, having adopted a form of secular Marxism, came to the conclusion that the human urge to reproduce should simply be repressed. Human instinct and individual freedom were overridden — and so was mounting evidence that population increase in poor countries tends to level off after economic growth and better education, especially that of women.

Growth and education provide untidy solutions to poverty, but they go with the flow of human desire, not against it. Thirty years ago, India had similar problems to China’s, and they are far from solved, but it has at least a young population longing for a future.

The Chinese experiment shows that policies inspired by rationalist thinking and imposed from without can be the enemy of human flourishing. I do not agree with the RC position on artificial contraception, but the Church’s insistence on new life as a sacred gift, which is not entirely ours to control, has never seemed so prophetic.

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