Last week, Prime Minister Viktor Orban announced that free in-vitro fertilisation, or IVF, will be available to Hungarian women from February 1 after taking six fertility clinics under state control.
It is one more in a package of economic incentives begun in 2015 to encourage women to have more babies. These include housing assistance, interest-free loans and mortgage loan reductions, as well as being exempt from income tax for life for those with four or more children.
Mr Orban has declared fertility a matter of strategic importance for the country. Hungary, like many other developed nations, has a declining population with the fertility rate at just 1.45 children per woman, well below the 2.1 needed to maintain a population.
One solution is immigration but Mr Orban’s far-right nationalist ideology rejects this as a matter of existential threat to Hungary. “Immigration means surrender,” he has famously stated. What he wants are "Hungarian babies" and the answer is “procreation not immigration".
Free IVF would be a dream for many women, as would many of the incentives Mr Orban offers, especially when women around the world have been pushing for better support for mothers. However, women should not get overly excited by this announcement because they are designed to ensure that Hungary stays supposedly pure and keeps out immigrant blood. Women’s wombs are being politicised for the twin aims of economic prosperity and white supremacy.
There is a clear echo of the eugenics programmes instigated in Nazi Germany when women’s bodies were also used in the service of the state. During the 1920s, there had been significant progress for women in Weimar Germany – equal voting rights, an increase in women taking professional roles and independent leisure activities. However, women in the Nazi worldview were expected to stay at home, look after the family and produce children.
In today's world, there is a parallel with the far-right advocating that society’s problems lie with women not being at home. So, by advocating that women should be having more children, they hit two birds with one stone. On the one hand they use women’s bodies to disguise their racist policies, claiming them as the bulwark against a genuinely serious problem of declining population. On the other, it gets women back into the confines of home.
So, while the issues of white supremacy, the rise of far-right populism, anti-immigrant sentiment and racism are all important, it is just as crucial to recognise the detrimental effects these policies will have on women.
For example, no income tax might be a great incentive for families but bearing and caring for four children is its own job. Who is going to help these women? If they cannot work, no tax makes no difference. If they need childcare to go to work, who will give it? There is already a labour shortage in Hungary. Any additional burdens usually fall on women.
As soon as you start making the issue of having children a matter of patriotism – no matter the incentives – it changes the way "successful" women are defined. Motherhood is an important and very valued identifier for many women. For myself, being a parent is a significant part of my self definition. But most mothers would agree that it is not the only definition of a woman. Having the choice of how we define ourselves and our own success is the key. But the potential fall-out of Hungarian government's measure is that a woman’s status might be reduced to the number of offspring she has. Women who do not have children – either through choice or medical reasons – could be demonised.
There is also a risk in reducing women’s societal role into babymakers, especially when the idea is presented as an act of patriotism and comes with financial sweeteners. Worse, it could lead to borderline coercion of women into having children.
In any case, financial incentives to increase fertility might not work. What could work is creating a better, more optimistic environment. But with these regressive policies bordering on coercion that trap women, it will have the opposite effect.
The measures announced in Hungary are not conducive to building a healthy, prosperous and viable long-term state. Instead, they can the flames of racism and sexism.
Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World