One of the features of campaigning is the meet-the-candidates event. As an opportunity to present policies to the voter, they aren’t the best vehicle but still serve a useful purpose. The problem is that there are too many candidates and too little time to really debate issues or to counter points put across by an opponent.
So at a meeting in Hamilton last week, it was really frustrating to hear a couple of the candidates talk about teenage pregnancy without getting the chance to respond. The Conservative Party candidate told us that we have a system that rewards teenagers for getting pregnant. Great. What she didn’t give us was an alternative policy. I presume this was the standard attack on the benefit for sole parents. I’ve heard this framing before – that it’s just encourages women to get pregnant.
Which is nonsense, because pregnancy can be a pretty exhausting and painful process and raising children is no piece of cake either. In no way does the benefit cover the financial costs of having children, let along the non-financial costs. I often think that there is actually no rational case that can be made for having children, other than a general survival of the species one ie it doesn’t generally make rational sense for the individual, though society won’t survive unless individuals choose to have children. The having of children tends to be more of an emotional decision rather than a rational one.
But I digress. The problem I have with the framing of the benefit being an incentive to reproduce is this: even if we accept that argument (and I don’t), what exactly is the alternative? We remove the benefit and then teenage pregnancies will suddenly stop? On this particular evening, the ACT party candidate chimed in with some kind of vague historical perspective of the shame attached to teenage pregnancies in the past being some kind of barrier.
That seems to be a bit of a revision of history. If we go back into history, and not too far back either, getting married at seventeen, eighteen or nineteen was pretty common. And getting pregnant in the first year of marriage was also common, especially before the contraceptive pill was invented. There wasn’t any shame attached to teenage pregnancies, only to pregnancies outside of marriage, & there was no age limit on the shame attached to those.
But it didn’t stop pregnancies outside of marriage happening. In fact, it seems that they seemed to happen quite regularly. So, in a pre-benefit world, what would happen to women who happened to women who made the mistake of getting pregnant? The options tended to be back-street abortions or forced adoptions. Or she could risk ostracism and potential starvation if she chose to carry through the pregnancy and raise the child herself.
Are these the options these parties want to take us back to? Or are there some strange new options where the children don’t suffer and don’t get taken from their parents? Possibly the preferred option for these parties is forced marriage, because I can’t think of any other.
On top of this, the candidate mentioned above decided that sex education was a bad thing as well, and had done nothing to reduce the level of teen pregnancies. She got some agreement from the crowd as well. And yet, there is ample evidence from the US which shows that states with abstinence-only education had higher rates of teenage pregnancy and that comprehensive sex education lead to far fewer pregnancies.
In fact, the research shows that the more education women get, the lower the fertility rates. So if we want women to have fewer children, then we should support them to get a university education. And yet, I somehow suspect that these parties who frame benefits as incentivising pregnancy are offering free tertiary education as a solution. In fact, they are probably supported the removal of the Training Incentive Allowance and the cut in funding to Adult & Community Education.
The scariest outcome of this election is that we end up with a government reliant on the kinds of conservative values that take us back to the worst outcomes of the past by removing the kinds of support that would be most effective in solving the problems they claim they want to address. The thing that scares me the most is that they seem to be taking us to a place of contempt, a place where it is ok to judge people for their failures and punish them harshly. A place which is the opposite to the notion of compassion I’ve written about before. They take a similar approach to justice policy, an approach that also doesn’t work in that we have higher costs of incarceration as well as the higher costs of recidivism.
There are better ways to achieve positive outcomes in terms of reducing teenage pregnancies, reducing the level of crime and reducing the costs to society that arise from these things. They can be achieved by policies that treat people with respect.
I’m asking to New Zealanders to please vote for parties that won’t return us back to all the worst aspects of the past that so many people have fought to remove. Let’s move forward, not backward. Let’s move to solutions that are positive, progressive and definitely more effective. If you haven’t yet, please vote in the next week.
Anjum Rahman. – I fit into a lot of boxes – I’m an ethnic minority (born in india), a religious minority (muslim), and a woman. I’m a mother, an accountant, a political activist and a feminist. All of these form part of my identity to a greater or lesser degree. most of all though, I’m a rebel who refuses to fit neatly into boxes or to conform to the patterns that people expect of me.