08 May 2012

Benefits and babies

Offering free birth-control to female welfare beneficiaries, and their daughters aged 16 to 19: Is this an enlightened policy that will help low-income women (who may lack full knowledge about birth-control methods) to take control of their lives? Or is it egregious state interference in the human reproductive rights of the individual; and will "offering" contraception turn eventually into "coercing", with a potential threat to income entitlement and work-testing?
I imagine that many women who were planning on visiting the doctor for contraception will now await the new policy in order to save some money. Hopefully none of those will get pregnant inadvertently in the meantime.
A lot will depend on implementation and on how beneficiaries are made aware of this new "entitlement". We should not assume that women (and their male sexual partners) are making "free, rational" choices all the time regarding sexual activity, contraception, pregnancy, benefit reliance etc. The supposedly "voluntary" nature of the "choice" to accept an "offer" by WINZ to take up "free" contraception has been, however, announced disingenuously by ministers, without asking us to examine the conditions of the choice itself.
Contraception is already subsidized by the state, but one has to ask why not make the "free offer" to all women on low incomes (or just all women), rather than target beneficiaries? There is no reason why a woman on a low wage  today (or her daughter) may not later seek support from the DPB tomorrow, if circumstances change. Are women on low wages being disadvantaged, then, by not having the same "free" service "offered" to them? Or, are women on benefits being inappropriately singled out?
The government and MSD will have their work cut out to ensure that this policy does not begin to look like a form of eugenics. It's an old complaint that "the poor and feckless" or "the underclass" are breeding too fast. Given the modern-day welfare system, someone is bound to argue that social rights should be balanced by a supposed "duty" to society to control one's own fertility. It's not far from that reasoning to a coercive fertility policy that could be a breach of fundamental human rights.
The present government's reassurances about "voluntary" contraception may be subject to slippage as the policy gets implemented or as a future government takes another look at it.
Before you know it, the government will be creating a dating agency out of WINZ to marry off those single mums to high-earning males... They could "offer" a free limo ride to the local church.


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