Sat, Aug 05, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Lie back and think of Taiwan, baby

A 15-year-old girl hides her pregnancy from her family and gives birth to a stillborn infant, then throws the corpse out the window of a high-rise apartment, hoping that no one will know it is hers. But she is caught -- and sentenced to nine months in detention for attempting to "conceal a birth."

This tragic tale comes from Hong Kong, not Taiwan, and for that we can be grateful. The tortured logic in the verdicts of some of Taiwan's judges can seem bizarre at times, but it is surely unlikely -- even with the sexism that remains in the nation's judiciary -- that a decision as overtly misogynist and despicable as the Hong Kong court handed down this week would be replicated here. It would appear Taiwan's feminist movement is sufficiently broad such that at least some within it would stand up for a child who should be treated with sympathy and care -- not the murderer of a human being that did not die by her hand.

The Hong Kong case -- with its overtones of state ownership of the womb -- serves as a timely counterpoint to the latest feeble calls by Taiwanese officials for young women to have more babies.

Over the years health authorities have expressed concern over the steady increase in the average marrying age and declining birth rates, as if these represented a lack of filial piety on the part of the woman. But these are features of a society that is becoming more wealthy, better educated and more individualistic; in short, a society in which women take more control over their lives and have the ability to choose when to start a family and with whom.

The result of such empowerment is the acceleration of the graying of society, though there are other factors that contribute to this, such as improved and universal healthcare. Faced with the long-term challenge of an elderly demographic with fewer adult children and less money to care for it, governments the world over have responded by appealing to the maternal instincts of women who would rather be doing other things. This is, needless to say, pointless.

The challenge is to turn pregnancy into an opportunity and a thing to be celebrated for would-be mothers of all ages. But there is a lot more to achieving this than sprouting platitudes about service to the nation. For health officials or anyone else to suggest that all it takes to kick-start population growth is an appeal to a nascent nationalism that few young people today feel is absurd -- and futile.

In a country that is making the raising of children more burdensome by tolerating outrageous educational expenses and expectations -- in addition to traditional family pressures -- is it any wonder that young urban women are turning their backs on marriage and family in increasing numbers? How also are young women to support their families if their young husbands are stuck doing military service on a pauper's salary? How can professional women be encouraged to have children when the law offers perfunctory maternity leave and little job protection? And how can any woman think she is being treated like a patriot in the absence of daycare subsidies?

Without any long-term incentive strategy in place, and short of implementing an authentic immigration scheme, the current graying trend will continue. Tragically, the terminated pregnancies that would otherwise help fill the gap could be avoided if only women were given practical means to prosper as mothers and to fend off the bigotry of those who prefer them to stay indoors.

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