Dear Guardian columnist: No, Hungary’s family policy is not about “controlling women’s bodies”

It’s about easing the financial burdens on families who want to have children, and, yes, the hope is that couples will have more children.

Over the last several months, The Guardian has devoted moving coverage to the plight of whales on the brink of extinction. A recent piece focused on the sad story of the North Atlantic right whale, which is failing to adapt to changes in its habitat. The “outlook for the whales remains bleak,” wrote one reporter. “We are losing a beautiful beast,” wrote another. 

It’s sad and the coverage was compelling. So I was baffled that the same Guardian published an opinion piece yesterday by their columnist Afua Hirsch who takes issue with family support schemes around the world, particularly those put forward by “strongmen” in Brazil, Poland and Hungary. Whale preservation good, I guess, human preservation not so much. 

According to Hirsch, family support programs amount to “coercive reproduction,” ahem, and even compares it to "The Handmaid’s Tale, the 1985 classic novel that imagines the institutionalisation of fertile women as ‘handmaids’, for impregnation by the elite.”

Seriously, it’s as if these people live on another planet. It’s clear that the author doesn’t understand what’s really behind the new, seven points that Prime Minister Orbán announced as part of Hungary’s family policy. Perhaps I can help.

First, let’s look at some facts. As the reader knows, a fertility rate of 2.1 translates to a virtually self-sustaining society, one that’s able to maintain its population at a stable level. Today, the average fertility rate in the EU stands somewhere around 1.6, while Hungarian statistics in recent years show it at 1.49, up from 1.25 in 2010, but still low. That’s bad news.

At that rate, Hungarians will go the way of the North Atlantic right whale. With such a low fertility rate, at some point in the future there’ll be no more Hungarians left. The language and culture will disappear. As Prime Minister Orbán said in the speech where he announced the seven points, “It isn’t inscribed in humanity’s ‘big book’ that there must always be Hungarians.”

In response, the Hungarian Government is pursuing an alternative solution, one that doesn’t involve immigration, aimed at correcting this alarming demographic course. This complex policy does many things at once: it provides financial support for young, married couples to kickstart their life, gives a helping hand in the form of financial support for housing and home purchase, secures creche places and expands maternity leave to grandparents so moms and dads can quickly get back to work if they want to. (See the seven points listed below.)

None of these measures, contrary to Hirsch’s outrageous claim, “utilise women’s bodies for an agenda that is about anything but gender equality,” nor do they include “anti-women” elements. There is nothing in the law that would somehow oblige women to give birth.

Getting married and having children is of course something Hungarians do of their own free will. This is simply about making it easier on them financially by helping out with the costs that come with having and raising children. And, yes, the hope is that by making it easier financially, the fertility rate among Hungarians will continue to grow.

Here are the details of the Orbán Government’s seven-point plan:

1. Young married couples are now eligible to apply for a 10 million HUF childbearing loan with a discounted interest rate.

2. The family home ownership subsidy program, known as CSOK, will be expanded to include used homes as eligible for the financial subsidy.

3. The government will deduct over 1 million HUF per child from the mortgages of young, married couples and 4 million for the third child.

4. Women who have given birth to at least four children will be granted life-long exemption from personal income tax liability.

5. Families with three children or more can apply for a 2.5 million HUF, non-repayable grant toward the purchase of a new car.

6. The government will provide complete creche coverage through the construction of 21,000 nursery places over the next three years.

7. Grandparents can now go on maternity leave (GYED, GYED extra).