Procreation propagandist goes from condoms to IVF
Under the shade of a large tree, he chats about this and that, gradually drawing the conversation towards everyday concerns, waiting for the farmers to mention their children. “I don’t know how to feed that many kids,” sighs one farmer. Now, the man makes his pitch. “No wonder you have such concerns. How come you had so many children?”
“What can I do when my wife gets pregnant?” the farmer says, without realizing where this is going.
“Why, there are ways of birth control...”
It’s 2006. A man is holding a poster that reads “1. 2. 3. Campaign ― Get pregnant within a year of marriage and have two kids before turning 35 years old!” He visits large companies to raise funds for couples who need in vitro fertilization (IVF), or for premature babies who need operations.
And yes, you guessed right, it’s the same man. Today, Shin Dong-jin is the director of the Program Center for Fertility Promotion at the Planned Population Federation of Korea, a non-governmental organization, which decades ago led Korea’s birth control campaigns on behalf of the government.
As population growth has dramatically gone from surging to plunging in just 40 years, Mr. Shin, who used to discourage people from giving birth by distributing condoms or contraceptives, might as well be handing out Viagra these days while encouraging people to procreate.
“Back in the 1960s, having many children was both a joy and sorrow of life,” said Mr. Shin, 60, who started working for the Planned Parenthood Federation of Korea in 1968. When people had nothing, children were their treasure. But at the same time, with too many mouths, they were always hungry.
In the 1960s, it was easy to find a family with more than six children, the size where families became more consumptive than productive. At the time, research showed that for each 1 percent increase in the population, economic growth dropped by 3 percentages points. The Park Chung Hee administration of the 1960s and 70s, which made economic growth its first and only goal, decided to implement policies to lower the birth rate. However, fearing possible resistance from the people, 70 percent of whom were farmers who considered children as a primary source of labor and wealth, the government asked the Planned Parenthood Federation to work on the birth control project on its behalf.
“But it wasn’t easy at first. If you think about Korean traditional values, Koreans believed that one is born with their own food,” Mr. Shin said. “And Koreans had to have a boy in order to continue the family name.” Until they had a boy, rural Koreans kept giving birth even if they already had 10 girls.
“The atmosphere was like I could be beaten to death if I just started by directly telling people in a farm village to stop giving a birth,” Mr. Shin said. The federation instead formed a mother’s association in about 18,000 farm villages around the nation in 1968. The members were wives who could be pregnant, from age 15 to 49. The federation sent officials to the associations to educate and help the residents economically: helping to widen roads, bringing electricity to the village, installing speakers for better announcements, or giving scholarships to children who entered high schools. The federation also gave 500 won (50 cents) to the associations every three months ― at that time the national income per capita was $60.
After growing close to the villagers through the development projects, the officials indirectly persuaded the mothers to give births to fewer children, suggesting it as a way for a better life. When someone asked how, officials explained about contraceptive surgery, birth control pills and condoms.
“But in a few cases, people misunderstood the explanation,” Mr. Shin said. “When I told them how to use condoms, I used branches of a tree ― you know, at that time even mentioning about sexual organs was taboo. One day, I visited a family and saw condoms covering their fence.” When he asked why the condoms were there, the couples answered, “It’s you who said we should cover the branches whenever we have sex.” Yes, Koreans believed in shamanism.
Another time, a few couples approached Mr. Shin and complained that they got pregnant even though they took the contraceptive pills as he told them. It turned out that the husbands took the pills, not wives. Also, even when a woman did take the pills, some only took a pill when she had sex with her partner, or in the worse case, some took a bunch of pills at once rather than regularly. “I explained over and over how to take the pills to prevent pregnancy, but it just didn’t work for some,” Mr. Shin said.
In 1981, the government selected 458 villages for proactive birth control: the government paid 100,000 won to a family, if wife or husband with just one child got a contraceptive operation or a vasectomy, 50,000 won to a couple with two children and 30,000 won to one with three kids. In the 1980s, the government also gave priority in applying for the purchase right for apartments to those with certificates of having such operations. Also, the government encouraged men who attended three-day training for the army reserves to get a free vasectomy by offering them days off.
But the government’s efforts to drop the birth rate stopped in 1989, after the Korea National Statistical Office announced in November of 1988 that the population growth rate fallen to 1 percent in 1985. And the total fertility rate dropped to below 2 percent in 1984.
Since then, the government hasn’t paid much attention to the population, but from 2000, some started worrying about an excessively low birth rate.
“We call the total fertility rate of 2.1 ideal as the population doesn’t increase or decrease,” said Mr. Shin. But as the rate dropped to 1.17 in 2002 and 1.16 in 2004, the government felt it was necessary to encourage people to have at least two children. Reflecting the trend, the Planned Population Federation of Korea set up a new division, the Program Center for Fertility Promotion, in late 2004 and made Mr. Shin its head. Last month, the Ministry of Health & Welfare established a team to make policies for raising the birth rate and preparing for an aging society. The government decided to invest 19.3 trillion won until 2010 to raise the total fertility rate to 1.6. The fund will be spent to help Koreans to have more babies by partly sharing the burden in raising a kid, establishing more day centers and helping women continue their job after giving birth. The government also decided to give priority to families with three or more children that don’t own a housing unit for the purchase right to an apartment.
“Well, some of my friends tease me for the change of my job, from telling people not to give birth to telling them to give birth,” Mr. Shin said. “But the population should be controlled anyway.”
When asked about PINK (poor income, no kids) and DINK (double income, no kids) couples, he said, “I think each person has three reasons to live: reproduction, accumulation of wealth for offspring, and living a decent life doing his calling,” he said. “I think the young couples don’t think the first reason, reproduction, is important. You weren’t born out of nothing. You exist because your ancestors lived and gave birth to a child, and you have a duty to continue life by having offspring.”
by Park Sung-ha