The government of Vietnam will decide on December 22 whether to penalize parents who have more than two children, reinitiating a coercive population policy it abandoned in 2003. "We are considering an adjustment to our policy appropriate to the circumstances of the country," Truong Thi Mai, chair of Vietnam's Parliamentary Committee of Social Affairs, confirmed on Saturday. "The Parliament Standing Committee will decide the week after next." Ms. Mai, a leading figure in the government debate who sits on the influential Standing Committee, was attending a weekend conference of the Asian Forum of Parliamentarians on Population and Development in Hanoi. She declined to provide details of the proposed policy adjustment, but said it was brought about by continuing poverty in rural areas associated with families with more than two children. Asked whether the policy would violate the principles of family planning voluntarism, an approach that Vietnam government representatives agreed to at the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development in 1994, Ms. Mai responded that the government "has consulted all international laws to which Vietnam is a party" and had discussed the proposed policy change with the United Nations Population Fund. The 1994 agreement lacks the status of international law. UN sources confirmed that discussion and characterized the initiative as a return of population policy influence by government forces who believe Vietnam's decline in fertility - it fell from 3.8 children per woman in 1989 to less than 2.1 today - is among its greatest social successes. The fertility rate has not risen significantly in recent years, but some Vietnamese officials nonetheless fear that a population "boomlet" may be occurring. If approved, the new policy would impose fines on parents for any third and higher-order children, the UN sources said. Government officials and parliamentarians are already required to have no more than two children, risking advancement or continued service if they have more. Initiation of the proposed new policy may also reflect the recent breakup of what had been a ministry devoted to population, maternal health, and child welfare, according to the UN sources. These three functions have since been split into three departments and divided among ministries, weakening the influence of former ministry officials committed to family planning voluntarism. The Vietnamese two-child population policy had been in effect in the 1990s and until 2003, when - in part due to international pressure against coercive family planning policies - it was replaced with a policy encouraging a "small-family norm" throughout the country. Reinstatement of the two-child policy would be reminiscent of the longstanding one-child population policy of China, Vietnam's northern neighbor, which requires that most parents have no more than one child or face fines or other penalties. Despite this policy, China's fertility averages around 1.8 children per woman, indicating widespread exceptions to or evasions of the policy. Vietnam's fertility rate rose slightly around the time its two-child policy was relaxed in 2003, but demographers judge the increase insignificant and doubt it stemmed from relaxation of the policy. The fertility rate has since fallen back to 2.1 or slightly lower, according to UN sources. Fertility rates that stay consistently at two children per woman allow a population eventually to stop growing in the absence of significant net immigration. Most eastern Asian countries have experienced rapid fertility decline in recent decades, to roughly two children or fewer, due to the increasing popularity of small families and improved access to family planning services in the region. ---------- Robert Engelman is Vice President for Programs at the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research organization based in Washington, D.C. He is the author of More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want.