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In our Fall '09 edition, On The Issues Magazine writers and artists address
the politics of feminism, race and a new progressive movement.

The ‘New’ Population Control Craze: Retro, Racist, Wrong Way to Go
by Betsy Hartmann

On The Issues Magazine - Can We Acknowledge? photo ©2005 Lisa Kahane, NYC; sculpture ©2005 Janet Goldner, NYC
Can We Acknowledge? photo ©2005 Lisa Kahane, NYC; sculpture ©2005 Janet Goldner, NYC

It’s back to the bad old days of the population bomb. That was the title of an alarmist book by Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich that appeared in 1968. He suggested that world catastrophe would ensue unless women in poor parts of the world were prevented from having too many children.

This fall’s junk mail carried an alarmist appeal from Population Connection, using its former name of Zero Population Growth (ZPG). According to ZPG, you can blame just about everything on population growth, from traffic congestion, overcrowded schools and childhood asthma to poverty, famine and global warming.

Retro racism and sexism are back in vogue, but now with a bit of a faux feminist twist. Along with the bad news that women’s fertility is destroying the planet comes the good news that family planning is the solution. In other words, you don’t have to feel guilty about blaming poor women for the world’s problems because you can help them improve their lives by having fewer babies.

Don’t get me wrong. I support the provision of contraception and abortion as a fundamental reproductive right and as part of comprehensive health services. What I’m against is turning family planning into a tool of top-down social engineering. There’s a long and sordid history of population control programs violating women’s rights and harming their health. That’s why feminist reformers in the international family planning field have fought hard to make programs responsive to women’s -- and men’s -- real reproductive and sexual health needs. A world of difference exists between services that treat women as population targets, and those based on a feminist model of respectful, holistic, high-quality care.

Contrary to received wisdom, population control programs remain alive and well. India and China have especially coercive ones, but in many places in the world, from sub-Saharan Africa to public clinics in the U.S., poor women of color are denied real contraceptive choice and targeted with long-acting contraceptives like Depo Provera, despite their substantial health risks, in order to keep birth rates down.

Reality vs. Hype, Overconsumption vs. Numbers

The recent resurgence in overpopulation rhetoric flies in the face of demographic realities. In the last few decades population growth rates have come down all over the world so that the average number of children per woman in the Global South is now 2.75 and predicted to drop to 2.05 by 2050. The so-called population “explosion” is over, though the momentum built into our present numbers means that world population will grow to about nine billion in 2050, after which point it will start to stabilize. The real challenge is to plan for the addition of that three billion people in ways that minimize negative environmental impact. For example, investments in public transport rather than private cars, in cluster housing rather than suburbia, in green energy rather than fossil fuels and nuclear, would do a lot to help a more populated planet.

Dollars, not sense, are driving the population bandwagon. Ironically, the main reason for the resurgence is that we have a new Democratic administration in Washington.

After eight years of George W. Bush’s assault on reproductive and sexual health funding, population agencies see a welcome opportunity to expand international family planning assistance. The trouble is that some, like the influential Population Action International, are strategically deploying fears of overpopulation to win broader support inside and outside Congress. Their main tactic is to blame climate change on population growth so they can promote family planning as the magic bullet.

On The Issues Magazine - All Women; sculpture ©2005 Janet Goldner, NYC
All Women; sculpture ©2005 Janet Goldner, NYC

This kind of messaging is intensifying in advance of the upcoming world climate conference in Copenhagen in December.

These arguments not only threaten to distort family planning, but to derail climate negotiations by weakening U.S. commitment to curbing carbon emissions and inciting the anger of nations in the Global South. Industrialized countries, with only 20 percent of the world’s population, are responsible for 80 percent of the accumulated carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The U.S. is the worst offender.

Overconsumption by the rich has far more to do with global warming than population growth of the poor. The few countries in the world where population growth rates remain high, such as those in sub-Saharan Africa, have among the lowest carbon emissions per capita on the planet.

Serious environmental scholars have taken the population and climate change connection to task, but unfortunately a misogynist pseudo-science has been developed to bolster overpopulation claims. Widely cited in the press, a study by two researchers at Oregon State University blames women’s childbearing for creating a long-term “carbon legacy." Not only is the individual woman responsible for her own children’s emissions, but for her genetic offspring’s emissions far into the future. Missing from the equation is any notion that people are capable of effecting positive social and environmental change, and that the next generation could make the transition out of fossil fuels.

A second study to hit the press is by a population control outfit in the UK, Optimum Population Trust (OPT), whose agenda includes immigration restriction. OPT sponsored a graduate student at the London School of Economics to undertake a simplistic cost/benefit analysis that purports to show that it’s cheaper to reduce carbon emissions by investing in family planning than in alternative technologies. Although the student’s summer project was not supervised by an official faculty member, the press has billed it as a study by the prestigious LSE, lending it false legitimacy. Writing on RH RealityCheck, Karen Hardee and Kathleen Mogelgaard of Population Action International endorse the report’s findings without even a blink of a critical eye.

Feminists Need to Rethink Blaming

In fact, perhaps what is most distressing about the current population control resurgence is how many liberal feminists and progressive media outlets are jumping on board.

There’s even an attempt by the Sierra Club and others to bring reproductive justice activists into the fold in the name of The assumption is that we live in a win-win world where there’s no fundamental contradiction between placing disproportionate blame for the world’s problems on poor women’s fertility and advocating for reproductive rights and health.

Fortunately, many feminists in the international reproductive health field understand that contradiction because they see its negative consequences play out on the policy and program level. They spoke out strongly against linking reproductive health to population control at the recent NGO Forum on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Development in Berlin. And within the U.S. women of color activists working on reproductive justice and environmental justice are coming together to critique population control and find a much more progressive common ground than “population justice." As Loretta Ross, National Director of SisterSong, writes, both reproductive justice and environmental justice movements share “an understanding of the complexity and intersectionality of issues that include not only the right to have, or not have children, but the right to raise our children in healthy and safe communities.”

If there’s one lesson to be learned from the current moment, it’s that we have to remain ever vigilant about population control messaging. In the future, population rhetoric will shift from the environment to other areas, such as national security. Population agencies have long found it useful to deploy narratives about population growth breeding terrorism to grab media attention and appeal to conservatives in Congress. Women, especially in the Middle East, supposedly produce “youth bulges" of angry young men who then go on to become suicide bombers and terrorists. Already, prominent people in the population field are claiming that Afghanistan’s problems are primarily driven by rapid population growth and that family planning should be a vital part of U.S. strategy there.

Along with vigilance, there needs to be a major effort to re-educate people about population, development and environment concerns. Many Americans fall prey to overpopulation rhetoric because it’s all they’ve ever been taught. Unlike Europe, there is virtually no education about international development in U.S. schools, and many environmental studies textbooks repeat myths and employ racist images of starving, Third World people overshooting the carrying capacity of the environment. (For alternative educational tools, see Stop the Blame.)

Addressing these issues also means challenging the peculiar brand of American capitalist individualism that continually shifts the burden for economic, social and environmental breakdown from powerful corporations and militarism onto the shoulders of individuals, especially poor people of color. I, for one, am getting tired of reading about individual carbon footprints. Sure, it’s vitally important for well-off people to reduce their energy consumption, but how about the heavy carbon bootprints of the fossil fuel industry and the military-industrial complex? They are grinding us all into the ground.


Betsy Hartmann is the director of the Population and Development Program and professor of development studies at Hampshire College. A longstanding activist in the international women’s health movement, she is the author of “Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control,” two political thrillers, and other books and articles about development, climate change, and security. More information at her website, www.betsyhartmann.com.

Also see “Beginning With the Children” by Eleanor Bader in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

Also see Stimulating Social Change, Then and Now by Suzanne Pharr in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

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