The convenient smokescreen of "overpopulation"

Reproductive Rights and Wrongs:

The Global Politics of Population Control

At a charity gala for the Tusk Trust in November 2017, Prince William warned that while wildlife population is in decline, the human population in Africa “is predicted to more than double by 2050—a staggering increase of three and a half million people per month. There is no question that this increase puts wildlife and habitat under enormous pressure.”1

A day later on the other side of the Atlantic, Wisconsin state legislator Scott Allen defended banning abortion on the grounds that “labor force shortages are tied to population declines. Labor force shortages are a limiting factor in economic growth. And limited economic growth poses a problem when government tries to pay for public services and infrastructure.”2

At first glance, these appear to be to be two diametrically opposed views on the question of population—one says there are too many people, and the other too few. Yet they share more that meets the eye.

First, both are selective about which groups of humans there are too many and too few of. Prince William raises an alarm about the number of people in Africa,

while himself expecting a third royal baby, who will consume hundreds of times more resources than the average African child. Likewise, Allen is concerned with labor shortages, yet sponsored a bill this past spring to penalize Wisconsin municipalities that refuse to assist in enforcing immigration laws. It would appear that there are too many of some kinds of laborers.

Even more fundamentally, both assume that their concerns about population ought to dictate the reproductive choices available to women. This is obviously the case with the anti-abortion right wing, but this attitude is also expressed by some people ostensibly on the left, especially in the environmental movement.

As we face the growing threat of climate change, the role of overpopulation is presented as common sense, even undisputed fact. “Science Proves Kids Are Bad for Earth. Morality Suggests We Stop Having Them,”3 asserted a recent headline at NBC News. The article referred to studies that found that the greatest impact individuals—at least wealthy individuals—could have in reducing their carbon footprint was to have fewer children. The important caveats of “individuals” and “wealthy” are noted in passing while not dampening their sweeping conclusions.

In this context, Betsy Hartmann’s classic 1994 book Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control continues to resonate. Exhaustively researched, and devastatingly argued, it contends that population is neither the cause nor the solution to our problems, and a focus on it imperils both women’s reproductive health and economic and social justice. Recently reprinted by Haymarket Books with a new prologue by the author, it remains essential reading for those seeking to rebuild a fighting reproductive justice movement— and anyone concerned with the future of humanity.

Hartmann reflects on why population remains such a popular fixation, even as rates of population growth have been in decline since well before her book was originally published. In fact, we are soon nearing the point where the world’s population will begin to level off. A number of advanced countries now have birth rates below replacement level, prompting worries about population decline. Partly, this disconnect is due to the fact that the population worldwide is still growing, even as the rate has slowed, and “many people are demographically illiterate.” But, this illiteracy, she argues, serves a larger purpose for the elites:

Another important reason is that the myth of overpopulation is so politically useful to powerful interests. Elites deploy it to explain and legitimize inequality, essentially blaming the poor for causing their own poverty. Inequality is even worse now than when I wrote this book. The gap between rich and poor has become a yawning abyss, the bitter fruit of decades of neoliberal economic policies, financial corruption and speculation, and dispossession of peasants and small farmers. Overpopulation is a convenient smokescreen that obscures the voracious appetites and power grabs of the superrich.

Since the time of nineteenth-century economist Thomas Malthus, the idea that the problem of poverty is that there are too many poor people has been used to justify inequality and cuts to social welfare measures. In the twentieth century this ideology was weaponized in the form of population control measures, often with reckless disregard for the safety and welfare of their targets, and in many cases embracing racist, misogynist, and coercive means. In recent years, the population-control lobby has moved away from eugenicist appeals and embraced the language of ecology and even female empowerment.

Yet the focus on population as the root of the problems of poverty, environmental devastation, and gender inequality are fundamentally misplaced—and distorting. In the case of poverty, Hartmann makes clear that the problem is not a lack of resources, but their unequal distribution. In the case of climate change, the evidence is indisputable that industrial and military pollution and consumption by the wealthy bear the lion’s share of blame for carbon emissions—even as populations in those countries are stable and declining. Hartmann takes aim at the patronizing language of international aid programs that aim to promote good “environmental stewardship” among the poor, noting, “An illiterate peasant woman in Bangladesh, for example, is likely to be a far better manager of environmental resources than a college-educated professional in New York. The latter probably generates more nonrecyclable waste in a week than the former does in her entire lifetime.”

Responsibility for climate change aside, it is true that population growth remains higher in the developing world—a fact exploited in population-control literature’s “lurid photographs of dark-skinned crowds, starving African children, and close-up pregnant bellies.” Surely, these images suggest, overpopulation is at least partly to blame for the entrenched poverty in these regions. But the population perspective fundamentally misunderstands the causes of high birth rates in the third world.

Conventional wisdom has it that Third World people continue to have so many children because they are ignorant and irrational—they exercise no control over their sexuality, “breeding like rabbits.” This “superiority complex” of many Westerners as well as some Third World elites is one of the main obstacles in the way of meaningful discussion of the population problem. It assumes that everyone lives in the same basic social environment and faces the same set of reproductive choices. Nothing is further from the truth. In many Third World societies, having a large family is an eminent strategy of survival.

Hartmann delineates a number of reasons why this is the case. In many impoverished countries, children are economic assets, contributing valuable labor beginning at a young age. In the absence of social safety nets, they also provide the only means of security in old age. High infant and child mortality rates—caused by poverty, disease, and child and maternal malnutrition—also drive higher birth rates, to ensure that at least some children survive to adulthood. Lastly, women’s subordinate status in many societies and lack of control over reproductive decisions also contribute to high birth rates. Without addressing these underlying factors, an exclusive focus on bringing down birth rates is not only ineffective but, in many cases, is counterproductive.

This is not to say that women and families in the Third World—like everywhere else—don’t desire access to contraceptives and the ability to plan their reproductive lives. “A family planning program designed to improve health and to expand women’s control over reproduction looks very different indeed from one whose main concern is to reduce birth rates as fast as possible,” Hartmann writes. “Women the world over want family planning. This is the story of what population agencies have done in its name.”

Beginning in force in the 1960s, a network of government and international agencies, private philanthropies, NGOs, pharmaceutical companies, population think tanks, and others have pushed population control with a single-minded focus on much of the developing world, as well as on poor and minority communities in advanced countries. Hartmann details the impact of these initiatives with exhaustive research and in-depth case studies of a handful of countries.

At best, these programs have pursued a narrow focus on population control, often at the expense of basic health care and other needed services. At worst, they have involved mass endangerment if not outright violent coercion. In several countries at various points, women and men have been literally been rounded up en masse at gunpoint and subjected to forcible contraceptive insertions, injections, or sterilizations.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) gave the following assessment of such initiatives under the brutal Suharto regime in Indonesia: “The most ready explanation given for the success of the Indonesian family planning program is the strong hierarchical power structure, by which central commands produce compliant behavior all down the administrative line to the individual peasant.”

Even nominally “voluntary” programs are often accompanied by “incentive” or “disincentive” schemes involving giving or withholding food, clothing, or other services. Hartmann observes of such schemes, “For people who are desperately poor, there is no such thing as free choice. A starving person is much less likely to make an informed decision about sterilization if he or she is offered cash and food as a reward. Thus, in practice incentives often have more to do with coercion than choice.”

And rather than being a complement, funding for family planning services often comes at the expense of basic health care and other needed social programs. In Indonesia, for instance, the budget for family planning is twice that of basic health. As a 1983 USAID Emergency Plan for Population Control in Bangladesh explained, “A population control program does not depend on a functioning primary health care system.”

The combination of coercive methods and lack of basic health and education ironically can result in lower rates of birth control adoption, as women’s negative experiences with these programs and adverse side effects of the contraceptives themselves lead them to stop using them. This in turn only convinces family planning agencies to further constrict and remove women’s control from the equation.

Research into and promotion of contraceptive technology has often been dictated by the pursuit of population control and profits rather than women’s safety or desires. Rather than empower women, “increasingly, the implicit goal is to remove control from the woman entirely.” Long-lasting contraceptives such as IUDs, Depo-Provera, and Norplant as well as permanent methods such as sterilization are emphasized over safer, reversible methods in the all-encompassing goal of lowering birth rates.

Third World women have long been used as guinea pigs for testing contraceptive technologies, free of legal or ethical constraints. This same disregard for safety extends to oppressed groups in the United States and other affluent countries. To choose just one among many jaw-dropping examples, Hartmann relates: “One of the members of the FDA’s 1984 board of inquiry on Depo, Dr. Griff T. Ross, recommended that the drug be approved for limited use on intellectually disabled women and drug addicts, though he admitted its safety was not sufficiently proved for use on ‘human subjects.’”

At the time of the book’s first publication in the early 1990s, the Christian Right and anti-abortion movement was on the upswing on the heels of the Reagan and Bush administrations, which enforced a global gag rule on international agencies promoting abortion services. As Hartmann makes clear, access to safe, legal abortion is a necessary complement and backup to other contraceptive methods, and fundamental to women’s reproductive health. The right-wing offensive against abortion and indeed all forms of contraception has understandably made some feminists cautious to raise concerns about contraceptive safety and abuse.

Yet Hartmann cautions against the temptation for reproductive rights advocates to hold their tongue on these issues, or worse, seek common cause with the population-control lobby:

The population control and anti-abortion philosophies, although diametrically opposed share one thing in common: They are both anti-women. Population control advocates impose contraception and sterilization on women; the so-called Right to Life movement denies women the basic right of access to abortion and birth control. Neither takes the interests and rights of the individual woman as their starting point. Both approaches attempt to control women, instead of letting women control their bodies themselves.

What is needed is a genuinely pro-women alternative, which challenges both the population control and anti-abortion positions and which guides family planning, contraceptive research, and health policy. If instead prochoice supporters turn a blind eye to coercive population control practices, they allow the anti-abortion movement to capture the issue and posture as champions of individual reproductive freedom. Such an abdication of responsibility is not only ethically bankrupt, but politically disastrous.

The pro-woman alternative Hartmann advocates recognizes that true reproductive justice means connecting the fight for reproductive rights to a broader struggle for economic and social justice. This is, ironically, also the primary driver of declining population growth. As Hartmann notes, most economically advanced countries have already undergone a demographic transition of declining birth rates, “and this transition was achieved without any explicit government population control policies and often without modern contraception.”

Even relatively poor countries have undergone this transition through efforts to more equitably share resources and combatting gender equality. One example Hartmann gives is the Indian state of Kerala, which has bucked the trend in the rest of the country of both high impoverishment and birth rates. She credits this to policies of land reform, redistribution, education, and social welfare programs. A critical element of their success was the element of popular pressure to ensure that good-sounding policies were not just proclaimed but actually implemented. “Of the many lessons Kerala holds for the rest of India, perhaps the most important is that the foundation of equity rests on the political power of the poor.”

Political power—not population control—remains the critical element needed today to confront the threats of inequality, climate change, and gendered and racial oppression that face humanity today. Hartmann’s book remains an indispensible resource for those looking to rebuild that power today.


  1. “The Duke of Cambridge Gives a Speech at the Tusk Trust Ball,” Official Website of the British Royal Family, November 2, 2017, https://www.royal.uk/duke-cambridge-gives-speech-tusk-trust-ball.
  2. Jenavieve Hatch, “Wisconsin Rep Says Abortion Access is Bad For Labor Force,” Huffington Post, November 6, 2017, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/wisconsin-rep-says-abortion-access-is-bad-for-labor-force_us_5a006d6fe4b04cdbeb34d94c
  3. Travis Reider, “Science Proves Kids Are Bad for Earth. Science Suggests We Stop Having Them,” NBC News, November 15, 2017, https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/science-proves-kids-are-bad-earth-morality-suggests-we-stop-ncna820781.

 

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