Population control’s dark past

Fatal Misconception: The struggle to control world population
By Matthew Connelly, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2008. 521 pages.

Review by Simon Butler

November 16, 2009 -- A select group of billionaires met in semi-secrecy in May 2009 to find answers to a “nightmarish” concern. Their worst nightmare wasn’t the imminent danger of runaway climate change, the burgeoning levels of hunger worldwide or the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

The nightmare was other people – lots of other people.

The self-styled “Good Group” included Microsoft founder Bill Gates, media mogul Ted Turner, David Rockefeller Jr and financiers George Soros and Warren Buffet.

The London Sunday Times said they discussed a plan to tackle overpopulation, something they considered “a potentially disastrous environmental, social and industrial threat”.

Yet it was far from the first time that the “born to rule” had sought to make rules about who could be born. The brutal fact is that a policy of controlling global population means controlling the poverty stricken – whether the policy be concerned with fertility or migration. More than 90% of projected population growth in the 21st century will occur in the global South. The highest birth rates are in the very poorest nations. The same was true in the 20th century.

However, most supporters say population control is a kindness – a benevolent measure that can lift people out of poverty, hunger and underdevelopment.

Cutting population has been put forward by some as a key measure to address ecological decay and prevent runaway climate change. The simple idea is that fewer people will mean less greenhouse gas emissions. Controlling population is equated with the very survival of humanity.

The fact that, unlike greenhouse gas emissions, population growth is slowing worldwide (the UN projects world population growth will peak by 2050) does not seem to sway the hardcore populationist lobby.

In response, other environmentalists say a focus on population is a dangerous diversion from the urgent need to transition to a zero-carbon economy and keep all remaining fossil fuels in the ground. They say population control schemes are not only ineffective but inevitably treat the victims of social and economic injustice as obstacles to a sustainable society.

Dark past

In these debates, few populationists care to reflect thoroughly on the history of population control. But population control has a dark past, which must be taken into account by everyone who wants to put forward solutions to the ecological crisis.

Matthew Connelly’s exhaustively researched history on the population control movement, Fatal Misconception, describes what happens when powerful, influential groups decide other groups of people are “excess”. “This is a story of how some people have tried to control others without having to answer to anyone”, Connelly says. “They could be ruthless and manipulative in ways that were, and are, shocking.”

He emphasises that population control has never been a global conspiracy. Rather, it reflects a highly conservative social outlook that treats other people as the biggest problem.

“In effect, [populationists] diagnosed political problems as pathologies that had a biological basis. At its most extreme, this logic has led to sterilisation of the ‘unfit’ or ethnic cleansing. But even family planning could be a form of population control when proponents aimed to plan other people’s families.”

Connelly, an associate professor of history at Columbia University, has no time for the “pro-life” religious groups who have opposed population control because they are against contraception or abortion.

The denial of a woman’s right to control her own fertility is simply another form of population control. State-run programs to artificially boost population levels are also contemptible.

“No less manipulative were those who were those who denied hundred of millions more people access to contraceptives and abortion because they wanted them to have more babies”, he says.

But his book deals mostly with the policies, influence and actions of those who organised to cut population in the 20th century. Fatal Misconception “is a history of how some people systematically devalued both the sanctity of life and the autonomy of the individual.”

Influence of eugenics

A key actor in this history is the US feminist and birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger. In a 2008 interview with Australian Broadcasting Corporation Radio National’s Phillip Adams, Connelly described Sanger as a tragic figure.

She rose to public prominence in the US before World War I as an outstanding representative of the political struggle for women’s right to safe abortion. She was persecuted and hounded by US government authorities for her pioneering stand.

But by the 1920s, she had gravitated from being a campaigner for working-class women’s rights to a supporter of efforts restrict the right of working-class people to parent children.

In 1925 she said: “If the millions of dollars which are now expended in the care and maintenance of those who in all kindness should never have been brought into this world were converted to a system of bonuses to unfit parents, paying them to refrain from further parenthood, and continuing to pay them while they controlled their procreative faculties, this would not only be a profitable investment, but the salvation of American civilisation.”

Sanger’s shift reflected a political compromise she, along with other early feminist activists such as Britain’s Marie Stopes, Japan’s Shidzue Ishimoto and Sweden’s Elise Ottesen-Jensen, made with the flagging eugenicist movement.

In this period, “With few accomplishments, less public credibility, and little access to policymakers [birth controllers] agreed on the need to ally with eugenicists in every country”, says Connelly.

The influence of eugenicist ideas became increasingly marked in Sanger’s public statements. Connelly records her saying: “I believe that now, immediately there should be national sterilisation for certain dysgenic types of our population who are being encouraged to breed and would die out were the government not feeding them.”

During the interwar years, Sanger played a key role in laying the foundations of a global population control movement.

From the outset, the partnership with the eugenicists warped the movement’s aims. Its prescriptions for the Third World avoided policies that focused on economic development or women’s access to education – despite the proven link between these and lower birth rates.

“But while birth control proponents were quite diverse and usually divided, none took up the cause of women’s education”, says Connelly. “That would have undermined efforts to forge an alliance with eugenicists, because it would only remind them of how contraception helped educated women avoid contributing to the gene pool. Instead they could agree that the solution was to find a simpler, cheaper contraceptive that could be used by uneducated people.”

Population bomb becomes a Rockefeller baby

However, it wasn’t until the end of World War II that the population control movement began to build real influence in the halls of power.

In this period, the wealth gap between the capitalist West and the global South developed to unheard of proportions. But it was also a period of colonial revolution. Strong nationalist movements in most colonies defeated their colonisers and won independence from European powers in the decades following the war.

The unmistakable poverty in the majority world, along with the periodic rebelliousness of its people, reinforced the support for population control policies in conservative circles.

For those who benefited most from the global status quo, population control measures were a far more palatable alternative to ending Third World poverty or promoting genuine economic development.

“In the aftermath [of WWII], one might have expected the whole idea of shaping populations for political purposed to be discredited, considering the ways in which Nazis tried to control reproduction”, Connelly says. “Instead, the cause of increasing access to birth control was about to enjoy a remarkable revival. In the years immediately following World War II it won outspoken converts among the leaders of new United Nations agencies. Tentatively at first, but with increasing largesse, it gained the support of the world’s richest foundations. And it would become the official policy of the largest nations.”

By the 1960s, record population growth rates in the global South were exploited to win broader support for population control. Paul Erlich’s 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb convinced millions that world’s biggest crisis was overcrowding.

Groups such as the Population Council and the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) had already formed but they now began to attract serious private and government funding.

Two of the biggest private sponsors were the Ford and Rockefeller foundations. Oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller III served as the Population Council’s first president.

The formation of this new “American population elite” was the subject of a famous 1970 essay by Steve Weissman in Ramparts magazine, titled “Why the Population Bomb is a Rockefeller Baby”. “In the hands of the self-seeking, humanitarianism is the most terrifying ism of all”, Weissman concluded.

Controllers, not doctors

Flush with funds and political clout, the search was on for a suitable method for population control on a mass scale. In the early 1960s, Western-sponsored population control programs in rural India and Pakistan experimented with contraceptives. But the programs failed, mostly because the villagers themselves saw no reason to take the pills.

The populationists turned to a highly intrusive method: the insertion of intrauterine devices (IUDs) into targeted women. The practice of inserting the spiral or ring shaped IUDs inside a woman’s vagina was widely discredited in medical circles. It was known for causing very high rates of infection, pain and bleeding.

Despite this, J. Robert Willson, chair of obstetrics and gynecology at Temple University, told the 1962 Population Council conference IUDs should be rolled out regardless. “We have to stop functioning like doctors”, he said. “In fact, it may well be that the incidence of infection is going to be pretty high in the patients who need the device most. Again, if we look at this from an overall, long-range view (these are the things I have never said out aloud before and I don’t know how it is going to sound), perhaps the individual patient is expendable in the general scheme of things, particularly if the infection she acquires is sterilisation but not lethal.”

Willson’s fellow obstetrician, Alan Guttmacher, an influential figure in the Population Council and IPPF, extolled the benefits of IUDs in a similar vein: “No contraceptive could be cheaper, and also, once the damn thing is in the patient cannot change her mind. In fact, we can hope she will forget it’s there and perhaps in several months wonder why she has not conceived.”

However, in its broader publicity the population control groups took more care to portray their “family planning” programs as a compassionate way to overcome poverty.

But as Connelly notes, “the most effective propaganda for population control in the period did not threaten or cajole, or invoke poor victims. It played on the anxieties about crime, contagion and mass migration, but without actually naming them. It made people feel, viscerally, that it was already too late, and that they were living in a nightmare.”

By the late 1960s, population control became official US government policy. US President Lyndon Johnson (1963-69) openly tied aid to India with it agreeing to push ahead with a population control program. He said: “I’m not going to piss away foreign aid in nations where they refuse to deal with their own population problems.”

Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon (1969-74), dismissed democratic freedoms as condition for countries to qualify for aid, but “population control is a must … population control must go hand in hand with aid”, he said.

A new phase of population control had opened. And it was sterilisation of the “expendables”, rather than contraceptives or IUDs, that was to become the most used method, with horrendous results.

`War against the poor’

Western populationist groups had been active in India for decades. But by the early 1970s, population control advocates had won over much of the country’s upper-caste political elite.

Remarkably, family planning programs made up 59% of India’s total health budget before the 1973 oil shock, Connelly says.

By the mid-1970s, the Indira Gandhi government had declared the country to be on a “war footing” to stop population growth. Gandhi was open that this “war” would entail undemocratic measures. She said: “Some personal rights have to be kept in abeyance for the human rights of the nation, the right to live, the right to progress.”

Connelly describes the Indian campaign of as an undeclared “war against the poor”. “Sterilisation became a condition not just for land allotments, but for irrigation water, electricity, ration cards, rickshaw licences, medical care, and rises and promotions”, he writes. “Everyone from senior government officials to train conductors to policemen, was given a sterilisation quota. This created a nationwide market, in which people bought and sold, sometimes more than once, the capacity to reproduce. Of course, for the very poorest, with no money and nothing else to sell, sterilisation in such conditions was not really a choice.”

Connelly cites figures from the state of Uttar Pradesh. People from lowest caste made up “29% of the population, but were 41% of those vasectomised”.

Government officials soon discovered that offering incentives and disincentives was not enough to meet the ever-rising sterilisation targets set. More repressive measures became common.

In 1976, the state of Maharastra proposed jailing parents with more than three children who refused sterilisation. The central government said it would not block the plan. In one case, a village in the state of Haryana “was surrounded by police, hundreds were taken into custody, and every eligible male was sterilised.”

India’s state teachers were also brought into the hysterical population control campaign. According to Connelly, teachers “like everyone else could be demoted, fired, or threatened with arrest. They, in turn, sometimes expelled students when their parents did not submit to sterilisation.”


In China, after years of promoting an artificially high birth rate, the ruling Chinese bureaucracy flipped to the complete opposite. It embarked on its own population control program in 1979.

For many years couples has to apply to the state for permission to have a child. One permit from the 1980s said: “Based on the nationally issued population plan targets combined with the need for late marriage, late birth, and fewer births, it is agreed that you may give birth to a child during [198-]; the quote is valid for this year and cannot be transferred.”

Each Chinese province worked out its own system of incentives and disincentives to meet its population control quota. Connelly give a typical example from Hubei province: “If parents had only one child, they were to be given subsidies for health care, priority in housing and extra retirement pay. The child was also favoured with preferred access to schools, university and employment. But if the parents had another child, they were required to repay these benefits. As for those who had two or more children, both mother and father were docked 10% of their pay for a period of 14 years.”

But as in India, population control in China also relied on repressive force. In the “most coercive phase in the whole history of China’s one-child policy [in the 1980s] all women with one child were to be inserted with a stainless-steel tamper-resistant IUD, all parents with two or more children were to be sterilised, and all unauthorised pregnancies aborted.”

Defeat of the `old guard’

As knowledge of the human rights abuses spread, and a determined women’s rights movement arose (especially in the South), the institutional powerbase of the population controllers in the West gradually receded. Connelly cites the 1984 formation of the Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights as an important moment in the fightback. The feminist network of activists “condemned both abusive population control programs and the efforts to force women to bear unwanted children.”

The “old guard” of the international population control movement suffered a big defeat at the 1994 UN population conference in Cairo. Under pressure from Third World delegates, the conference formally renounced population control as its aim.

“The great tragedy of population control, the fatal misconception, was to think that one could know other people’s interests better than they know it themselves”, Connelly concludes. “But if the idea of planning other people’s families is now discredited, this very human tendency is still with us. The essence of population control, whether it targeted migrants, the ‘unfit’, or families that seemed either too big or too small, was to make rules for other people without having to answer to them.

``It appealed to the rich and powerful because, with the spread of emancipatory movements and the integration of markets, it began to appear easier and more profitable to control populations than to control territory. That’s why opponents were correct in viewing it as another chapter in the unfinished history of imperialism.”

Connelly ends his history with a call for a “commitment to reproductive freedom, not just a fear of the future … [the future] must be both pro-life and pro-choice, combining forces to oppose population control of any kind.”

[Simon Butler writes for the Australian socialist newspaper, Green Left Weekly. He is a climate change activist and a member of the Socialist Alliance.]



Wednesday, November 18, 2009

When the system fails people, the bourgeoisie instinctively responds by blaming those people for being inadequate and supernumerary to the system's requirements. During the 1980s, when there was a wave of anger and horror over the famines needlessly blighting parts of the African continent, it was a polemical commonplace to blame overpopulation. Today, a disaster known euphemistically as 'climate change' threatens the lives of millions, particularly the poorest millions. Predictably, there are those for whom the problem is too many people. In May this year, it was reported that a select coterie of billionaires - including Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and George Soros - was teaming up to combat overpopulation. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is already committing some of the immense wealth appropriated by Bill through his career in stolen software to tackling the problem. (Don't bother mulling over the quantity of CO2 emissions that were needlessly generated by the excess of production, retail and consumption entailed by Microsoft's practises of planned obsolescence. That's philanthropy for you.)

Now one is increasingly likely to hear from a British think-tank that has been getting in all the newspapers, called the Optimum Population Trust. Some of its leading members are also connected to the racist think-tank Migration Watch, whose bogus statistics are used in immigrant-bashing tabloid eristics. The OPT wants to return population levels in the UK to those pertaining in the Victorian era, before modern hygeine and medicine stopped wiping out the labouring classes. The optimum world population, it says, could be as low as 2.7bn. Its most vociferous champions, including such distinguished individuals as James Lovelock and Sir David Attenborough, assert that the ecological crisis is the flip-side to a population crisis.

In one of its efforts to frighten people into accepting its bizarre conclusions, the OPT says that if population continues to grow at its present rate, then by 2300 it will reach 134 trillion. This is an opportune moment to wheel out the old chestnut about insurmountable horseshit (cited here). It was a commonplace in the 19th Century that if horse-drawn traffic continued to increase at its then current rate, the ordure would eventually pile up several storeys high in New York, London and other major cities. (You can insert your own warmed over horseshit joke here). There are many lessons you can draw from the parable of the horse apples, but one is that just because a trend can be extrapolated from to reach an absurd conclusion doesn't mean that the extrapolation is trustworthy. There may be some important data that is excluded from the extrapolation. As George Monbiot has pointed out, the UN expects the world's population to stabilise at around 10bn by 2200, because the trend is for population growth to stop at a certain limit.

Today, the OPT was once more given television and newspaper spots to comment on a new United Nations report some of whose conclusions seem to abet its crazy eco-malthusianism. It would be ridiculous to blame the UN for the way debates over its reports are framed by the media (unless it courts such a reading). But, for example, C4 News tonight chose to focus on the claim that slower population growth would help slow climate change, citing statistics that claim a difference of a billion people is equal to a difference of 1-2bn tonnes of carbon per year. There followed an insultingly poor 'debate' in which Simon Ross of the OPT squared off against Caroline Boin of the International Policy Network, a corporate lobby group opposed to restrictions on profit-making activities (of course, the nature of neither group represented was explained to the viewer). The OPT is understandably cheered up by this report, with Ross glibly asserting that more people equals more mouths and a greater carbon footprint. The glaring flaw in this argument, which I'm sure immediately occurred to most LT readers, is that population is growing most where carbon emissions are least.

The highest population growth rates are in countries such as Liberia, Niger, Uganda, Eritrea, Afghanistan, etc etc - precisely the countries where carbon dioxide emissions per capita are very low and generally close to zero. Those countries which produce most carbon emissions per capita are a cluster of relatively rich Middle Eastern countries such as Qatar, which don't have especially high population growth rates, and the late capitalist economies of Europe and North America, where politicians tend to argue that there is inadequate population growth to sustain existing social security safety nets.

To quote Monbiot again:

Between 1980 and 2005, for example, Sub-Saharan Africa produced 18.5% of the world’s population growth and just 2.4% of the growth in CO2. North America turned out 4% of the extra people, but 14% of the extra emissions. Sixty-three per cent of the world’s population growth happened in places with very low emissions.
What is driving 'climate change' is a particular kind of economic activity, not population growth. Lifestyles are important too. Those sported by the richest tend to exploit and run down our environmental life support systems the hardest. The carbon footprint of a multi-billionaire philanthropist is certain to be dozens of times higher than that of an African labourer. To put it one way, Bill Gates will emit more CO2 jetting to conferences on population growth than a coltan miner in the DRC will in is entire lifespan. So maybe Bill and Melinda shouldn't have any fucking kids. And, by the way, Bill needs that coltan miner, and the genocidal armies who ensure that the ore is delivered to western corporations such as Microsoft, so he shouldn't really get lippy about population growth.

All of the above is perfectly obvious and could be worked out without the aid of a degree in one of the physical sciences. All that is required is a simple inference, based on well-known facts about the distribution of population growth and about the sources of carbon emissions. So, why are we still stuck with these kooky theories? There is obviously an element of ideological legerdemain, particularly when the rich start lecturing the poor on family planning. And corporate PR machines are very adept at muddying waters. But more fundamentally, I fear, it is that the capitalist media is constitutionally incapable of dealing with the issue of environmental disaster seriously, and of grappling with the profound issues raised by it. There is such a blind-spot about any issue that has systemic implications that it can only be approached through such contrived controversies, which are then furiously argued over for five minutes before the advertisements for cheap airlines.

Overpopulation isn't just an economic problem. Especially in 3rd World-Countries where resources are scarce or let's say in the hands of a few, poverty results in children-rich families. That increases the chances that one of them survives, the shotgun way. So instead of lecturing these families may we should help them get out of poverty.


Great article and responses. But, as usual, short on answers.

Unfortunately, there exists a complete avoidance of those that carry the voice of the non-human world. This avoidance is noticeable in both camps: the population control advocates, and those against. As a result we get informed on discussions, like the ones above, on why we should question the motives of the rich but no discussion on what we do about the fact the systems, we (rich and poor alike) depend on for survival, are collapsing as we speak.

To believe we can just sit around and wait 'till population numbers stabilize is homocentricity at its worst.

The most obvious solution is a massive, world-wide education program, but the problem with that approach is that the rich control the media and thus influence popular thinking of those who do the most ecosystem damage. So humanity is caught between a rock and a hard place.

There is a glimmer of hope. Increasingly we are seeing groups that advocate ecocentric thinking. These are folks that see the world not only as a place for humans, where humans have "rights", but a place for trees, fish and intact ecosystems, that also have rights.


Thanks for the information. Good article and comments. I wish someone had the answer to the problem, but it's good to stir some thought. And I totally agree with this from a previous post:

"There is a glimmer of hope. Increasingly we are seeing groups that advocate ecocentric thinking. These are folks that see the world not only as a place for humans, where humans have "rights", but a place for trees, fish and intact ecosystems, that also have rights."


It is various religions and patriarchal cultures that have stolen women's knowledge and desires to limit the size of their families. There are herbal abortive remedies and if we could only reverse the centuries of church and society dogma in order for the natural equilibrium to return without the threat of sterilisation but with the help of abortion if needed. I would predict that some women would stop at one child though three would be more common. Pressure on women to bear huge families is still common on this planet and really it should stop.