The struggle to control world population
By Matthew Connelly, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2008. 521 pages.
Review by Simon
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
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
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
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.
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,
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
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
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
Population bomb becomes a Rockefeller
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.]