Fatal Misconception: Family Planning and Population Control

Last week I read Matthew Connelly’s Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population (Harvard UP, 2008). It’s a critical look at the population control movement focussed largely on the second half of the 20th-century, and discusses some of the early heroines of that movement, such as Margaret Sanger, as well as the role of major Western-led organizations, such as the UN. It’s well worth a read, even though it gets more bogged down in conferences, meetings, and deals than many will have time for. You can read Nicholas Kristof‘s review of it from the New York Times Sunday Book Review right here, which I’ll turn to in a minute.

To many, the term “family planning” will call to mind individual choice and rational decision-making about when to have children, as well as how many to have. To perhaps others, “population control” will send a shudder down their spines as they recall forced sterilization and even extermination, and the control of their lives by others. The “many” referred to above are, by and large, the affluent, the white, the Western (or all three), while the “others” are the poor, the not-so-white, and the non-Western (and often all three). In the course of the 20th-century, family planning and population control became two-sides of a perceived crisis in the growth of population, a putative crisis especially for The West as they saw themselves usurped by The Rest. Connelly is good, I think, at raising questions about the relationship between progressive movements–for sexual autonomy, women’s liberation, world health, environmentalism–and a series of internal dynamics between (crudely) Us and Them, whether these be rich and poor, able-bodied and “defectives”, or the First and Third Worlds.

Connelly is a historian, and the book reflects a lot of archival and other scholarly work. He is particularly attentive to the connection between population control and eugenics, racism, and imperialism, and in the arrogance of Western-led organizations in the efforts to solve “the population crisis”, particularly from the 1960s. Connelly characterizes the book, in his acknowledgments as arguing “against the notion that our problems are caused by excess people” (p.491), though I’m not sure that’s accurate insofar as Fatal Misconception is not concerned so much with “our problems” but with the development of an ideology that created one large, putative problem to be solved–the population crisis–and the role of other ideas (e.g., eugenics), institutions (e.g., USAID), and influential figures (e.g., Indira Gandhi) in the course that that crisis charted.

Although focussed on the 20th-century, and on the second-half of that, as the “population establishment” rolled ahead full steam, Fatal Misconception introduces 1877 as a peg on which to hang the beginning of concerted modern efforts to control populations. That was the year that Richard Dugdale’s The Jukes: A Study in Crime, Pauperism, Disease, and Heredity, with Further Studies of Criminals appeared, the first of a series of studies, later called “The White Trash studies”, that marked the beginning of the eugenics movement. It was also the year that the freethinkers Annie Besand and Charles Bradlaugh were tried for their publication of an obscene pamphlet, Charles Knowlton’s Fruits of Philosophy, obscene in large part for its description of human sexual anatomy and methods of contraception. Besant was a forceful advocate of both sexual freedom and the dangers of overpopulation, and went on to publish the best-selling The Law of Population.

Kristof’s review takes a more apologetic view of the population control movement than does Connelly, reminding us that yeah, there was all this eugenics, racism, and imperialism in the background of that movement but you know, population control today should be detached from that past:

It’s certainly fair of Connelly to dredge up the forced sterilizations, the casual disregard for injuries caused by IUDs, the racism and sexism and all the rest — but we also need to remember that all that is history. The family planning movement has corrected itself, and today it saves the lives of women in poor countries and is central to efforts to reduce poverty worldwide. If we allow that past to tarnish today’s efforts by family planning organizations, women in poor countries will be doubly hurt.

Three things worry me about this complacent reminder, even if it expresses a truth of some kind. First, “the forced sterilizations … etc.” are not dredged up by Connelly, but an integral part of the history of the population control movement as it actually developed. Second, Connelly’s own emphasis, by my reading, is not so much on coercive means and explicitly offensive ideologies but on the ways in which both “family planning” and “population control” came to govern individual’s own choices and the ways in which they structured their own lives, as well as how institutions and practices shaped up those choices. (He’s interested in governmentality and uses that Foucauldian term in places.) And third, maybe their has been the self-correction that Kristof refers to, but it’s worth keeping in mind that the history that Connelly describes extends well into the 1990s, and claims about the errors of, and distance from, a darker past have been a part of both the histories of eugenics and the population control movement throughout much of the 20th-century.

One thought on “Fatal Misconception: Family Planning and Population Control

  1. Pingback: China’s one child policy, a generation on « What Sorts of People

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