Last month the United Nations announced that we’ve arrived at a human population of more than 7 billion people, sounding a call for alarm to provide targeted reproductive services for the 215 women worldwide that do not have access to reproductive services, according the UN Population Fund.
Population panic is not new. In the early 19th century, Anglican clergyman Thomas Malthus claimed that the dangers of population growth would put human civilization in jeopardy. Malthus did not support keeping the poor alive through charitable means and protested the Poor Laws of the time, which provided food aid and support for poor citizens and set the groundwork for the modern welfare state. Despite the fact that Malthusian population theory was proven to be erroneous- his work has been tremendously influential, most importantly, in evolutionary biology. In 1968, Paul Ehrlich’s bestselling book ‘The Population Bomb’ once again raised alarmist, doomsday predictions about the danger of population growth causing crises of apocalyptic proportions. His predictions were also inaccurate.
There is no question that we are facing a wide range of environmental and financial crises and far too many women lack access and choice in reproductive medicine. However, in the face of doomsday fears of scarcity, targeted population control of specific groups based on class, medical status, race and other social determinants has been a troubling historical trend. The question is not ‘if’ population is a problem; but ‘who’ gets targeted in population control programs. Since the 1920s, targeted and eugenic population control in marginalized populations has been present across North and South America, Australia, the Middle East and Europe. Anecdotally, we can estimate it to be happening, or have happened all over the world. This past summer at the 9th Annual Conference in Ethics in Development in Pennsylvania, a medical researcher from Nigeria approached me following presentation of my paper on sterilization in the Americas, to say that forced sterilization surgery in tribal communities in South and Western Africa has been happening for many years and went on to describe a personal account. Belief that these incidents of reproductive abuse represent collateral damage in the more pressing fight for contraception access has cloaked the deeper Malthusian ideology that lives who cannot provide for themselves are ‘fertility liabilities’.
The Reuters humanitarian news service, Alertnet, recently quoted Parvinder Singh, of ActionAid India on the relationship between fears of scarcity and population: “the issue of population cannot be seen divorced from the aspect of resource or energy footprint,” However, Singh continued to note that: “the largest drain continues to be in the West which have traditionally consumed, and continue to, massive volumes of resources because of a life-style and purchasing power that far exceeds that of so-called high population poorer countries.” Research has demonstrated that raising quality of life for women and their families leads to a drop in fertility- so much so that the world’s richest countries are fearing a further ‘drop’ in their national populations. The recent US recession has created a record low in fertility, leading to fears that there will be ‘not enough’ children born to sustain the national economy. So, not enough of one group- but too many of another? On what basis are these determinations made? On relative value to the economy?
If we are to make progress against this historical trend of using population panic to make authoritarian determinations over which lives have value for reproduction, we have to own up to the pervasive Malthusian ideology that views fertility in the developed world as a valuable resource and developing world fertility as a global liability