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Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population
by Matthew Connelly
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008
(521 pages, $35.00, hardcover)
reviewed by Joseph A. D’Agostino
The eighth of eight children in a Catholic family, Matthew Connelly grew up in a time when the elite opinion frantically pushed population control as essential for the salvation of mankind, and he admits in Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population that he may have taken it personally.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when America’s cultural revolution was being institutionalized, “one of the few certainties of that troubled time, endorsed in virtually identical planks in the Democratic and Republican platforms of 1968, was that population control should be an urgent priority,” he writes. Even his “devout” grandmother “greeted news of each new child with dismay.”
Fatal Misconception “is a story of how some people have tried to control others without having to answer to anyone. They could be ruthless and manipulative in ways that were, and are, shocking,” writes Connelly, who teaches history at Columbia University, in a book that is surprisingly frank considering its establishment roots as the product of an Ivy League professor and Harvard University Press.
Unlike another recent book on the subject, Population Control: Real Costs, Illusory Benefits, by Steven W. Mosher (with whom I once worked at the Population Research Institute), Fatal Misconception does not approach its subject from a specifically Christian perspective, but as an accessible academic history biased toward contemporary ideas of human rights.
Connelly does not ignore or justify the massive campaigns of sterilization and abortion suffered by Third World women, but he does try to present the point of view of the Western governments and experts that conceived of and funded these campaigns, as well as the more subtle ones employed to reduce Western birthrates to the suicidally low levels they have reached today.
Most population controllers believed that the rapid increase in the human population during the twentieth century presented a dire threat, one that could lead to mass starvation, wars over natural resources, epidemics caused by overcrowding and poor nutrition, and the failure of economic development programs in poor nations too fast-growing to raise average standards of living even with expanding economies. From their point of view, preventing humanity from reaching the point of unsustainability justified draconian measures—for Third World people’s own good.
In many areas, including the United States and Western Europe, successful efforts were implemented to “make children expensive,” as one population controller put it. Non-coercive methods of reducing birthrates were employed, such as ending tax breaks for families with children, encouraging women to work outside the home (leaving them less time and energy to have larger families), and promoting widespread distribution and use of contraception.
In the Third World, more vigorous measures were used, especially after the seminal revolutionary year of 1968. It was then that, according to Connelly, greater numbers of population controllers accepted the assertion that voluntary methods were not reducing global population growth.
So, in Bangladesh, aid workers denied food to poor women who refused sterilization; India under the regime of Indira Gandhi forced millions of women to be sterilized; Mexico and Peru forced hundreds of thousands of poor women to choose between no treatment at medical clinics and sterilization; African clinics lacked antibiotics but were full of contraceptives (as they still often are); and in the late 1970s, it became illegal in China for most families to have more than one child (this policy hasn’t loosened much and is currently subsidized by the United Nations Population Fund).
Unlike most writers on the subject, who avoid mentioning the original motives behind contraception and abortion promotion, Connelly discusses how the twentieth-century population control movement got much of its early energy and funding. The reason wasn’t fear of a food shortage, and it certainly wasn’t to promote a new idea of women’s rights.
Many of the first popularizers of population control had as their paramount goals the sterilization of “unfit” people in a eugenic jihad to improve humanity, and the reduction in population of “inferior” races. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, discussed “contraception as an instrument in racial progress,” as she put it. Another prominent population controller, Raymond Pearl, worried about “teeming yellow and black populations.”
Population controllers offered, as they do today, public-minded motives for their programs, such as helping parents plan their family size, improving the health of mothers and children, and securing the “right to birth control,” but, as Connelly quotes a prominent funder of population control as saying, these were “means, not ends.” The end was fewer people.
Connelly does not shy away from presenting the struggle to control world population as, in considerable part, a battle between liberal, secular elites and the Catholic Church, from which he dissents in his own promotion of politically correct forms of “reproductive freedom.” “The Church needed only to defend the status quo, since pro-natalism was embedded in most political systems,” he writes, but
advocates of population control shared both a sense of belonging to a “world population” . . . and a determination to remake their own societies, whether by eliminating “social problem groups,” or merely preventing unwanted children. They were fired by a quasi-religious fervor, but they confronted an organization that was already global in scope.
The church lost, and the victors did not restrict themselves to promoting contraception in formerly pro-child cultures.
Yet the predictions of mass starvation, resource depletion, and other consequences of population growth made by Paul Ehrlich and other promoters of the overpopulation myth, all the way back to Thomas Malthus in the eighteenth century, have never come true despite dramatic population growth in the last 200 years. “[E]ven the most rapid population growth could never be proven to have caused any particular crisis or emergency,” notes Connelly.
Fatal Misconception is a valuable, easily understood resource for those interested in the modern population control movement, including its racist and eugenicist background. Connelly names names, from the Ford Foundation to Lyndon Johnson to Planned Parenthood, and his extensive endnotes provide guidance for further investigation.
Today, though the world’s population continues to increase for now, birthrates have dropped below replacement level or soon will in every region of the world except sub-Saharan Africa. Maybe it’s time to add a new chapter to the history of population control: The conclusion.