“It’s Easier to Kill a Guerilla in the Womb than in the Mountains”: Examining 1970s Science for the People Articles about Population Control
HISTORY OF SCIENCE
Members of the 1970s social justice movement Science for the People (SftP) expressed a moral obligation to use their own status and privilege, both as members of the scientific community and as US citizens, to advocate for poorer women of colour targeted by coercive population control initiatives. They felt a social responsibility to raise awareness of the human impact of their government’s development initiatives within an imperialist context. In addition, SftP examined the US feminist movement’s historical complicity in population control, identifying the shortcomings of their own movement. Publications in the SftP magazine allowed members to share these perspectives with the public, inviting debate and pushing for direct action. In doing so, their analysis reflects the beginnings of what we now term “intersectionality’”(Crenshaw, 1989)—recognising and labelling the power imbalances associated with different social identities.
Keywords: social justice, Science for the People, intersectionality, feminism, population control
ARTICLE CONTENTS & REFERENCES
Psychology: Population control: An impact game rather thna a numbers game (Costea, C.)
Natural Sciences: Examining the motivations behind population control efforts in 1970s US: An ecological perspective (Cooper, D.)
Churchill College, University of Cambridge
Volume 1, Issue 1, pp. 59–66
Received: July 20, 2022
Revision recieved: September 5, 2022
Accepted: September 7, 2022
Published: October 4, 2022
Siddall, R. (2022). “It’s easier to kill a guerilla in the womb than in the mountains”: Examining 1970s Science for the People articles about population control. Cambridge Journal of Human Behaviour, 1(1), 59–66. https://www.cjhumanbehaviour.com/int0006
© Rebecca Siddall. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 License.
The US radical left-wing magazine Science for the People (SftP) was founded in 1969, arising from an increasing recognition by US scientists that their work was not value-free, but instead an inherently political act that came with social responsibility. In this article, I focus on issues surrounding population control, which contributors to the magazine presented as a means for the US “establishment” to extend existing power dynamics with regards to race, gender, and social inequality. The magazine’s contributors made detailed observations of the ways in which population control measures extended structures of imperialism, capitalism, and the patriarchy, which in turn maintained an oppressive status quo benefitting the wealthy, White, male elite. I will demonstrate that this contrasted strongly with the view of population control advocates, who named overpopulation itself as the predominant cause of inequalities.
In this article, I examine SftP contributors’ perspectives on population control with relation to the broader US political landscape and the contributors’ views on their own privilege through the lens of population control. SftP authors writing about these issues were aware of their own privilege as mainly White American academics (Schmalzer et al., 2018), and used their articles to call for direct action on behalf of “Third World” women targeted by population control initiatives. They reflected on the entangled past of feminist and population control movements, and aimed to redress their predecessors’ support for population control. Recognising that the struggle of “Third World” women was part of the broader feminist movement, SftP writers allied themselves with this group, promoting marches, workshops, books, and letter-writing campaigns.
This article is divided into three sections. The first will articulate the background of SftP, situating their stance on population control within societal context. It will also cover the origins of the population control movement across the 20th century. In the second section I will give examples of how SftP contributors presented population control as both driven by imperialism and propagating racist, sexist, and classist attitudes. The third section will focus on three ways contributors confronted their own privileged positions compared to the women for whom they were advocating: recognising historical failures of feminism, promoting direct action by readers, and engaging in discourse with critics. Finally, the essay will conclude that together these SftP articles present a feminist social perspective that promotes solidarity across issues of race, gender, and class—what we might now term “intersectionality” (Crenshaw, 1989)—held together by a common fight against an imperialist agenda.
SECTION 1: HISTORICAL CONTEXT
SftP originated from the increasing recognition of a need for “organised scepticism” (Moore, 2013, p. 188) within the US scientific tradition in the mid-20th century. Tensions came to a head at a meeting of the American Physical Society, where physicist Charles Schwartz proposed a vote to change bylaws so members could express formal opposition to US involvement in Vietnam. Although the vote failed, Schwartz uncovered a bloc of politically sympathetic members, and this group became the Scientists and Engineers for Social and Political Action (SESPA). They began publications of the bi-monthly magazine SftP, with the aim of exposing links between social problems and scientific work.
While the magazine and organisation itself (also later known as “Science for the People (SftP)”) were strong advocates for women and people of colour, the makeup of the membership as predominantly White men caused friction (Schmalzer et al., 2018). Prominent member Rita Arditti remarked that maintaining a focus on women’s issues was “a constant struggle” (Moore, 2013, p. 184) and that at times SftP’s use of feminist arguments was tokenistic (ibid.). However SftP did go to some lengths to address these concerns, forming two new groups: one to investigate potential political actions regarding women’s rights, and the other to recognise sexism within the organisation itself.
These categories are notable because they fit with the two distinct spheres this article will consider: attitudes towards population control both in the US more generally and within SftP. Taken together, these spheres demonstrate how the organisation pushed themselves to critically analyse societal and personal perspectives, motivated by their objective of fighting the “interlocking systems of capitalism, racism, sexism and imperialism” (Moore, 2013, p. 158). This holistic analysis, situated within the broader civil rights movement, can be seen throughout the activities of SftP members, but I believe is most clear around issues of population control.
In order to understand discussions around population control in SftP articles, it is first essential to understand the broader dialogue about the issue at the time. The population control movement in the US emerged from the fusion of birth control activism and eugenics across the first half of the 20th century (Hartmann, 2016). Following the Nuremberg Trials, overt eugenics became distasteful in Western politics, but its ideology lived on in mass sterilisation programs. During the Cold War era, the world population more than doubled, with the largest populations in the Global South (Connelly, 2008, p. 5). Eugenicist sympathisers used this growth to declare a crisis. Their ideas were popularised in Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, which proposed an apocalyptic vision of the future: soon “mankind will breed itself into oblivion” (1971, p. x). Even if emergency foreign aid and population control programs were enacted immediately, Ehrlich claimed, “hundreds of millions of people will starve to death” (ibid., p. xi). His alarmist rhetoric and dramatic imagery had dangerous simplicity—the idea that “by procreating, the poor create their own poverty” (Hartmann, 2016, p. 54).
Eugenicist sympathisers used this type of reasoning to pursue a global campaign of population control, pushing people to have fewer children and focused especially on the Global South, already the site of many other Western international development programs. US eugenics research foundations transformed themselves into population control institutes such as the Population Council and the Rockefeller Foundation, pouring money into universities to push their agenda (Hartmann, 2016). The funding provided an economic driving force for investment in population control, which was in turn incorporated into US foreign policy. Eugenicist sympathiser ideology at the time saw population growth as causal, not symptomatic, of poverty and inequality—Ehrlich analogised it as a “cancer” that needed to be wholly removed (1971, p. x). Thus, population control policies were enacted top-down, with a Western interventionist attitude toward both “Third World” countries and women’s bodies (Connelly, 2008). SftP contributors stood in opposition to this agenda, reporting on both the motivations behind the population control “establishment” and the impacts of their policies on human lives.
SECTION 2: SftP PERSPECTIVES ON POPULATION CONTROL
The worldview painted by SftP contributors in the 1970s (and into the 1980s) strongly contradicted the population controllers’ perspective. Instead of blaming overpopulation for societal ills, they identified a reverse causality: overpopulation was a symptom of inequalities furthered and forged by an imperialist and capitalist agenda. The US “establishment”‘s promotion of population control was seen as a deliberate means to maintain existing power dynamics—or as historian Matthew Connelly describes it, “another chapter in the unfinished history of imperialism” (2008, p. 378). The magazine’s writers highlighted racist, sexist, and classist attitudes entrenched in population control, and the real-life ramifications on people targeted. They employed a powerful mixture of charged arguments, direct testimonies, facts, and figures. Images also played a key role, punctuating core messages in articles. Members of SftP made it their mission to raise awareness of the context and costs of population control to a US scientific audience, attempting to turn the tide of public support for these programs.
Contributors to SftP situated neo-colonialism as a motivation for US population control programs. One SftP cover artwork (Figure 1) features a screaming woman’s face above a box containing her infant child, below which is a quote from Che Guevara: “it’s easier to kill a guerrilla in the womb than in the mountains”. This single sentence encapsulates SftP writers’ perspective on the true driving force for population control: a fear of previously colonised populations vying for retribution from those who oppressed them. Within polarised Cold War politics, the US elite were apprehensive of socialist uprisings by a radicalised Global South. Marxism offered an ideologically alternative route, suggesting that a socialist society would provide free choice for women over their own fertility: Fidel Castro is quoted in a SftP piece as saying “it is the duty of the State” (Mass, 1973a, p. 8) to provide for any family size. The article juxtaposes his perspective with International Planned Parenthood Foundation (IPPF) president Alan Guttmacher’s concerns over “reckless population growth” causing a populist movement of “some kind of –ism” (ibid., p. 5). In the eyes of SftP contributors, men such as Dr. Alan F. Guttmacher represented a patriarchal “establishment”, whose position within the system of US capitalism placed them with the most to lose from a shift away from the status quo of continued US dominance over the “Third World”.
Cover Artwork from Science for the People (Volume 9, Issue 1)
Note. Science for the People issue cover artwork. From January/February 1977, Science for the People, 9(1), p. 1. Copyright 1977 by Science for the People.
SftP authors emphasised this point explicitly: “population control is motivated by fundamental self-interest on the part of the US and allied ruling classes” (Park, 1974, p. 18). Their persistence in describing this rhetoric as “attempts to smokescreen the actual sources of misery and poverty while the pillaging of the world continues” (Mass, 1973b, p. 12) was an attempt to counter the contemporary propagandised perspective that population control was a benevolent form of foreign aid to women desperately in need. SftP contributors highlighted to their readers how population control acted as “imperialism by other means” (Connelly, 2008, p. 312); a post-colonial world and the rise of free-market capitalism meant it was most effective to exert power over populations instead of territories. A colonisation of female bodies, by means of modern medicine and technology, would act as a “weapon against the revolt of the oppressed” (Mass, 1973a, p. 4). The language used here is that of the battlefield. By citing Guevara’s quip, SftP exposed how the “establishment” shifted the goalposts so they could win a biological war without needing to fight a military one.
In their articles, SftP contributors highlighted how the birth control methods used in population control programs were the product of a patriarchal system. White, wealthy men not only ran the programs, they also operated the means of production of birth control: one article referred to this interplay as the “power-penis-potency complex” (Arditti et al., 1970, p. 28). Male dominance was perceived as present at every level, from pharmaceutical production to distribution and prescription. Misogynistic industrial priorities placed female birth control methods over male birth control and barrier methods. “Women are the lower caste” (ibid.) and so their suffering from side effects was a price worth paying. Nor were they trusted to have control over when they reproduced—one SftP contributor cites the President of the Population Council, Bernard Berelson, suggesting the temporary sterilisation of all girls “via time-capsule contraceptives” (Mass, 1973b, p. 13) in “Third World” countries.
Berelson’s initiative was thus part of a larger fear of women understanding and having dominion over their bodies. As former SftP contributor Betsy Hartmann summarised it, ‘keeping women in the dark about their bodies is another powerful way of “keeping them in their place” (2016, p. 11). The male-dominated medical profession made this possible: doctors could influence patients to choose more interventionist birth control, downplaying side effects and risks. A powerful image in SftP (Figure 2) summarises these power dynamics: mimicking the classical style, a Grecian woman lies subjugated at the feet of a Zeus-like doctor. “Thank you, Dr. Frankenstein!” she cries as she reaches for the Pill packet that rests on his brow like a crown. Here doctors are crazed experimenters, making monsters of women as they deprive them of bodily autonomy.
Note. From “Birth control in Amerika,” by R. Arditti, C. Huge, and C. Kneen, 1970, Science for the People, 2(4), p. 29. Copyright 1970 by Science for the People.
As SftP reported, these dynamics were even worse in the “Third World,” where a lack of medical infrastructure and a feverish US drive for population control led to millions of women being given the injectable contraceptive Depo-Provera. Despite being a known carcinogen, it was given indiscriminately, including to breastfeeding mothers (Norsigian, 1979). Surgical sterilisation was also common in both the “Third World” and US; crucially, SftP drew attention to its use being demanded by government policy and surgeons as opposed to women themselves (Herman, 1977). Doctors would choose to perform more complex hysterectomies over tubal litigations, purely for their own interests, because from their perspective, “while she is there she is an object” (ibid., p. 18). The analysis of SftP contributors highlights a male medical “establishment” who were subjugating women across the world, no longer even perceiving them as human.
In addition to the imperial dimensions of population control, SftP writers also focused on the disproportionate impact on non-White women. These were the women who early 20th century feminist and eugenicist Margaret Sanger had envisioned requiring birth control the most, the group now coerced into sterilisation and long-acting contraceptives. Puerto Rico, famously the testing ground for the Pill, had now become an exemplar of population control. Judith Herman’s (1977) SftP piece on sterilisation abuse reported that, by that year, a third of all Puerto Rican women of child-bearing age had been sterilised. She followed this shocking statistic with the claim that population control policy “has come home to the mainland” (1997, p. 17): the same attitudes applied to “Third World” women were now being extended to all women of colour.
Authors of the SftP article “Birth control in Amerika” took this concept further, arguing that it was “male Amerika’s destructiveness” (Arditti et al., 1970, p. 28) turned to a domestic audience. “Amerika” was an allusion to perceived racism and fascism within the US ruling classes, the “k” a reference to Germanic or Cyrillic spellings of the word. This makes explicit what these authors saw as institutionalised racism influencing government policy. Possibly the most famous case study of coercive population control within the US was that of the Relf sisters, referenced in multiple SftP articles: teenage African Americans sterilised at a clinic after their mother was convinced to sign a consent form that she could not read (Herman, 1977). Their story was just one of many examples of non-White women coerced into signing sterilisation forms, if they were given forms at all. In her article, Judith Herman reported cases of Native American women being sterilised directly after childbirth, while they were unable to understand what was happening (ibid.). This stood in stark contrast with attitudes to White women’s fertility—Herman even draws on her own experience, mentioning a White friend advised by her obstetrician to have more than one child (ibid., p. 19). SftP contributors recognised and articulated the racist attitudes that pervaded discussions and motivations of population control: this was not fear of too many people in general, but fear of too many of a certain kind of people.
SftP also demonstrated how social inequality had been exploited to force poor, non-White women to undergo interventionist birth control and sterilisations. Within the US, Herman’s SftP article reported on financial incentives for hospitals to perform sterilisations over abortions; the government would subsidise 90% of the former for poor women, but only 50% of the latter (ibid., p. 18). This was part of the Johnson administration’s focus on population control measures as essential to economic growth, backed by the medical profession: Herman references a survey where 94% of US gynaecologists favoured compulsory sterilisation of welfare mothers with more than three ‘illegitimate’ children (ibid.).
Meanwhile, SftP writers showed how the rich were financially benefitting from these same measures, at the expense of the poor. “Philanthropic” organisations such as the IPPF, whose trustees (some of the US’ wealthiest citizens) were funded by the federal Agency for International Development (AID), received millions of dollars every year (Mass, 1973a, p. 4). In the eyes of SftP contributors, the gap between rich and poor was fuelling population control, which in turn reinforced inequality. Accompanying artwork such as that in Figure 3 demonstrates this socioeconomic imbalance: an emaciated mother and child sit on the ground, cheeks hollow, bowls empty. Across the page are a cartoonish Western mother and son, shopping bags full to the brim with food. Despite both women having just one child, only one family is starving.
Artwork from “RX for the People — Preventive Genocide in Latin America”
Note. From “RX for the People — Preventive genocide in Latin America” by B. Mass, 1973, Science for the People, 5(2), p. 6. Copyright 1973 by Science for the People.
Population controllers took advantage of financial inequality on an international level to incentivise poorer nations to implement population control programs. Even into the 1980s, as evidenced by Betsy Hartmann’s SftP article, governments dependent on US foreign aid were pushed to introduce population control measures by “pressure from international donors” (Hartmann, 1987, p. 12). These measures were economically-driven population control, rather than morally-driven access to birth control. Individual “Third World” women faced the same kind of manipulation: Hartmann directly quoted a Sri Lankan woman saying ‘the only birth control we know is sterilisation’ (ibid., p. 9), and that they were often coerced via financial incentives, hospital care, and food supplements. Thus, women were forced to choose between basic needs and bodily autonomy. The central message SftP writers bring out here is clear—starvation and poverty are not the result of overpopulation, but widespread inequality.
SECTION 3: RECOGNITION OF SftP CONTRIBUTORS’ OWN PRIVILEGE
SftP contributors not only focused on the external crossover of race, gender, and class in their writing, but took a similarly holistic perspective toward their own organisation, recognising their privilege as predominantly White American academics. Their critique was comprised of three facets: firstly, an awareness of the historical wrongs perpetrated by the US feminist tradition towards poorer women of colour, who were at best excluded and at worst actively targeted by a feminist movement that united with eugenicists to promote birth control. Secondly, writers pushed their readers towards a more inclusive feminist model, advertising actions advocating for non-White women targeted by population control. Thirdly, the magazine editors directly addressed criticism levelled at SftP regarding the contributors’ privileged social positions. They analysed unequal dynamics between SftP writers and those they were writing about, defending their need to use their position to spread awareness of the imperialist context of population control.
Linda Gordon’s two-part history of birth control, published in consecutive 1977 SftP magazines, demonstrated how SftP contributors openly recognised historical failings of US feminism (Gordon, 1977a, 1977b). The piece traced a historical narrative from the 1920s feminist push for legalisation of contraception through to the contemporary entanglement of birth control with population control. Gordon especially focused on the early links forged between eugenicists and feminist birth controllers. In the wake of World War I, she recognised a loss of political context within the US feminist movement following the destruction of the American Left (Gordon, 1977a). Concurrently, the eugenics movement grew, driven by a desire to remake the American population “in the image of those who dominated it politically and economically” (Gordon, 1977b, p. 9). Lacking the previous support of left-wing activists, feminists and eugenicists now shared a common goal of legalising contraception (although in the latter case, it was to reduce the birth rate of the “unfit”). The unlikely coalition worked because “[White] feminists had no strong traditions of anti-racism” (ibid., p. 11), and ‘a reservoir of anti-working-class attitudes’ (ibid.). Untethered from the Left, the movement was missing an ingrained political context and solidarity.
This attitude was worsened by famous birth control activist Margaret Sanger’s vocal endorsement of population control (Gordon, 1977b). Gordon labelled this acceptance of eugenics a “desertion of feminism” (ibid., p. 11) that allowed population control to subsequently proliferate, admitting that contemporary “Third World” women rightly felt both let down by and excluded from the feminist movement. However, she noted that things were changing: while “feminism until recently has been primarily a movement of educated and prosperous women” (Gordon, 1977a, p. 11), it could regain its political context and alliances. Within a framework of socialist healthcare, birth control could achieve morally correct aims (Gordon, 1977b, p. 15). What was needed was a recombination of the US feminist movement with socialism, class action, and anti-racism movements.
Enacting the above reorientation of feminist objectives, SftP articles about population control often contained direct calls to action for their readers. SftP magazine had originated from the movement SftP, so this crossover of journalism and activism was not wholly unexpected. However, following up emotive pieces with suggestions of talks, protests, books, and workshops allowed a merging of magazine and movement, and in the case of population control, encouraged the mostly US academic readership to act in solidarity with poorer women of colour. In “Fighting sterilisation abuse,” Herman (1977) followed her summary of protests and legal cases around coercive sterilisation with a direct appeal to the reader. She was concerned that this was not a relatable issue for White American women, and that they were loath to join the fight because the population control “establishment” had been an ally to White feminism in the past, promoting abortion rights. However, the population controllers were “not interested in our right to control over our bodies” (ibid., p. 19); Herman appealed to readers to join women’s unions in actions against population control and to share their personal experiences of coercive birth control, highlighting the need for a united front. Her emphatic final line on forced sterilisation was that “only women can stop it” (ibid.), defining the topic as a gendered issue that would require a broader approach to feminism.
This focus on female empowerment and education was emphasised in multiple SftP articles across the 1970s. Authors suggested that women attend courses and read key texts such as the “Birth Control Handbook” (Arditti et al., 1970). Many SftP appeals of this kind appear to have been written by female contributors and specifically targeted at the female readership, aiming to bridge social, racial, and economic divides, but without seemingly including men. However, the article “International Women’s Day (IWD) 1975” (Ad hoc committee, 1975) broke from this tradition, making a point of noting how attendees (including SftP members) of the Boston IWD rally were “half women, half men, half Third World, half [White]” (ibid., p. 12). This was an explicit attempt by the authors to demonstrate a new approach to the fight against the population control “establishment,” with speakers making clear “the connection between women’s oppression and imperialism” (ibid.). It was this that united the marchers: imperialism was a common enemy to all, with solidarity the way forward.
SftP writers also engaged in direct dialogue with their critics, exploring their own privilege. An early issue of the magazine published two letters (Melcher et al., 1974) to the editor that were sent in response to previous SftP publications on population control. The first letter argued that SftP’s criticism of birth control in Latin America was supportive of neo-imperialism, and that SftP’s subsequent condemnation of such birth control programs was racist. The letter’s authors believed that since the women of the American Left had full access to birth control and were thus “freed from constant pregnancy” (ibid., p. 16), they were exploiting their privilege by postponing the same rights for Latin American women until they were situated within the correct ideological context (ibid.). Thus, they argued, it was counterproductive and morally wrong to fight against population control while such programs were still delivering birth control to those who needed it.
The second letter by Dobbs had a similar tone, going so far as to dismiss linking the population control “establishment” with capitalism and imperialism as “superficial class analysis” (ibid., p. 17), and describing SftP contributors as “appallingly alienated from the masses” (ibid.). Just in printing these letters, the magazine’s contributors showed their willingness to confront such criticisms, and to explore whether they were blinded by their own positions as predominantly White American academics.
Is it possible for these authors to advocate on behalf of another group? These questions were addressed in the subsequent article by Bob Park (1974): “Not better lives, just fewer people”. The title summed up their counter-argument: birth control itself was not the problem, but when provided through population control programs, it did not improve standard of living. Park critically engaged with their own situated perspective as an author, asking what was the interest of the subjugated population themselves and thus “what should our position be toward it?” (Park, 1974, p. 18). Having decided that the goal of SftP was to advance class consciousness and struggle in all its forms, Park specified that since population control was a reactionary ideology, it came under such jurisdiction. This was part of a common solidarity between US and world workers in fighting militarism, sexism, racism, and capitalism (ibid., p. 22). SftP authors publicly confronted and dissected their own privilege, but held that the context of population control could not be demarcated from its actions. As such, it was SftP’s role to advocate for those whose voices would not otherwise be heard.
Throughout the 1970s, SftP contributors framed population control as an imperialist endeavour to maintain power in previously colonised nations. They demonstrated the ways in which population control programs not only maintained the status quo power balance between the US and the “Third World,” but also within the US itself. In both cases, the White, male, wealthy elite were intervening in the lives and rights of women, especially poorer women of colour, for their own gain. Thus, they argued, it was ultimately “imperialism, not overpopulation, which [was] denying so many the right to life” (Ad hoc committee, 1975, p. 13). SftP writers described how the concept of a “population bomb,” which would supposedly explode and trigger massive revolution, was propagated to instil a fear of “the Other” that would increase public support for population control and international development programs. An extended metaphor comparing population control to a war was invoked by both SftP and population controllers. In fact, the very first SftP article on these issues likens the US “establishment”‘s fervour for population control to their obsession with the Vietnam War (Arditti et al., 1970).
Meanwhile, population control organisations such as the Ford Foundation described its men in Asia as a “thin red line” (Connelly, 2008, p. 312), invoking Rudyard Kipling’s poetic image of imperialist soldiers holding the ranks in battle (ibid.). SftP contributors then layered their analyses of sexist, racist, and classist practices of population control over this socially nuanced background. In essence, their message was one of raising awareness, battling against propaganda which articulated ideas of population control simply “freeing” women from the burden of childbearing. As well as rejecting the “establishment”‘s supposedly altruistic motivation for population control, SftP writers highlighted how its means were unjustified. Targeting non-White, poorer women both within and outside the US with unnecessarily invasive and often coercive medical procedures clearly demonstrated how this was not about women’s emancipation. Kelly Moore articulates how the aim of SftP was to make it difficult to “treat scientific knowledge as distinct from the power relations that produced it” (2013, p. 187)—here one can see exactly this process in action, with SftP forcing the reader to confront the unbalanced dynamics that allowed population control to flourish.
Part of this confrontation was to directly address both the readers’ and writers’ social privilege. The articles on population control were often written by White American academics, and so were lacking the voices of the poorer, non-White women they aimed to represent. At the time, there was a perceived split between White US feminism and a left-wing political context, highlighted especially by Linda Gordon’s articles. In pointing out this divide, investigating its origins, and subsequently setting out a more holistic social justice framework into which US feminism could progress, SftP contributors both acknowledged the mistakes of the past and looked to a more inclusive future. Advertising workshops, books, and protests to their readers, these writers manifested their vision, integrating their sceptical perspective of population control with direct actions that could be taken. They also recognised and published their critics’ perspectives in letters, creating a dialogue in which they could defend their positions while acknowledging other sides of the debate.
I argue that the SftP articles on population control did more than just raise awareness about facets of the issue that were not widely reported on and ran counter to propaganda at the time. They also formed the basis of a new feminist attitude towards population control, which drew together the sentiments of anti-sexism, anti-racism, and class struggle under a common banner of anti-imperialism. This was part of a broader left-wing movement in the US at the time to establish commonality between causes, and arguably it paved the way toward what is now labelled “intersectionality”. Lawyer Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) defined the term “intersectionality” as the ways in which social identities such as race, class, and gender overlap with one another, bestowing power upon those whose social identities most closely fit the ideal citizen within that society. We can see that this is very similar to the analyses SftP contributors were performing, focusing on the social identities of population controllers and those they aimed to control, within a context of imperial power. Although it may not have had the same name, these analyses by SftP contributors represent a crucial shift toward modern intersectional feminism.
Today, former members of SftP have extended their involvement in an intersectional feminist approach to population control. While the US no longer participates in the more overt population policies of the 1970s, academics and activists around the world have called for renewed resistance to population control tactics that take place today (Hendrixson, 2019a). A statement signed by hundreds of individuals and organisations—including SftP contributors Betsy Hartmann and Judy Norsigian (Hendrixson, 2019b)—echoes past SftP publications as it brings attention to the continued coercive sterilisation of poorer women of colour, as well as other marginalised groups (Hendrixson, 2019a, p. 1). However, the statement’s authors take their intersectional approach further than seen in the 1970s: they draw on the “foundational work of the Black scholars and activists who created the concept of reproductive justice” (ibid., p. 3), before explicitly demanding a more equal reproductive health framework “that actively uproots racist, ableist and anti-LGBTQI biases in healthcare” (ibid., p. 4). Here, they are recognising the contribution and importance of non-White feminisms, and using this knowledge to promote an intersectional vision of women’s reproductive rights in the 21st century. Thus, the 1970s SftP articles are an essential piece of history, documenting the contributors’ fight to incite a new kind of social movement that could counter the injustices of US population control. This work forms the foundation of the modern intersectional feminist critique of population policy.
Population control: An impact game rather than a numbers game
Magdelene College, University of Cambridge
This commentary discusses two interpretations of population control: influence on future populations (a contentious issue) and influence on existing populations. It analyses motivations for interventions, ethical considerations, and intersectional effects on populations. It discusses two methods through which immediate actions can be undertaken to mediate human impact on the environment.
Population control: Definition
I define population control as exerting an influence on the number of people that are predicted to exist in the future, which is modified by the overall number of births and deaths (more commonly, the former is the target of government interventions). This phrase may bring to mind examples of China’s one-child policy, rhetoric about fertility, or even euthanasia. However, I would like to draw attention to my second interpretation of this phrase: exerting an influence on the behaviour of individuals that already exist. One could argue that the first definition necessarily includes this latter interpretation, given that it is individuals that must give birth to babies and must eventually die too; but by choosing to separate the two, I hope to evade a time-consuming and unhelpfully polarising debate about potentialities and instead focus on the contributions that psychology can make right now on the problems that population control hopes to fix.
Why would governments attempt to control the projected number of people in their respective country?
This includes interventions that aim to increase the population through pro-natalist policies, as seen in Ceaușescu’s anti-abortion rule in 1980s Romania, or anti-natalist policies, as seen in India’s program of incentivised sterilization in the 1970s. One of the prevailing reasons for pro-natalist policies is the case of ageing populations, which require increasing funds and care from a diminishing working-age population. For example, in Japan, generous subsidies are offered to women undergoing in-vitro-fertilisation treatments, with the hope of increasing the population, and subsequently the future labour force (Nonomiya et al., 2022). On the other hand, the most popular argument contra childbearing is the concern with the carrying capacity of the Earth and the lack of natural resources to sustain our exponentially growing numbers. Many articles (see Ehrlich & Ehrlich, 1990, 1991, 2004) suggest that the environmental constraints of available land (for domestic and agrarian purposes), food and clean water, will cap the numbers that our planet can sustain, but that we approach this threshold far too quickly, to the detriment of our entire ecosystem. Thus, policies that disincentivise childbearing aim to reduce the total number of humans and associated environmental constraints. It appears that the one goal which both approaches have in common is avoiding a population crash, whether that is in the form of insufficient people to maintain the established order, or in the form of avoidable catastrophic environmental effects. For a much more comprehensive account of these arguments and the worrying statistics that accompany the arguments of anti-natalists, I direct the reader to Diana Coole’s (2018) book, Should we control world population?.
These approaches are mobilised through governments, but even if we assume that their aim is the well-intentioned survival of our species, we still ought to question the motives of the individuals that deliberate, develop, and deliver these policies to the public. Here, an interdisciplinary decision-making framework can underline the fact that what we consider to be optimal living conditions are culturally variable and are subject to value judgements, and can highlight the biases that can hinder progress in this matter. For one, our reluctance to heed warnings of impending doom until the consequences become too dire has been identified by psychologists (Koger, 2003); and also caricatured in McKay’s film Don’t Look Up (2021), where scientists’ warnings of an approaching comet is ignored to the detriment of all. Further examination of the demographic characteristics of individuals in positions of power can reveal biases regarding gender, race, age, and income, where the configuration of governments may not be representative of the population, leading to a lack of understanding of how the majority live (Coole, 2018).
Furthermore, ethical considerations are paramount in determining what empowers one to control the reproductive rights of another, and if permissible, to what extent and in what manner this control can be effected. Controlling reproductive choices face framing effects, especially if they are done under anti-natalist interventions; humans have a tendency towards loss-aversion (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979), and thus taking away individuals’ rights on any grounds is bound to create resistance. This is compounded by the unfair nature in which policies are applied, as overtly coercive anti-natalist interventions are more likely to disproportionately affect the poor and ethnic minorities (Coole, 2018), which can also be overlapping demographic characteristics. Thus, political aims and moral conundrums about coercion remain central to the interpretation of population control as influence on the future number of humans. As the article suggests, intersectionality is essential for observing effects of policies on the public (Crenshaw, 1989), and observing their differential impact on both the population and the planet. The wealth of social scientific research should suggest strongly by now that universal policies are ineffective because they ignore contextual socio-economic, historic, and cultural factors, but I believe that we can still set a universal goal of healthy survival on this planet for our species, as well as for the rest of the ones which cohabit the Earth with us. While it is extremely important to pay attention to the human suffering which can be caused by coercive policy implementations, I believe that determining an optimal solution will remain an issue that is unlikely to be resolved in time to avoid the forecasted doom for our planet in the scenario that we do not sufficiently act on the environmental consequences of our actions.
Some individuals renounce the idea of bringing children into a world that faces so many environmental problems (Coole, 2018). They argue that it will add pressure to an already strained ecosystem, and that it would be cruel to bring a child into the world when it has no secure future. Others necessarily bring numerous children into the world to economically support their families. There are many arguments for and against giving life to a human, but I, like many others, believe that it is fair to give people free choice over this matter. Yet, this free choice is taken away from all of us if we are constrained by the survival prospects of the planet. Thus, I would argue that we have a collective responsibility to deal with the problems that our species created, to the extent to which we can. However, the perception of what a fair contribution to the survival of the planet should be is likely to differ cross-culturally, and most certainly across income levels.
Thus, an intersectional approach to significantly reduce our impact on the planet would help develop a choice architecture that would respect human autonomy, while determining which individuals can have the biggest impact and how they should proceed. This choice architecture would ideally result in an increased level of agency and responsibility associated not just with childbearing, but all behaviours that have an impact on the planet. I suggest two methods through which a general improvement of reproductive (and general behavioural) choices can be encouraged cross-culturally, while acknowledging that these will make differential impacts depending on pre-existing provisions.
1. Offering non-biased sexual health education
Sexual health education is paramount in empowering individuals of all genders to understand their role in the conception and development of infants (Coole, 2018). Adequate family-planning provisions can help individuals and families to take measures to create safe and sustainable conditions for children. It would allow individuals to make more informed decisions about childbearing. Implementing these requires a high degree of cultural sensitivity to social norms
2. Create systems, not goals for sustainability
It is easy to become demoralised in the face of dooming news about the planet, and thus to forego responsibility for one’s actions. However, rather than focus on abstract goals such as reducing global warming, it would be more productive to focus on concrete, individual actions that may yield a sense of accomplishment. James Clear (2018) suggests that if someone’s identity centres around certain values (e.g., being environmentally mindful), their actions would become consistently aligned with those values (i.e., more environmentally friendly) in the long term. This type of intervention will once again manifest differently depending on one’s circumstances. For example, a rich Western citizen is in a good position to align their identity with that of a person deeply concerned about the planet and start a habit of donating to environmental charities and lowering their carbon-footprint by cycling instead of driving to work. However, this approach is likely to be ineffective for all, but sustainable habits can be encouraged for individuals who do not have sufficient economic resources, by providing subsidies for activities that benefit the planet.
Population control does not have to become a numbers game, but an impact game. It ought to be played with the utmost respect for human agency and human rights in mind, knowing that the effects of human life extend beyond our species with potentially catastrophic consequences.
- Carrying capacity: the biological limit of the planet; the capacity of people that can live on Earth.
- Population crash: a coerced decrease in the number of people in a given location because of unsuitable environmental conditions.
Examining the motivations behind population control efforts in 1970s US: An ecological perspective
Queen’s College, University of Cambridge
When the ecological definition of overpopulation is considered, it brings into question the validity of arguments made in the 1970s by US population control supporters. Specifically, it questions the assumption that ethnic subpopulations can be overpopulated, while the majority of the population is not, since it is unlikely that these different groups would operate in entirely separate niches. This lends support to the argument that alternative motivators were underlying these population control efforts, specifically that they were used to extend imperialistic power dynamics.
The danger of human overpopulation has become increasingly apparent, as evidenced by threats such as decreased food security (Food and Agriculture Organization et al., 2021) and climate change (Hamza et al., 2020). However, attempts to control human population growth have often been overshadowed by alternative motivators forged through inequality to strengthen existing power dynamics. The population control efforts in 1970s America preferentially targeted ethic minority populations (Stern, 2020), citing that the impaired quality of life was caused by overpopulation (Ehrlich, 1971), supposedly localised in these communities. In the following, I will show that when the ecological definition of overpopulation is considered, the validity of this argument is brought into question. However, I will also stress the importance of recognising the limitations of using ecological theory as analogous to complex human-social concepts.
In ecology, a population of a species is said to be overpopulated when the current population exceeds the maximum population size that the carrying capacity of their ecological niche can support (Dice, 1957). The carrying capacity is determined by the ecological resources readily available in the environment. This means that excessive population sizes or densities, as well as depleted resources, can result in overpopulation. In humans, population size can excessively increase through increased birth and immigration rates, or decreased death rates (Van Bavel, 2013), and depleted resources can take the form of essential materials like food, transport, water, and shelter. Frequently, it is the interaction of these two processes—an increase in population size and a decrease of essential resources—that results in overpopulation.
Estimating the carrying capacity of an individual niche may involve many interacting and often unknown variables, making it difficult to determine if a given population exceeds this. It is therefore common to use the consequences of overpopulation as symptoms of its existence and evidence that it occurred. The three most common consequences are environmental deterioration, population crashes, and impaired quality of life (Osam, 2019). Environmental deterioration can occur through the over abstraction of non-replenishable resources, or through an excess of by-products and impacts created by the excessive population. Population crashes retrospectively occur when historical population growth rates are unsustainable. Finally, impaired quality of life can result from a variety of factors, including an increase in disease and reductions in valuable resources.
It was this last symptom that some of the supporters of the population control movement in 1970 US used to justify their actions, based in eugenic-sympathiser ideology: they argued that the reduced quality of life evident in some ethnic and economic sub-populations was caused by overpopulation (Ehrlich, 1971). However, what is the validity of this assumption of causality when the ecological definition of overpopulation is considered?
This argument is nicely summarised in the artwork from Figure 3. In the image, two mothers are coexisting in the same physical space—or niche—but a vast disparity in quality of life is demonstrated by the impoverished appearance of one which strongly contrasts with the abundance of resources possessed by the other. There is a lack of obvious functional/geographical barriers separating the two, suggesting they are existing within the same niche. However, an undeniable socioeconomic divide can explain such a disparity of condition. This leads to the conclusion that this socioeconomic barrier is responsible for the reduced quality of life of subgroups in the US during time of publication, not overpopulation via processes analogous to niche separation.
Overall, the most likely causal relationship was that pre-existing social structures created inequality between subpopulations, and this inequality was emulating symptoms of overpopulation. It was not the reverse causality that was used to support the population control movement (Hartmann, 1997). An ecological exploration into the potential overpopulation and the motivations behind population control movements in the US supports the original article’s conclusion: namely, that there were alternative agendas underlying these population control efforts existing to extend current power dynamics created by an imperialistic society.
However, it is incredibly important to note that ecological concepts such as “carrying capacity” and “niches” are not terms that can seamlessly transfer from pure ecological context to be applied to human societies, and any reductionist approach in finding anomalous definitions will inevitably introduce some error into any conclusions drawn. Moreover, ecological perspectives are limited in their ability to sensitively address social anthropological concepts, such as those discussed as potential motivators in the original article. In addition, while the ecological argument lends support to the Science for the People’s view that US population control efforts were not underpinned by overpopulation concerns, it cannot address what their motivations were. While we can use ecological explorations of wide-spread biological concepts to address analogous human processes, it needs to be acknowledged that their inability to address relevant social concepts often acts to limit their suitability and validity.
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