The Resurgence and Rebranding of Population Control

By | October 13, 2017

WASHINGTON, D.C., October 13 (C-Fam) Population control proponents have found a way to regain some of their respectability in the public square by using the framing and metrics of family planning advocates. But the tactic requires dubious metrics and raises a host of ethical questions.

Coercion and abusive tactics are the reason population control, once a widely promoted global agenda, fell out of favor decades ago. Later on, it lost credibility when dire predictions of massive starvation due to the explosion of the “population bomb” failed to materialize. But even when birth control advocates shifted to a women’s rights approach, the overpopulation argument never fully went away and the rise of climate change activism, evident in scholarly fanfare over a new book, Drawdown, may indicate population control’s resurgence.

Drawdown sets out a multifaceted approach to reduce carbon emissions, estimates that increased global investment in family planning, along with girls’ education, could reduce emissions by 119.2 gigatons of carbon dioxide.  A blog from the Brookings Institution cites this as an example of why “family planning is more cost-effective than many technical solutions like investing in clean energy technology.”

Drawdown does not provide a cost estimate for this family planning investment, stating that it is “inappropriate to monetize a human right.” Its authors argue that “increased adoption of reproductive healthcare and family planning is an essential component” to achieving the United Nations’ medium global population projection of 9.7 billion people by 2050. But how exactly that “increased adoption” is to be achieved by the fulfillment rather than the abridgement of human rights is unclear.

Like other analyses linking family planning and fertility reduction to reduced carbon emissions, Drawdown cites the figure of 200 million women described as having an “unmet need” for family planning, but incorrectly defines it as “lack[ing] the necessary access to contraception.”  In fact, only about 5% of “unmet need” is attributable to cost or access issues. It is therefore unlikely that simply providing access to family planning methods—at a cost purposely left unspecified—will be sufficient to convert millions of women into consistent users of products and commodities they have already rejected as a matter of choice.

Writing for Vox, environmental journalist David Roberts explained that, while he sees it as an important concern, he steers clear of the topic of population because of its “unsavory associations.”  Instead, he points to Drawdown as evidence that “we know the answer. It is family planning that enables women to have only children they want and choose.”

Demographer John Cleland described the concept of “unmet need” as “an invaluable bridge between a human rights and feminist approach to fertility control and a demographic–economic rationale.”  As a theoretical bridge, it enables environmentalists to present Malthusian theories in the language of rights and empowerment, but as a practical matter, it fails to explain how contraceptive use can be voluntarily increased when the “need” has no corresponding demand.

Noting that “the family planning field has been wrestling with the issue of coercion for decades,” the Population Council’s Karen Hardee and colleagues write that “defining coercion or coercive actions too broadly could incriminate all family planning programs”—a troubling admission about a movement that purportedly exists to empower women and give them what they want, as a matter of rights.