The Pursuit of the Unwanted, part 4

By Rebecca Oas, Ph.D. | September 14, 2015

(Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

From taking a survey to being a statistic

Consider the sales pitch of a telemarketer – you answer your phone and are greeted with a seemingly innocuous question: “Would you like to save money on your energy bill each month?” Of course you’d like to reduce your bills, all other things being equal, but you also know that the caller is not particularly interested in your financial well-being – he is determined to sell you new windows. To answer his question “no” would be untrue, as well as implausible. But to answer it “yes” would be taken by the telemarketer as a de facto mandate to spring into action on your behalf in the one way he knows how: by making sure your home is fully equipped with the product he’s selling.

Now imagine someone comes to your door and asks you to take a survey about your family. How many children do you have? Before you got married, how many children did you think you might have in total? What do you think is the “ideal” number of children for the average family to have? Before you found out you were pregnant with your last child, did you want to become pregnant, and was the timing convenient? Might you be interested in learning about how you could plan the timing of future pregnancies?

Once again, the questions seem innocent enough on the surface, but once the surveys are compiled, it is quite likely that some of your children’s conceptions will be deemed “failures” on your part, some of your children may be labeled as “unwanted,” and your lack of dedication to building your family under laboratory-controlled conditions will be used as evidence of your need for the products and services they want to sell. But the key difference between the family planning surveyor and the window salesman is that, no matter how passionately the telemarketer believes in the quality of his product, he isn’t harboring the notion that the future of the human race depends on his getting his brand of windows into every home on the planet.

In the mid-twentieth century, while mental health experts warned of a potential epidemic of psychological problems resulting from the “unwantedness” of specific births, demographers concerned with overpopulation saw contraception and abortion as the solution to the problem of “excess fertility.”

According to the 1955 Growth of American Families Study, among couples married fifteen or more years, 22 percent, or one in five, had “excess fertility” or were “unsuccessful in limiting pregnancies to the wanted number.” This national study was limited to white married women in the United States, but it had important implications, as described in the history of the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan, which originated the study:

“[T]he survey proved the validity of the methodology: it was the first national survey in which the women were directly interviewed about their knowledge, attitudes, and practices regarding contraception. Much subsequent work in fertility is based on the success of this first experiment.”

The “knowledge, attitudes, and practices” (or KAP) survey model was subsequently exported throughout the world in the hopes of promoting family planning and getting an idea of how much fertility was in excess of parents’ “family plans.”

Although the studies that first established the “KAP” concept were US-based, the aim was always global. One of the lead authors of the Growth of American Families Study was Pascal Whelpton, director of the Scripps Foundation for Research in Population Problems. The foundation was named for the publishing entrepreneur E.W. Scripps, discussed in a 2000 paper by Campbell and Mosher on the history of measuring unintended pregnancies:

“Scripps became interested in population problems when he read Warren S. Thompson’s doctoral dissertation at Cornell University in economics, which concluded that the world was becoming overcrowded. Around 1920, Scripps and Thompson took a world cruise aboard Scripps’ yacht in order to see first-hand some densely populated countries.”

It creates an evocative image, the newspaper tycoon and the academic researcher taking a world cruise on a fancy yacht, perhaps using binoculars to peer at the teeming shores of foreign lands, and opining that there just weren’t enough resources for everyone.

It’s clear that Scripps and his foundation were of the opinion that the world was full of “excess fertility” – the difficulty was in getting the people on the ground to see it that way, and take steps to cut their “excesses.”

In the 1993 book Social Research in Developing Countries: Surveys and Censuses in the Third World, Harvard sociology professor Donald P. Warwick discusses one of the central problems with the KAP surveys:

“Donors interested in rapid results that can be easily summarized may press for a research design involving a sample survey, a prestructured questionnaire that calls for a little probing, brief interviews, and only cursory quality control. […] [S]uch donor pressures, often combined with the personal commitments of researchers to family planning, may have contributed to the ‘quick and dirty’ quality of many KAP surveys.”

The same book contains a chapter by Philip M. Hauser, founder of the Population Research Center, adapted from an article first published in 1966. Hauser criticizes the KAP surveys’ lack of quality control and follow-up questions that would put their findings in better context. For instance, the surveys were credited by family planning advocates for identifying a high percentage (70%) of respondents with an interest in learning more about family planning. However, only a low percentage of respondents actually took advantage of provided opportunities to learn. To return to the analogy of the window salesman, many people confronted with a telemarketer will express some interest in an abstract way (all other things being equal), or out of the simple desire to seem polite, but if no effort is made to gauge the intensity of their interest and intention to take specific action, the measure of interest is of little actual use.

In his 2009 book Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population, history professor Matthew J. Connelly points out another troubling aspect of the household fertility survey:

“Did such questions, and the responses they elicited, mean the same thing to all concerned—including the children who overheard their mother asked whether she would have preferred that they had ever been born?”

While steps have been taken to address some of the quality critiques in more recent surveys, the matter of donors’ and researchers’ personal agendas remains an open question, especially since the goal of family planners is as much about creating a demand (or at least the appearance of a demand) as fulfilling it.

Considering the rushed, biased, and potentially erroneous nature of the KAP survey data, Hauser calls it “astonishing” that, according to Population Council president Bernard Berelson, the main takeaway from the KAP surveys was the need for “more efficient ways to tie the KAP studies into administrative actions.” He recommended “shorter interviews and faster analysis and reporting of central findings” and warned against “misplaced precision.”

While critical of the methodology of the KAP surveys, and of Berelson’s attitude regarding them, Hauser himself was sympathetic to the family planning cause:

“Berelson’s hurry is readily understood and is to his credit. The problems posed by excessive population growth are grave and cry for the most rapid possible resolution.”

While some family planning groups rejoiced at the potential “market” for contraceptives in the developing world, not all the survey findings were as welcome. The director of the US government’s foreign aid department focusing on population, Reimert Ravenholt, admitted in 1968 that,

“[T]he full exercise of fertility control by women and couples everywhere, will fall far short of the goal of zero population growth: because KAP studies have shown that women want too many children.”

Ravenholt then dismisses the importance of this finding because, in his opinion, women’s notion of “ideal family size” is more likely guided by her actual family size, not by the number of children she would have had if becoming pregnant required a concrete decision to do so. “Bearing and rearing children is hard work,” writes Ravenholt, “and few women have unlimited enthusiasm for the task.”

But when “ideal” and actual family sizes are compared between countries, as Berelson did in his 1966 summary of the KAP findings, it becomes readily apparent that there is a strong correlation between these two values, when plotted by country.

Discussing this finding, marketing professor Julian L. Simon writes, “it is not clear whether low actual family sizes cause low ideal family sizes, or vice versa. This matter deserves close study.” But given that actual and “ideal” fertility tend to reflect each other, and given the wide range of average family sizes between the countries where surveys were conducted, it seems highly unlikely that families are assembled by either complete abandonment to chance or by an “unlimited enthusiasm” for childrearing.

Simon refers to the KAP survey questions on “ideal” family size as “perhaps the most important,” but expresses caution about their predictive usefulness: “The wary social scientist, having been stung before by lack of correspondence between words and behavior, wonders how valid such questions are.”

To the KAP surveyors, the motivation went well beyond market research: a 1968 article by sociology professors H. Theodore Groat and Joseph Perry acknowledged that the process of development in the West brought a reduction in family size, adding that “[i]t should be noted that this process began before the widespread availability of effective contraceptives.” However:

“We can be certain that these high-fertility countries will not follow the Western sequence of changed social organization first, followed by gradual fertility decline. There is not enough time for that.”

To the Malthusian population controller, it isn’t enough for children to be wanted by their parents; they have to be wanted by demographers as well, which is a far higher bar to clear.

Next: ‘A modest proposal’ for the twentieth century