The Pursuit of the Unwanted, part 5

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

(Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)

‘A modest proposal’ for the twentieth century

When Paul Ehrlich published “The Population Bomb” in 1968, it was an enormous bestseller, predicting mass starvation and the breakdown of civilization due to overpopulation.  But Ehrlich’s credibility­—like that of many doomsday prophets through the centuries—suffered when the apocalypse failed to materialize.

According to a recent article and video from the New York Times titled “The Unrealized Horrors of Population Explosion,” Ehrlich’s predictions “fell as flat as ancient theories about the shape of the earth.”  Ehrlich admits he may have exaggerated, albeit for a worthy cause:

“If you ask me the question are there things that I have written in the past that I wouldn’t write today, the answer is certainly yes. I expressed more certainty because I was trying to bring people to get something done.”

But then he does an about-face and implies that, if anything, he understated the problem:

“I do not think my language was too apocalyptic in The Population Bomb, my language would be even more apocalyptic today. The idea that every woman should have as many babies as she wants is to me exactly the same kind of idea as everybody ought to be permitted to throw as much of their garbage into their neighbor’s backyard as they want.”

You have to hand it to Ehrlich—his “population bomb” may have been a dud, but he may have earned a more lasting legacy by shouting “you kids get off my lawn!” well before it was cool.

But what Ehrlich hints at in his “garbage” analogy is the notion that women’s fertility is—or should be—under the regulatory control of some entity outside her own family, and that she should have to seek permission to procreate. In his book, he pondered antinatalist incentive systems like taxes on children’s items or higher tax rates for large families, and even considered the potential for developing chemical methods to sterilize people through food or water.

Like USAID’s Reimert Ravenholt (see part 4), Ehrlich accepted that people’s desired fertility was unacceptably high, and the impending crisis of overpopulation was too serious to leave the decision to have children up to families themselves.

In 1969, Population Council president Bernard Berelson wrote an article titled “Beyond Family Planning,” which appeared in a condensed form in Science magazine. In it, he heavily cites Ehrlich and assesses the feasibility of carrying out some of his proposed plans to reduce population growth. He recognized that some of these strategies­—like taxing the poor for having children—might not meet with universal approval, and might not achieve his entire goal:

“Indeed, at least at the outset of a somewhat controversial program, the means probably must fit within the framework of existing values, elite or mass, and preferably both–for example, a family planning program for maternal and child health and for preventing unwanted births even though the resultant growth rate may still remain ‘too high’ by ultimate standards.”

Berelson—who had recently urged against “misplaced precision” in the implementation and interpretation of international fertility surveys (see part 4)­—mentions Ehrlich’s contempt for professors whose “idea of ‘action’ is to form a committee or to urge ‘more research.’ Both courses are actually substitutes for action.”

However, Berelson does admit that “‘more research’ as a principle can hardly be argued against,” and highlights a few possible benefit of greater scientific advancement. One in particular appears very ominous considering the current situations in countries like China and India:

“Easy means for sex determination should have some effect upon the ‘need for sons’ and thus cut completed family size to some extent.”

In other words, if selective abortion of unborn girls could be achieved, parents could have smaller families by only bearing sons. If Berelson saw anything troubling about the skewed sex ratios that would result, to say nothing of the gross devaluation of the female person, he omitted to mention it in his article.

As it happened, “Beyond Family Planning” ended up being Exhibit A in the story of how the two groups most interested in promoting contraception and abortion – population activists and feminists – found themselves at odds over the matter of how to prevent maternity without being excessively paternalistic.

One area where both groups agreed was that “unwanted” pregnancies and births presented a problem, and that contraceptives and abortion provided the solution. While population control advocates believed that limiting births to those that were “wanted” did not go far enough, eliminating the “unwanted” would at least be a good start.

In 1970, Columbia University professor Samuel M. Wishik gave a talk published in the Villanova Law Review:

“[The] most recent data on unwanted children indicates that if all the unwanted children in American families were not born, we would have stabilization of population. We would not have to worry about compelling people to have only two children.”

Nice to know, at least if you aren’t one of the “unwanted” would-be-scapegoats who would render such coercive measures unnecessary for everyone else. Wishik goes on:

“I think it is valid to refer to this because whatever figure you receive on unwanted children is a minimal one. It is a gross understatement of the number that are really unwanted; first, obviously, because people don’t like to say a thing like that. Secondly, you ask them after the baby was born, and it is pretty hard after you look at this cute little kid to say ‘I didn’t really want him.’”

Note the cognitive dissonance there: Wishik first implies that far more children are unwanted than the numbers would indicate, then in the same breath goes on to make note of the fact that by the time they’re born, nobody would even suggest such a thing about them, least of all their parents. Apart from a subset of demographers, that is.

But Wishik’s thesis is that if we could just eliminate all the “unwanted” births, we could achieve stabilization of the population. What’s more, it sounds like a far more reasonable solution than Ehrlich’s and Berelson’s rumblings about drugs in the water supply and taxing babies like luxury goods. After all, who could object to the removal of something that isn’t wanted? Quite a lot of parents, as it turns out: the key once again is in how “unwantedness” is defined.

Also in 1970, sociology professors Larry Bumpass and Charles Westoff co-authored an article proposing a hypothetical “perfect contraceptive” population in which pregnancy is essentially a voluntary opt-in requiring an active choice. Rather than focusing on the means of achieving such an end (they admitted it was it was not within reach), they limited their analysis to the implications of eliminating all “unwanted” births with regard to the population of the U.S.

Since this thought exercise depended on calculating the amount of “unwanted” fertility, they turned to the results of the 1965 National Fertility Study:

“Reliable reports on unwanted births are difficult to obtain, since the admission that a birth was unwanted reflects on the respondent’s ability to control fertility and perhaps also on the status of the child.”

Consequently, the respondents were not asked directly about the “wantedness” of their children, but rather about the circumstances under which the pregnancy occurred. Since Bumpass and Westoff were using the survey results as part of a theoretical exercise in which pregnancy is always intentional, in their hypothetical universe, the choice to become pregnant and the choice to give birth are essentially one and the same. But in the real world, the one in which the 1965 fertility survey was conducted, a lot can change between conception and birth, as well as beyond. In discussing the validity of their estimates, Bumpass and Westoff point out that the rate of “unwanted” births reported seems suspiciously low:

“Realistic assumptions about the level of contraceptive efficacy of this population would very likely lead to a figure [of unwanted births] that is higher than the estimate obtained by the measures used here. This is independent evidence that there is considerable rationalization in the report of unwanted births and that our estimates of unwanted fertility are not likely to be too high.”

By “rationalization,” they mean that the parents being surveyed refused to admit that the pregnancy in question, and the resulting child, were in any way unintended, much less “unwanted.”

Bumpass and Westoff arrived at the following conclusion:

“Since nearly 20 percent of all recent births were unwanted, the elimination of unwanted births could substantially reduce our future growth rate.”

They add:

“In terms of the implications for a population policy goal of zero growth, our findings do not imply that the task of influencing people to want fewer children should be ignored […] [h]owever, the elimination of unwanted births would have considerable demographic effect, it would be desirable in human terms, and it would probably be a more readily attainable objective.”

Bear in mind, this is all based on the notion of a world in which a “perfect contraceptive” exists (and is universally acceptable). The following year, Planned Parenthood-World Population vice president Frederick S. Jaffe, also the founder of the Guttmacher Institute in 1968, attempted to translate the hypothetical into the practical. In his article, “Toward the Reduction of Unwanted Pregnancy,” Jaffe reiterates the pesky problem of children escaping the “unwanted” designation:

“Since the 1965 study was restricted to married women and does not report the incidence of induced abortion, and since many parents have a propensity for retroactively rationalizing unwanted births as “wanted,” these estimates must significantly underestimate the extent to which U.S. couples fail in controlling their fertility.”

Jaffe calls for increased funding for family planning, increased availability of voluntary sterilization, and, since a “perfect contraceptive” does not exist, the removal of laws restricting abortion. He concludes by contrasting his own approach with the “inhumane, unconstitutional, and unnecessary” approach suggested by Republican Vice President Spiro Agnew involving the involuntary sterilization of women on welfare. Once again, the elimination of the “unwanted” is framed as the humane way to achieve population goals—at least as long as you don’t consider the feelings of parents who embrace (or “rationalize”) their unexpected children, and, of course, the children Jaffe proposes to eliminate by abortion.

The “eliminate the ‘unwanted’” proposal is still alive and well, although the terms and incentives have evolved with the shift in global priorities from overpopulation to climate change.

Writing for CNET in 2009, author Candace Lombardi wrote about a paper published by the London School of Economics and commissioned by the Optimum Population Trust, (now renamed as Population Matters):

“The report…determined that if contraception was made widely available between 2010 and 2050 to women and men around the world who wished to use it, the reduction in unwanted births could result in saving 34 gigatonnes (one billion tonnes) of carbon emissions.”

There are multiple problems with that assertion, not least of which is the fact that vast majority of people described as having an “unmet need” for contraceptives are not, in fact, complaining about lack of access and are choosing not to use them for other reasons. Additionally, Lombardi uses the word “unwanted” when in fact the economics paper referred to the elimination of births resulting from “unintended” pregnancies, which includes both pregnancies deemed to be “unwanted” and “mistimed.” But Lombardi is not alone in paraphrasing the findings of the article in this way (here is an additional example). The confusion probably occurs because terms like “unwanted” and “need” have commonly understood meanings that are quite different from the “operational” definitions applied by academics.

But the implications go well beyond mere semantics when proposed policies aim at the elimination of children beloved by their parents, or the meeting of a woman’s “need” for contraceptives that she has already rejected.

Like “unmet need,” “unwantedness” is a term used by activists to advance an agenda under the dubious banner of fulfilling people’s stated needs and wants.   However, a closer look at the definitions reveals that the policies being proposed are designed to meet the demands of those seeking to promote abortion and contraception…by deeming a considerable proportion of the human race expendable.

Next: A solution in search of a problem