Population Control – Out of Control?

Population Control – Out of Control?

by Eleanor J. Bader

Anything you can do to protect the future has to deal with population and its continued growth.

“Seeing triple?” asks the ad from Zero Population Growth (ZPG). “World population, now at 5.4 billion, could nearly triple to 14 billion in the next century,” it explains. “Yet, the impact of our present numbers has already been sufficient to decimate rain forests, hasten wildlife extinction, deplete the ozone layer, pollute our water, and initiate a global warming whose full consequences cannot yet be determined.”

“By the year 2010 we will have 10 billion people if we don’t get some kind of stabilization in place,” agrees Tanya Thomas, Population Activist Coordinator of the National Audubon Society, and former director of the Women of Color program at the National Organization for Women. “There’s a real fear that the earth may not be able to carry 10 billion people. Anything you do to protect the future has to deal with population and its continued growth, or you will have too many people overwhelming an already overwhelmed world.”

The numbers tell one part of the story: Between 1970 and 1990, world population rose by a whopping 47 percent, from 3.632 to 5.321 billion. More than a quarter of a million people, 264,000, are added every day, 11,000 an hour.

Activists like Anne and Paul Ehrlich (authors ofThe Population Explosion), Dr. Garrett Hardin, and Susan Weber of ZPG, alongside organizations like the Population Crisis Committee, the Sierra Club and the Population Institute, are sounding a loud and persistent alarm: Reduce world population by any means or the world may, literally, be destroyed.

Many are jumping on this bandwagon. Clearly, we have all been made aware of the escalating environmental crisis facing us. As ZPG reminds us, our waters are polluted, our air foul. Sea levels are rising, the earth’s temperature is higher than it has ever been, rainforests are being destroyed, and 10,000 varieties of animal, insect and plant life are being lost annually. According to the Ehrlichs, each year the world “has billions fewer tons of topsoil, and hundreds of trillions fewer gallons of groundwater with which to grow crops than it had in 1968.”

Scary stuff, this. In our minds we picture the starving, the malnourished, the desperate. We envision them groveling for food, water and shelter, hoping against hope that there will be enough to go around. “If there were only half as many Americans driving cars, using manufactured devices and consuming electric power,” write the Ehrlichs, “acid rain problems would be comparatively negligible.”

Half as many people… While the theory sounds simple — of course five billion people use more natural resources than, say, three billion — getting people the world over to voluntarily reduce family size is not. Tactics and strategies play an enormous role in how successful such policies will be, for unless population planners and those beating the drum of environmental catastrophe pay careful attention to the myriad social, political and cultural reasons people have children, they will court failure. Furthermore, by sidestepping the complex dynamics in the lives of families across the globe, they risk alienating the bulk of the world: People of color and women.

The consequences of this — the creation of bitter political schisms — are hardly unprecedented. Political splits over advocacy of population control policies have long fractured relations between women of color and white feminists. The failure of many mainstream women’s groups to oppose sterilization abuse (in which women, usually African-American, Latina, or Native American, are operated on without their consent or an understanding of the permanent nature of the procedure) has led to persistant rifts that have weakened the women’s movement. Likewise, the U.S. policy of pointing the finger at lesser developed countries as the cause of environmental woes has led to charges of classism, imperialism and racism.

“My concern,” says the Audubon Society’s Tanya Thomas, “is that when people talk about population growth they like to focus on the fact that most of the growth is happening in the third world, in developing countries. Sometimes that’s used as a scare tactic. The U.S. is one of the most overpopulated countries in the world, not in terms of numbers, but in terms of what we contribute to environmental degradation. We’re five percent of the world’s population, but we’re responsible for over 50 percent of the consumption of natural resources and the production of waste. Population policies can’t deal only with numbers. The U.S. can sustain its population, but look what we’re doing to destroy the world.”

Nor can population experts ignore the role of women, indeed the role of sexism, when formulating population reduction programs. A variety of questions need to be asked and answered before population dimunition can begin: Why do women choose to have child after child, despite risks to both their health and the health of the planet? Or do they choose?

“Deprivation, seclusion, violence, all these serve to keep women (in developing countries) in their place,” writes Betsy Hartmann in Reproductive Rights and Wrongs (Harper and Row, 1987). “And part of being in that place is having children. For with no other option but the home or, at best, a low-paying job, women turn to children as their primary source of power. The birth of a first child, especially a son, brings a woman an automatic status that other domestic roles such as cooking and cleaning do not. A child pleases a woman’s husband and her in-laws, the people who control her life. Children are a woman’s constituency within the narrow political world of the family; the more she has, the stronger her clout. If she is infertile, her status plummets and she often falls victim to polygamy, desertion or divorce.” In addition, other forces come into play. Hartman reminds us that Indian women, accepting a preference for sons that is culturally mandated, have an average of 6.3 offspring to ensure the survival of one male into adulthood. Similarly, in the African Sahel women average 10 children apiece, the only way to guarantee that at least one son will survive to age 38.

Hartman is particularly leery of efforts that ignore such variables and which substitute population control for social justice. “Improvements in living standards and the position of women, via more equitable social and economic development, motivate people to want fewer children,” she says. “In the absence of such improvements, the scope for voluntary reduction of population growth is limited.”

Hartmann grounds her critique in experience. She has lived in Bangladesh and has witnessed firsthand the poverty and the policies that have been crafted to eradicate it. But like much of the socalled third world, Bangladesh remains impoverished. Life expectancy is only 50; infant mortality is 125 per 1000; and nearly half of the babies who survive birth become physically stunted by the time they are four due to malnutrition. More than half the population is chronically unemployed, while 10 percent of the country’s households own 50 percent of the arable land.

Part of the Bangladesh government’s solution to the searing economic situation it is in is population control. Although the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act has, since 1989, forbidden the use of U.S. funds to pay for the “performance of voluntary sterilizations as a method of family planning or to coerce or provide any financial incentive to any person to undergo sterilization,” Hartmann says that the Agency for International Development (AID), has found a way around the financial incentive ban. “In Bangladesh AID skirts the law by calling the incentives compensation payments. It maintains that the money is intended to cover transportation, food costs and wages lost due to the operation. The free saris and lungis are justified as ‘surgical apparel’ since the peasant’s clothing is unhygienic. In fact, the clothing is often handed out after the operation, giving the lie to the surgical apparel argument. Moreover, free clothing is not handed out after other forms of surgery.”

Incentives have been provided to Bangladesh’s people since 1976. Not surprisingly, given the country’s economic situation, the majority of people who take advantage of their provision are poor. Seasonal variations have also been noted: Most sterilizations are performed during the months of lowest food stocks and highest rural unemployment. In July, 1984, “flood month,” one researcher documented 257,000 sterilizations in exchange for food — one-fourth as many as were performed between 1972 and 1982. And it is not only in Bangladesh that such realities exist. India, Java, Kenya, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Thailand, to name just some of the countries targetted by AID for population reduction, have similar tales to tell.

“I’m concerned about the kinds of contraception being pushed,” says Tanya Thomas. “We need to be very careful. We want family planning to be available to all the people who want it. If we can do that we’ll bring the population down. But how we do outreach is important. It has to be culturally sensitive.”

The issue of choice is central to the world’s women. A1983 study by the World Bank found that between one-half and one-third of Bangladesh’s women did not know of any way, besides sterilization, to avoid pregnancy. “The mortality rate from IUDs in the third world is roughly double that in the West because of the increased risk from infections, septic abortions and untreated ectopic pregnancies,” says Hartmann. “In countries where malnutrition and anemia are common, the increased menstrual blood loss associated with IUDs leads to iron depletion in many women after 12 months of use.” Similarly, health care inaccessibility makes injectable or implanted contraceptives risky. Side effects, from intermittent bleeding, to headaches, depression, nausea and loss of libido, coupled with the possibility of infection if the implant is not inserted or removed in a sterile environment, pose obvious dangers. And, use of the birth control pill is also potentially damaging, as routine medical monitoring is all but a pipe dream for the majority of people.

“Unless we as organizations and individuals work on two fronts — creating just laws regarding access to contraception and abortion, and attempting to change the conditions of people’s lives — we will be dealing with only half the problem,” says Frances Kissling of the Global Fund for Women. Like many feminist reproductive rights activists, she cautions environmentalists like the Ehrlichs to remember that improving the conditions of women’s lives has a dramatic impact on reducing population. Concomitantly, reducing infant mortality, equalizing access to health care, and guaranteeing women the right to basic services such as education and housing will lead to the desired goal: Smaller families.

Although a variety of agencies and governments can point to “successful” population reduction programs — countries in which up to a third of the population has been sterilized — the rancor and rage engendered by coercive programs has meant that many developing countries refuse to address the environmental impact of population growth. By alienating such people, important allies have already been lost, and a great deal of healing will have to take place before cooperation can be assured.

So where does this leave the environmental and feminist movements? “I think there are going to be a lot of important discussions going on because there’s a lot of overlap,” says Patricia Ireland, Executive Vice President of the National Organization for Women. “There are a lot of feminists who are part of the environmental movement, who’ll be pushing the debate between women’s rights to individual freedom and the question of how much freedom a woman has to give up for the good of the whole.”

Ireland also envisions spirited discussions on contraceptive availability. Unlike Hartmann, she believes that some forms of birth control, like the injectable Depo-Provera, may be encouraged despite known risks because the question of safety has to be put into context. “Is it safe? Compared to what? One-hundredthousand botched abortions?”

Tamar Raphael, of the Fund for the Feminist Majority, agrees with Ireland. While she and the Fund advocate a host of reforms to reduce economic injustice, she knows that this is a long-range solution. “Ending poverty is not something we can do overnight. It’s not the root cause of why women want to control their fertility. It’s not only a question of poverty.” Nonetheless, she asks some pointed questions that feminists and environmentalists would be wise to address. “Is it moral to force a woman in Ethiopia to have a child when she knows that child will die of starvation before age three? Can society force women — should society force women—to carry a child to term when they know that child will die?”

How we come down on these questions will determine the types of coalitions we build and the types of alliances we make. For some, the question of women’s lives and female access to economic resources and opportunities is central to any discussion of population policies. For others, the question of finite natural resources takes center stage. The two camps have urgent cause for debate and action. “We’ve turned the world into a giant wastebucket,” says the Audubon Society’s Tanya Thomas. “If something isn’t done immediately we’ll be past the point of doing something to save it.”