Commentary by Steven W. Mosher, President, Population Research Institute
June 23, 2009 (PRI) – Politically motivated panels rarely produce good science, and the report of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development, and Reproductive Health of the U.K. Parliament is no exception. The report, “Return of the Population Growth Factor: Its Impact upon the Millennium Development Goals,” is a mishmash of justifications for the powerful of the world to continue to dictate the fertility of the powerless.1 It is even illustrated, in Science magazine's summary of the report, with a picture of a starving African child, presumably to drive home the authors' view that there are already too many Africans.
Having just returned from China, the careful admission, by the authors of the Science article, that in the past, “some Asian policy initiatives incorporated coercive elements” strikes me as risible. I would like to report that in southern Hebei province, according to eyewitnesses that I interviewed, hundreds of pregnant women are being rounded up and forcibly aborted by lethal injection as you read this. It is significant that the authors have in the past applauded China's one-child policy, revealing both their bias in favor of rigorous “family planning” programs run by the state and – what is the same thing – their utter disdain for the universally recognized right of parents to determine the number and spacing of their children.
It may appear to the members of the British Parliamentary Group that family planning programs in developing countries are “entirely voluntary,” but I assure you that this is not the case on the ground in Asia, Africa and Latin America. We at PRI have documented serious human rights abuses in what should properly still be called population control programs in over 40 countries.2 To bolster their case, the authors point to surveys which purportedly show a high “unmet need for contraception,” but these survey instruments, as I have argued elsewhere, are flawed. They are designed and interpreted to prove what they should instead be objectively assessing.3
Still, I was pleased to see that the authors have been constrained by falling birthrates worldwide to considerably limit the scope of their population control efforts, chiefly to sub-Saharan Africa. To what other continent can they turn to justify their interventions? The developed world is dying, South America is close to replacement rate fertility, and even Asia has seen dramatic reductions in birth rates over the past two decades. Only in Africa does one still find robust birthrates.
This is not heedless breeding, as many assume. Rather, it is a consequence of persistently high infant and child mortality rates on that continent. If you know that one or more of your children will die before adulthood, the prudent thing to do is to have more children. Anyone who is concerned about lowering fertility rates in Africa should focus their energies on lowering the mortality rate. Fertility rates will follow.
The British Parliamentarians argue that it will be difficult to achieve a number of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) without a “substantial increase” in population control spending. But their justifications in each case seem contorted, even forced. Let me explain what I mean.
They argue that it will be “almost impossible” to achieve the MDG of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger without population control. Does anyone else find it odd that the effort to eliminate poverty and hunger should involve the elimination of the poor and hungry? They ask for bread and we give them contraceptives. They ask for help with malaria and HIV/AIDS and we sterilize them.
Although population control programs are generally justified in terms of helping the poor and downtrodden, other, less presentable justifications lurk in the background. Consider the following assertion of the UN Population Fund, which is quoted by the authors: “… almost 1.5 billion young men and women will enter the 20-to-24 age cohort between 2000 and 2015, and if they don't find jobs 'they will fuel political instability'.” This sentiment echoes that of the infamous National Security Study Memorandum 200, which in 1974 claimed that high birth rates led to Communist insurrections. Thus was population control made a weapon in the Cold War. Are the authors seriously proposing that we control unemployment by means of birth control, pace Nancy Pelosi? And whose interests are we serving if we do?
Like nearly everyone, I applaud the MDG of universal primary school education for girls as well as boys. But there are surely more humane ways to achieve this than by driving down the birthrate. After all, the chief victims of population control programs are preborn and newborn baby girls, who are aborted and abandoned in large numbers to ensure the safe arrival of their culturally preferred brothers. Also note that the authors advance universal primary education principally as a way of keeping girls from marrying and having children. This is a remarkably constrained view of human potential.
Another MDG is to “promote gender equality and empower women,” which the authors argue will be achieved by family planning. It is hard to see how targeting women in foreign-funded fertility control programs in any way empowers them. Instead, it rather treats them as breeding machines to be disabled. We at PRI have carried out surveys in several African countries which show that while women desire many forms of health care, “reproductive health care” is not one of them. If you really want to empower women, health-wise, help them to meet their personal and familial health needs by providing antibiotics, vitamin supplements, malaria tablets, etc.
No one would dispute the importance of reducing child mortality, another MDG goal. It is also one that is, through the provision of primary health care and reasonable nutrition, eminently achievable. Instead the authors take us down the convoluted and indirect path of reducing child mortality … by spacing births. Now it may be true that “an estimated one million infant deaths a year could be prevented if all births were spaced a minimum of 2 years apart,” but it is disingenuous for the authors to claim that this is either their primary motivation or the most efficient means to this end.
Their real goal, quite obviously, is to eliminate the ten million or so babies each year who are born within 24 months of a sibling. Reducing the infant mortality rate is merely a convenient cover story for their real end. This is, as the article admits, further reductions in fertility rates.
As far as improving maternal health, the next MDG goal they mention, the same objection applies. They claim that “family planning saves lives by reducing unintended pregnancies and unsafe abortions,” but this is just a side effect of their real goal, which is to reduce the number of children born. As everyone by now knows, if you want to reduce maternal mortality, you address the problem of unattended births. If you do so, you will save not just the 150,000 lives claimed by the authors, but easily 10 times that number.
The report concludes with a breathless plea that echoes back to the original, discredited, population bomb thesis: If population growth is not slowed—in the few remaining countries where it is still a problem—then “hundreds of millions of families will suffer from poverty, hunger, inadequate education, and lack of employment opportunities.”
Better, the authors imply, if they had never been born.
1 Martha Campbell, John Cleland, Alex Ezeh, Ndola Prata, “Return of the Population Growth Factor,” Science 315 (16 March 2007): 1501-2.
2 Steven W. Mosher, Population Control: Real Costs and Illusory Benefits (New Brunswick: Transaction Press, 2008), especially Chapter 5.
3 Steven W. Mosher, “'Reproductive Health Care,' the 'Demographic Imperative,' and the Real Health Needs of Women in the Developing World (Part One),” Linacre Quarterly Vol. 76, No. 1 (February 2009), 38-42.