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A feminist on population control… » Family Planning

A feminist on population control…

October 14th, 2008 by mjromano Leave a reply »

Today there are around 6.58 billion people on this planet, and nearly half of them are women. As the global population continues to grow, people feel threatened by the concept of diminishing resources. Individual communities confront shortages of physical capital and draw the rational conclusion that fewer people would use fewer precious resources. For North Americans visiting many parts of the world, overpopulation appears to be the clear cause of much human suffering. From single mothers supporting multiple children to environmental degradation due to overgrazing or excessive firewood harvesting, the evidence seems to point clearly at “overpopulation” as the root cause of continual cycles of poverty and pain. In seeking to address “population,” our policies disproportionately focus on women’s roles as mothers, specifically women of color who live in the third world. Although male condoms and male sterilization exist around the world, they constitute only 15 percent of global contraceptive use compared with women-directed methods such as female sterilization, IUDs, birth control pills, and injectable contraceptives constituting 75 percent of contraceptive.(1) But in order to address the issue of population growth, we must understand multiple influential factors and not solely address the last step in a complex chain reaction. Population control is not a “magic bullet” that summarily addresses the evils of our world, but rather a small solution to a very big problem. The problem is that poverty leads to high birth rates and high birth rates contribute to poverty, and efforts to address poverty must be multifaceted beyond a simple belief that fewer people will make the world better. The association between population growth and poverty is more complex than a simple cause and effect argument, and this blog aims to present a feminist perspective on the coercive nature of population control policies around the world.

I am drawn to this issue by my disgust at how enfranchised Americans use “overpopulation” as a rationale for blaming poor women of color for all the ills of the world. There are many problems with that rationale. Firstly, population growth per se is not of serious concern, but rather our concern is with humankind’s rapid depletion of natural resources and consequent suffering. The strict population control argument is problematic because resource depletion depends not only on how many people are extracting resources, but also on how much each person is extracting. According to population biologist Paul Ehrlich, Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology. This equation suggests that how much people consume affects overall environmental impact just as much as how many people consume. For example, if our concern is that the world will run out of drinkable water, then the average American who consumes water at nearly ten times the rate of the average Sub-Saharan African is really of greater concern.(2) But highly resource-consuming individuals seldom lay blame for global problems on themselves, and instead seek ways to solve their problems elsewhere.

Another reason why poor women of color’s procreation is not responsible for the ills of the world is that society has systematically and deliberately disenfranchised them, therefore suggesting that blame belongs to their oppressors. The insinuation that women deliberately refuse reproductive control ignores the complexity of human decision-making and the context of their reproductive lives. Nobel Laureate Economist Amartya Sen argues that famines and other forms of human deprivation are not fundamentally caused by overall resource shortages, but rather by our systems of ownership and entitlement. Population alone does not cause suffering, but rather the systems through which resources are distributed cause suffering.

Additionally, a woman’s individual reproductive rights are not automatically subsumed by the public health concern of “overpopulation.” The recent shift in rhetoric from “population” and “birth control” to “reproductive health” and “family planning” suggests that this shift in priorities is underway. Any effort to address population growth must be tempered by a strong belief in human rights and the right of a woman to control her own procreation.

I see two general feminist perspectives from which I can confront these issues of coercive population control and reproductive rights.(3) The first is a reformist lens that calls for enforcement of women’s reproductive rights in place of strict “population stabilization” through a variety of contraceptive methods, education, and other reproductive health services. The reformist lens critiques strict demographic rationales for population control policies, but it also pragmatically acknowledges those rationales as means to securing resources for reproductive health work. The second feminist perspective is more radical and critical of “population stabilization” efforts. The radical perspective rejects any attempt to control women’s reproduction as an instrument for achieving demographic goals. This second perspective demands strict adherence to an individual human rights rationale for improving women’s control over their own reproduction. The radical and reformist feminist perspectives will guide my analysis of population control issues throughout my writing here.

This blog will discuss population control practices as they pertain to the oppression of women. I will start with a history of population politics from Malthus to Ehrlich, and suggest some of the ethical repercussions of these population theories. Then I will discuss numerous examples of exploitative or coercive population control policies that have violated women’s rights, viewed from either a reformist or radical feminist perspective or both. I hope to conclude the blog within a few months with a few entries on useful strategies that address both women’s reproductive rights and population stabilization. As a disclaimer, I will state that I am a liberal, American, male, humanist, feminist writer completing this blog for a class assignment. I hope to learn more about feminism, ethics, and myself through the writing of this blog. I hope you learn from my research and ramblings, and please comment if something strikes a nerve in you.

1. World Population Monitoring, 2002: Reproductive Rights and Reproductive Health
By United Nations Dept. of Economic and Social Affairs. Population Division, United Nations
Published by United Nations Publications, 2004
2. http://earthtrends.wri.org/index.php World Resources Institute
3. http://www.cwpe.org/resources/popcontrol/uspoppolicy


1 comment

  1. mjromano@stanford.edu says:

    Some Comments:

    # Maggie Chen Says:
    October 11th, 2008 at 6:29 pm

    Max, I really enjoyed your first entry. At some points, I had to pause in reading it to process what you had just written–each sentence is packed, and some are very powerful. I resonated with your pointed comments on ‘enfranchised Americans’ and ‘high resource-consuming individuals.’ I think that many of the population control policies come from these groups of people, and I wonder how turning the lens on their (our) own consumption patterns might change their opinions on poor women’s childbearing patterns in relation to resource depletion. The question that always comes to my mind when we talk about policy makers and imposing western ideals on women in developing countries is: What do the women affected by these policies think and want? What do they see as the solution? I wonder whether there are any sources that offer their perspective, or whether their voices have been silenced to the degree that we can’t hear them at all (apologies for the weird pun).

    # jliebner Says:
    October 11th, 2008 at 11:19 pm

    Wow Max. Your writing appears to be incredibly charged and passionate. I look forward to learning more about what you have to say, in particularly how you draw in theories and frame your arguments. I feel that my little blog on Jamaica is just one of your examples, so I look forward to reading more about other examples of political exploits that infringe upon a woman’s right to govern her own fertility. I like how you framed this entry with the idea of overpopulation and how you will discuss academic theories behind such arguments. What I am most looking forward to is your recommendations for feminist-sensitive methods of population stabilization. I feel that a heavy sense of tradition and culture, along with an woman’s innate association with childbirth and fertility, has resulted in the presiding approaches to population control that focus so much on female contraceptive methods. However, I wonder if some methods of contraception that do rely on females (female condom, diaphragm, birth control pills, etc) would still fall under a sexist approach to population control. My qualms with government mandated approaches particularly pertain to forced sterilization techniques that irreversibly have an effect on a woman’s body and the associated gender preference of infants born under the one-child policy. I look forward to reading your thoughts in the future. Great first entry, Max. You definitely highlighted the issues of poverty and overpopulation much more strongly that I did and I thank you for that.

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