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One little history of population theory » Family Planning

One little history of population theory

October 16th, 2008 by mjromano Leave a reply »

It’s hard to identify the origins of the idea of global overpopulation, but in this blog entry I nonetheless want to trace some of the ideological history of the Western concept of “population control.” Although attempts to regulate birth and death rates of populations stretch far back in history, my history of population control is going to begin with in the late 18th century with the aptly nicknamed Thomas “Pop” (short for Population) Malthus.

“Pop” Malthus was born into an industrialized British society that generally agreed that more people in the world led to more production, which would generally benefit society. Malthus saw something different in the population growth of post-Industrial Revolution Britain, and in 1798 he published his Essay on the Principle of Population, which he republished five times over the course of his life. In his Essay, Malthus argues that populations inevitably outgrow their productive capacity to feed themselves. This Law of Population was grounded in a mathematical observation that population increases at a “geometrical” rate (i.e. 1, 2, 4, 8, 16 etc.) whereas food-supply increases at an “arithmetical” rate (i.e. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc.). Therefore, Malthus argued, populations are continually overburdening their food supply and “natural causes, misery, and vice” serve to check that growth. In later editions, Malthus introduced the corrective of “moral restraint” in the form of abstinence and late marriage to prevent the misery and vice necessarily resulting from overpopulation. Malthus opposed contraception, murder, and homosexuality as various forms of vice, which is interesting considering the birth control movements that later benefited from his work. Malthus’ ideas led to the abolition of social welfare programs because “if a man will not work, neither should he eat” (xxiii).

Besides the immediate repercussions in Britain, Malthus’ theory informed the birth control and eugenics movements in the United States in the early 20th century. Eugenics is a movement to genetically improve the human race by regulating reproduction. Feminist movements in the US have also focused on birth control in the context of reproductive rights, which led to a strange coalition between feminists and eugenicists in the early 20th century. Margaret Sanger, a famous birth control advocate and founder of the American Birth Control League (which later became Planned Parenthood) was an outspoken eugenicist who argued that “more children from the fit and less from the unfit” was “the chief issue of birth control” (1). American anarchist Emma Goldman was arrested once for distributing a pamphlet entitled “Why and How the Poor Should Not Have many Children” (2). Why did eugenicists and birth control advocates get along so well? Because they were both advocating for deliberate control over reproduction. Eugenicists and birth control advocates both believed that human reproduction could and should be controlled in modern society, and they only differed in the distinction of who should do that controlling. While birth control advocates and eugenicists did not exclusively focus on overall population control, they laid the groundwork for later population policies.

After World War II, President Eisenhower established a committee headed by investment banker and General William H. Draper to study the US Military Assistance Program that ultimately refocused US foreign aid on population control. I will discuss the role of US Agency for International Development (USAID) in future posts, but here I will simply say that at least some of the agency agreed with the USAID official who said that “progress should be measured in the only terms which ultimately matter – births averted.” While official US policy certainly placed an emphasis on population control, private organizations also took an active role in confronting population growth. The majority of US dollars spent on international population control in the mid 20th century bore the names of prominent American philanthropists such as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, John Kellogg, and Henry Ford. These businessmen applied Malthusian arguments to fuel their fear of third world population growth.

In 1969 Stanford population biologist Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb , which foreshadowed a shift away from a strictly “third world” population debate. The Population Bomb argued that overpopulation had finally reached its Malthusian limits and predicted mass famines in the 1970s and ‘80s. Although Ehrlich’s predictions were just as inaccurate as Malthus’ nearly two hundred years earlier, he introduced the idea that overpopulation only mattered inasmuch as populations overburdened their natural environments. Ehrlich argued that the impact (I) of humans depended equally on population size (P), affluence (A), and technological capability (T). Mathematically expressed,  I = P A T  introduced the idea that affluent countries with their high consumption were arguably more guilty than poor countries for the overpopulation problem. The Population Bomb’s popularity exemplified a growing American interest in “overpopulation” as the root of the world’s problems, which was mirrored on an international level in the United Nations (UN).

In 1974 the UN held a population conference in Bucharest to mark the officially decreed Year of Population that largely redefined international population policy. The conference brought together world leaders to craft a World Population Plan of Action, which surprisingly refuted uncomplicated overpopulation by emphasizing the “population-development linkage” and calling for more family planning programs. To the surprise of the American delegation headed by then Secretary of Health, Education and Education Caspar Weinberger, the Plan excluded strict population targets and criticized Western consumption. Karen Singh, head of the Indian delegation to the conference, summarized the tone of the conference when she stated that “development is the best contraceptive” (3). At the conference even John D. Rockefeller III, the so-called godfather of the population movement, said that “the place for population planning is within the context of modern economic and social development” (4). I should also note that the renewed emphasis on development was part of a larger economic movement leading to massive international lending and the third world debt crisis of the 1980s. The Bucharest Conference was a turning point in international population policy as it shifted mainstream policy towards family planning and reproductive rights.

Since 1974 international population policy has continued to develop, but I will conclude my brief ideological history of population control then because it marks the shift to the current “family planning” model of population control. The threads of Malthus’ law of population, eugenics, feminism, IPAT, and the population-development linkage all continue to shape population control policies to this day. In general, the current rhetoric of mainstream international population control now focuses on “family planning,” although traces of earlier ideological movements still abound. I have obviously selected only a few facts to tell the history of population theory, but hopefully it will establish some background for current rationales behind population control.

1. Margaret Sanger, A Code to Stop Overproduction of Children. Cited in Elasah Drogin, Margaret Sanger: Father of Modern Society (New Hope, Kentucky: Cul
Publications, 1979), 70.
2. Hartmann, Betsy, Reproductive Rights and Wrongs, South End Press: 1999. pp. 94, 97,
3. Hardin, Garrett, Living Within Limits. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
4. Hartmann, p 107.



  1. jliebner@stanford.edu says:

    Again, WOW, Max. I find it interesting that Malthus opposed contraception and homosexuality as methods of corrective restraint against overpopulation, when technically, both methods, would lead to fewer pregnancies. Another surprising point was the coordinated efforts of eugenicists and birth control advocates – and that the founder of what would be Planned Parenthood was an advocate survivors of procreation only among select members of the population! It would be interesting to see how USAID has changed its stance on the quote, “progress should be measured in the only terms which ultimately matter – births averted,” particularly given the gender preferences that have resulted from such measures that reduced the number of births in some countries – ie gender selected abortions or killing of infants in countries like India. Is reducing the number of births at any cost considered progress?

  2. Maggie Chen says:

    I really enjoyed your ‘little history’ of population theory. I’ve never seen all of these major points in population theory put together so clearly and succinctly!
    Your discussion of eugenicists and birth control advocates was particularly interesting and personally relevant. Margaret Sanger happens to be one of the reasons why my family named me Margaret (I have a grandmother who started the Planned Parenthood chapter in her town and believes Sanger to be one of her heroes). When I was about 12 and found out some of the racially based comments Sanger made, for example her encouragement of forced sterilization for black women, I was outraged that I was even tied to her by name. After some deeper reflection, I’m still questioning how to feel about a woman who stood up for a social cause, but did so in such a discriminatory manner.

    Lastly, just wanted to respond to your comment on the use of “we.” I agree that it gets tossed around a lot, and it’s important to define what it means. In my blog entry, my use of “we” was quite narrow. I was thinking about the kids I knew in high school who had ample health insurance coverage, but who said they could always “fall back” on Planned Parenthood if emergency contraception or an abortion were needed. So I think that some people who have options in where to obtain care perhaps don’t appreciate what it’s like to have a public clinic as the only option.

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