Don’t Conflate Population Control and Eugenics With Voluntary Population Stabilization

I admit to gnashing my teeth when I read Caitlin Fendley’s op-ed in yesterday’s Washington Post. While there were some valid points raised, it conflated the history of our group and the movement at large. In that sense, it’s a bit like excoriating today’s Democratic Party for the overt racism of President Wilson.

While ZPG did attract some odd types in its early movement years, we transformed ourselves into a fully progressive entity about a decade after our founding (and changed our name nearly 20 years ago). Consider, for example, this fairly recent blog post.

To be frank, Ms. Fendley seriously misrepresented the scientists’ statement when she contended:

Last year, a group of 11,000 scientists signed a statement urging population control to slow human exploitation of Earth’s fragile resources. With climate change finally a topic of urgent debate, some have argued that limiting population growth — if not eugenics — could be part of saving the planet.

Here is what that statement actually said:

Still increasing by roughly 80 million people per year, or more than 200,000 per day, the world population must be stabilized—and, ideally, gradually reduced—within a framework that ensures social integrity. There are proven and effective policies that strengthen human rights while lowering fertility rates and lessening the impacts of population growth on GHG emissions and biodiversity loss. These policies make family-planning services available to all people, remove barriers to their access and achieve full gender equity, including primary and secondary education as a global norm for all, especially girls and young women.

Instead, Fendley used the phrase “population control” and in so doing linked to an article about the statement, not the statement itself. Nowhere in that statement does the inflammatory phrase “population control” appear. Since Fendley is a historian, wouldn’t it be better to cite original sources, when available? Of course, that would have damaged her argument.

And the final sentence of her paragraph above deploys the shopworn rhetorical tactic of “if not eugenics” to plant a false notion. It’s a bit like asserting, “I’m not saying XX is an outright thief.” By not saying it, she’s saying it.

Three things are true and relevant here:

  • Concern about population growth has a fraught history replete with heinous actions and awful statements.
  • Every woman everywhere must be free to make her own thoughtful, purely voluntary choices about whether and when to bear children.
  • Human population growth is a defining fact of our age with many deleterious impacts on people and on the planet.

It does appear as if some in the U.S. reproductive justice movement may overlook concerns about population growth expressed by leaders in the Global South such as Dr. Leticia Adelaide Appiah, executive director of the National Population Council, Ghana, who stated, “Currently, Africa’s problem is the extremely rapid population growth rate that makes it extremely difficult for governments to supply the needed social and economic programs to improve quality of life.”

We Americans do have the unfortunate tendency to assume that our own issues and problems are the only ones that matter, while millions and billions of people around the world struggle with their own profound challenges—one of which is rapid population growth.

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