Reproductive Freedom In Its Fullest Sense: Rejecting the Dark Legacy of Malthus and Eugenics

Reproductive Freedom In Its Fullest Sense: Rejecting the Dark Legacy of Malthus and Eugenics

Asked to place the headline “Prisons Illegally Sterilizing Female Inmates”, most Americans would assume it came from the Jim Crow South or the height of eugenics in the 1930s. Few, if they hadn’t been tracking the particular story, would guess that the women in question—148 of them—were imprisoned by the State of California between 2006 and 2013. We would like to think that as a culture we’ve progressed beyond the point of forcing reproductive decisions onto marginalized populations. But the views expressed in the case show how easily it is for individuals and institutions to slip into the language and logic of eugenics. The Atlantic quotes one of the involved doctors: 

Over a 10-year period, that [the $147,000 spent on the sterilizations] isn’t a huge amount of money…compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children—as they procreated more.

Clearly, the doctor in question held a frighteningly common view—that certain human beings are a burden, not an asset, to society, and preventing their births is thus the prerogative of the state. This fallacious belief an be traced back at least to Thomas Malthus in the late 18th century, who claimed that the rise of human populations would always strain the resources available to them, famously claiming that food supplies could grow only arithmetically while population grew geometrically, and it was this strain that led to human misery. To Malthus and his many followers, controlling population was the only way to improve living standards, and until population was controlled any other reforms would fail.  It is all too easy to fall into this kind of thinking when considering population and reproductive rights without a firm grounding in individual liberty—and even liberals have been tempted by Malthusian arguments. Too often we accept the basic premises of the illiberal population control and complain only about ‘excesses’, or we use the arguments of authoritarian population controllers to try to sell women’s reproductive rights.

Almost universally, these excesses fall on marginalized populations, especially the women in those populations. When the individuals involved have little public voice or institutional protection—the incarcerated (as in California), the colonized, or the poor—sterilizations and abortions performed with only veneer of consent (if that) may not be exposed until tremendous damage has already been done. The consistent message of liberals must be that individuals have an inherent right to freedom from reproductive coercion, regardless of the justification—not because a smaller population is better for the environment or because a slowing population is better for development, but because it is their inherent right as human beings. History has proven that liberals cannot accept a Malthusian worldview and defend individual liberty. 

Population fixation in liberal history

The error is an old one in liberal history, and perhaps its most classic iteration goes back to no less a pillar of classical liberalism than John Stuart Mill. On the one hand, Mill could write a radical defense of individual rights, and be progressive in his attacks on the systems that held back development and led to starvation and misery. He seemingly spoke in favor of robust government efforts to prevent famine when addressing the reform of the Poor Laws—“none but beneficial consequences can arise from a law which renders it impossible for any person, except by his own choice, to die from insufficiency of food”—while in the same work insisting that “Even in a progressive state of capital, in old countries, a conscientious or prudential restraint on population is indispensable, to prevent the increase of numbers from outstripping the increase of capital.” Both quotations come from Mill’s Principles of Political Economy, reflecting the sentiments that were present during the famine in Ireland which dramatically diminished that country’s population, though written well after. But a belief in overpopulation as the source of famine and poverty is stifling; it discourages investment in poor communities and feeds nihilistic inaction by the very classes who could do the most good. Mill himself admitted that this was the case in 1845 in The Claims of Labour, when he wrote that  

The higher and middle classes might ought to be willing to submit to a very considerable sacrifice of their own means, for improving the condition of the existing generation of labourers, if by this they could hope to provide similar advantages for the generation to come. But why should they be called upon to make these sacrifices, merely that the country may contain a greater number of people, in as great poverty and as great liability to destitution as now?

Mill essentially admits that the comfortable classes cannot be expected to make the appropriate short-term utilitarian sacrifices if they expect that in the long-term Malthus’s theories will hold, and those sacrifices will have been for nothing. And of course, something like that was occurring even as he wrote, as Irish peasants starved, and the government was reluctant to continue its direct assistance. Mill’s admonishments to improve the long term condition of Ireland were insufficient for the crisis at hand, and his focus on population control as a necessary element of any truly effective poverty alleviation gave less charitable policy makers and theorists a strong rebuttal to any reformers who didn’t center Malthus’s doctrines. 

The historian Thomas H Buckle took this thinking to its logical next end, accepting Malthusian claims and applying them to Ireland thus: “the most active cause [of the Irish famine], however, was, that their wages were so low as to debar them, not only from the comforts, but from the common decencies of civilized life; and this evil condition was the natural result of that cheap and abundant food, which encouraged the people to so rapid an increase, that the labour-market was constantly gorged.” Buckle went on to make the same claim about India, connecting inequality and authoritarian rule in that country to its high population. The assumption that an overly large population was the source of the social ills in India naturally fed the argument that a more ‘civilized’, less fecund, society needed to intervene. And so, with prominent liberals failing to protest, the most influential classes in Britain were able to ascribe not just Ireland but also India’s frequent famines under British rule not to misgovernment but to the natural law of population Malthus set forth. This failure to stop imperialism (and in many cases outright cheerleading for it) is rightly considered a stain, perhaps the darkest stain, on the history of Anglophone liberalism. A belief in the inescapable reality of overpopulation was not its only cause, but it was a powerful contributing factor, and it resisted many of the potential solutions that could have been applied to the problems of imperial rule.

If this hypothesis were correct—if population growth really did impede development and create inequality— then even if promulgating the theory led to terrible results when misused, it could perhaps be justified. But this theory seems to have in fact been far off the mark, even in the 19th century. After its 1870 unification, Germany experienced substantial population growth, far beyond that of France or the United Kingdom, and yet its per-person wealth grew even more rapidly. A similar pattern occurred in Japan. This has not kept 20th and 21st century liberals from promulgating similar formulas, however.

The error persists

In 1990, Anthony Beilensen, a California Democrat and Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, published an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times echoing Mill with eerie precision: “So long as current population trends continue, the billions of foreign-aid dollars we spend each year in an effort to alleviate poverty and stimulate economic growth in the Third World are simply being wasted; our generosity will always remain several steps behind the growing number of mouths to feed and hands to employ.” Bielensen not only provides a ready-made excuse for those who would diminish foreign aid, he endorses cutting it off, using the excuse that it will be useless until developing countries curb their population growth. Not only does this Malthusian focus justify the cutting of aid, but it also subtly blames developing countries for their own problem. It claims that it is the very behavior of the global poor—not the structure of the global economy or destabilization by world powers—that makes aid ineffective. While Bielensen never got his goal of replacing all bilateral aid with funds earmarked for population control, US foreign aid did fall off sharply in the 1990s, and the argument that fertility reduction must precede greater development aid has not ceased to be made. 

Even more recently, French President Emmanuel Macron explained that a ‘Marshall Plan for Africa’ wouldn’t work because Africa suffered from ‘Civilizational issues’ that needed to be solved first, including women having ‘seven or eight children.’ In fact, the point Macron was attempting to make was a good one—the rights of women, including the right to be educated and control their own fertility, are critical in building a stable and prosperous country. But focusing on fertility rates dangerously confuses the order of things. Fertility rates will likely fall as development proceeds, and having fewer children in a generation can increase living standards by decreasing the dependent percentage of the population, but treating lower female fertility rates as a goal in itself, especially if there is a perception that international aid is dependent on achieving that goal, is an invitation to human rights abuses in the name of population control—a scenario which occurred repeatedly in the 20th century. After all, if the goal is simply fertility reduction, governments often find it cheaper and easier to simply coerce or bribe poor people into being sterilized rather than trying to educate them on the advantages of smaller families and give them equitable access to birth control.

Beyond this ethical danger, it is simply unclear that total fertility is a major problem for Africa. The fertility rate in Ethiopia and Nigeria is just below and just above 5 children per woman, respectively. This is equivalent to the rate in South Korea in the late 1960s, a period famous for dramatic economic growth. In South Korea, the fertility rate began to fall precisely as the country’s economy took off, and without any major authoritarian population control measures being introduced. Having many children may frequently be a symptom of an underdeveloped economy that fails to provide women with reproductive freedom and education, but it is dangerous to speak of it as a cause and repugnant to make it a condition for economic assistance.

        The more recent decades have also seen a new justification for population control—the environment. While an article in The Atlantic recently called population restriction “The climate change solution no one will talk about”, it is in fact being talked about all the time, and the push for population-based solutions to climate change has been immense and accelerating.  An editorial in the Washington Post by ethicists Francis Kissling, Jotham Musiguzu, and Peter Singer insists that “We should not shy away from discussing what actions are ethically permissible to facilitate a stable level of population growth”. The article itself was entitled “Talking about overpopulation is still taboo”, but the taboo seems to have been broken. Prominent individuals like Al Gore, Jane Goodall, and Bill Gates have all joined the chorus, and most mainstream publications have weighed in as well. 

To their credit, most (though not all!) stop short of officially endorsing the most authoritarian solutions, like the one child model, and most give the most prominent place to voluntary family planning and reproductive freedom. But the argument they make for freedom is precarious—it comes down to asserting that women should be free to make reproductive decisions because they’ll make the ‘correct’ decision—which is already decided in advance. These arguments sound fine in academic atmosphere, but there is plenty of reason to believe that they in practice strengthen the case for those who would trample on reproductive rights. If the purpose of reproductive freedom is to have fewer children, is it reasonable to expect that the government will respect that freedom when women have ‘too many’ children? The Washington Post editorial admits that population panic in the 1960s and 1970s contributed directly to massive human rights abuses, especially as developing countries were coerced by grant policies to cut fertility. This was the case not just in authoritarian states like China, but emerging multiparty states like India and developed democracies like Sweden.

Nonetheless, the authors insist that “The increasing recognition of reproductive health as a human right means there is less likelihood that poor countries will introduce or be coerced into draconian programs of population control.” In other words, we needn’t worry about human rights abuses being perpetrated in the name of population control in this modern, enlightened era. No compelling evidence is provided for this claim, however. If the overwhelming message is that fewer births is the only acceptable outcome of reproductive freedom, there will always be the temptation to coerce and compel individuals to make choices they might otherwise not. And because racist and classist attitudes are still ubiquitous in societies around the world, there can be little doubt that the message of ‘overpopulation’ will continue to be interpreted as a call to curb the growth especially of ‘undesirable’ populations—if not officially, then at the level of decision making on the ground (as was, apparently, the case in the California prison population just a few years ago). And the danger goes beyond state actors—‘eco-fascist’ extremist has been the reported motivation for multiple lone wolf attacks on immigrants, both in New Zealand and Texas. Placing the blame for ecological destruction on overpopulation, terrorists following this ideology put population control beliefs into bloody practice. They are a tiny fringe of those concerned about the impact of population on the environment, but they are clearly inspired by broader discourses on the issue.

Once again, it is possible to imagine a scenario where this alarmism is justified the direness of the situation, and thus any negative side effects a necessary price for population vigilance. But it seems a misguided concern. Six or seven children born to a Nigerian woman in 1990 are today releasing less carbon dioxide than one born to an American woman on the same date. The vast majority of countries still experiencing rapid population growth use such a minimal amount of energy per person that a even massive reduction in their population numbers will not have anywhere near the impact on climate change as a reduction in per capita carbon emissions in North America, Europe, or China. 

So how should liberals approach the question of population?  With full throated advocacy for individual autonomy, economic well being, and environmental protection. To the extent that making the transition to lower fertility rates can boost economic development via demographic effects, the experience of North America and Europe shows that those benefits can be gained from increased education and access to healthcare without resort to specific population control goals. Since education and healthcare access are laudable on their own merits, there is no reason to further justify them with reference to population control. When it comes to the global environment, meanwhile, many tools far more efficacious than developing nation population control have already been identified. Achieving a 25% diminution in carbon emissions—as Sweden has done since 1990—in the United States would mean preventing 1.25 billion tonnes of carbon—more than that produced by one and a half billion hypothetical sub-Saharan Africans (more than currently inhabit that region). Liberals in political, academic, and everyday life ought to make this point forcefully.  Whatever socioeconomic policies would be justified by the need to control population growth can be perfectly well justified on their own terms, and whatever environmental benefits are imagined to flow from population control can be had by better means. Liberals must once and for all stop making Mill’s mistake, and consign Malthusian theory to history books, not today’s discourse. 

Featured image is a first edition of Malthus’s “An Essay on the Principle of Population As it Affects the Future Improvement of Society