The word “ethics” appears prominently in the biographies of the authors who co-wrote a recent Washington Post op-ed lamenting the “taboo” associated with “talking about overpopulation.” Frances Kissling is the president of the Center for Health, Ethics, and Social Policy. Peter Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University. Only Jotham Musinguzi, the “director general of Uganda’s National Population Council,” doesn’t mention “ethics” in the bio. That’s good because the Malthusian views promulgated in the piece are anything but ethical.
Inauspiciously, the authors begin by applying a coat of gloss over Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb, which they note had a “major impact” on public policy but that “spurred a backlash” rendering the discussion of its thesis “radioactive.” Indeed, that’s only just. Ehrlich’s claims were dead wrong.
Ehrlich claimed that the Earth had a finite “carrying capacity,” and its limits were about to be tested. He claimed that mass starvation was imminent; hundreds of millions would die. Neither the first nor the third world would be spared; the average American lifespan would decline to just 42 by 1980. Ehrlich continued to make apocalyptic predictions after his book became a sensation. “Most of the people who are going to die in the greatest cataclysm in the history of man have already been born,” he wrote in 1969. A year later: “The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years.” Between 1980 and 1989, most of the Earth’s population, including over one-third of all Americans, would die or be murdered what he grimly dubbed “the Great Die-Off.” As recently as this year, Ehrlich—who still teaches at Stanford University—said that civilizational collapse remains a likely prospect and the chief shortcoming of his most famous book was that it failed to invoke the modern progressive Trinity: feminism, anti-racism, and inequality.
Our WaPo ethicists don’t tackle any of this. Indeed, they favorably observe that Ehrlich’s warnings render family planning in the developed world a necessity to stave off the unfortunate circumstances that would force wealthy nations to withhold food aid from the developing world to induce “necessary and justifiable” chaos and starvation. Seriously.
Because population control is not a problem in the developed world, where birthrates are declining below even replacement rates, population controllers tend to fixate on sexual habits in the developing world. The authors of this op-ed are no exception. They draw an almost always fallacious straight-line projection to conclude that—in the unlikely event that nothing changes between today and 2100—a population crisis should afflict a variety of Sub-Saharan African nations. To avert this crisis, they advocate promoting and supporting proper sexual hygiene, to which almost no one would object. But their authors’ core agenda isn’t the distribution of prophylactics. They seek to de-stigmatize abortion in the equatorial world, which is controversial for reasons that have nothing to do with faith. After all, it was The Population Bomb and its progenitors that lent renewed legitimacy to old arguments that inevitably result in targeting black and brown populations with sterilization and eugenics.
The title of Ehrlich’s book was lifted from a 1954 pamphlet issued by Gen. William Draper’s Population Crisis Committee, and it arguably inaugurated the overpopulation fad toward which pop intellectuals were drawn in the 20th Century. The effects this mania had on public policy were terrible. In the United States, population control hysteria led, in part, to the sterilization of “up to one-quarter” of the Native American women of childbearing age by 1977, according to Angela Franks’ 2005 book, Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy. “The large number of sterilizations began in earnest in 1966, when Medicaid came into existence and funded the operation for low-income people.” Thousands of Native American women in the early to mid-1970s were sterilized after signing consent forms that failed to comply with regulations.
With the assistance of the U.S. government and the International Planned Parenthood Federation, the Puerto Rican government operated a program of voluntary female sterilization for decades, but it was “voluntary” in the most perverse sense. Pressure from employers and public incentives united to “liberate” women from the drudgery of childbearing, leaving many women without much of a choice in the matter. A 1965 survey of Puerto Rican women found that one-third of women in prime child-bearing years admitted to undergoing sterilization.
America’s minority populations were, however, a secondary concern to population controllers. It was, as ever, the so-called underdeveloped world that preoccupies the technocrats. Toward supposedly enlightened ends, the World Bank, working in quiet concert with the U.S. government, helped to advance Washington’s unstated goal of keeping population levels in the developing world down. “In some cases, strong direction has involved incentives such as payment to acceptors for sterilization, or disincentives such as giving low priorities in the allocation of housing or schooling to those with larger families,” a triumphant 1974 National Security Council memorandum read. As part of this campaign, American philanthropic institutions working with USAID reportedly distributed unsafe and untested contraceptive devices in the developing world. “USAID has been able to put some distance between itself and many of the more objectionable elements of its population agenda,” Population Research Institute’s James A. Miller wrote in a 1996 exposé.
For decades, a pseudoscientific religion that justified coercion and eugenics to achieve “optimal” population ratios quietly guided the development of Western public policy. In a comprehensive 2012 essay in The New Atlantis, Robert Zubrin demonstrated conclusively that 20th Century population control programs were “dictatorial,” “dishonest,” “coercive,” “medically irresponsible and negligent,” “cruel, callous, and abusive of human dignity and human rights,” and, perhaps most of all, “racist.” It was, in fact, their “neocolonial” aspects that led to a left-wing revolt against population controllers in the 1970s. But the left will never be able to entirely divorce itself from the logic that led to population control because they are Malthusians at heart. From peak Earth to peak oil, the left is possessed of a boundless pessimism. Theirs is an ideology that is founded upon the belief that life is a zero-sum game; all commodities are finite and can only be distributed fairly by enlightened elites. They will always underestimate humanity’s capacity to engineer itself out of a jam.
So, yes, overpopulation is a “taboo” subject because it has justified one of the most grotesque campaigns of industrialized human rights abuses the world has ever seen. In making a veiled argument in favor of abortion, our ethicists have inadvertently made their opponents’ case for them: reproductive controls targeting women in the developing world inevitably legitimize condescension, imperialism, and dehumanization. “The conversation about ethics, population and reproduction needs to shift from the perspective of white donor countries,” the authors conclude. And yet, as was ever the case, the “perspective of white donor countries” seems always to be the place from which dangerous ideas about the undesirable procreative habits of women in the equatorial world spring. Fifty years after the publication of a book that helped to legitimize the sterilization of millions in the developing world, that kind of noxious chauvinism remains a prominent feature of the population control movement.