Population Bomb?

Published March 1, 1999

Despite recent opinion polls that show Americans no longer approve the use of their money to support international programs aimed at limiting births, U.S. philanthropic foundations continue to pour millions of dollars into the worldwide population control movement.

While new studies show that world population growth poses little threat to social stability, the nation’s philanthropic foundations last year alone awarded some $150 million in population grants, an amount expected to grow in the future.

“Among America’s very richest self-made men today, [media mogul Ted] Turner’s passion for curbing world population growth . . . is closer to being the general rule than an exception,” writes Nicholas Eberstadt in the November/December issue of Philanthropy magazine, a publication of The Philanthropy Roundtable in Washington, DC. Eberstadt, a researcher with the Harvard Center for Population Studies and the American Enterprise Institute, concludes that American philanthropy is continuing its “long fruitless affair with population control.”

At the forefront of philanthropy’s renewed offensive to combat what some say remains the main threat to the planet’s natural resources is Turner, who in the fall of 1997 pledged $1 billion to the United Nations. Turner’s United Nations Foundation has as its principal goal the slowing of population growth and reduction of global fertility levels.

“Overpopulation is the single most important issue facing mankind today,” Turner told the Village Voice in an October interview.

A relatively new movement, population control efforts attracted a growing audience shortly after World War II, Eberstadt argues, because advances in medical science and public health programs sent the world’s mortality rate into decline. Then, as now, efforts to curb birth rates were focused on Third World countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

The movement’s efforts to attract support were made difficult by perceived ties to the proponents of eugenics: improving the overall quality of a society through sterilization and other methods to restrict the breeding of “inferior” humans.

“Once the Nazi horrors had been fully uncovered with Germany’s defeat,” notes Eberstadt, “it was impossible to speak in polite society in such a manner again.”

But in the early 1950s, such fears gave way to the Planned Parenthood notion of voluntary decisions to limit family size. The Rockefeller Foundation was first to throw its support to the revitalized population control movement. The Ford Foundation followed in 1952 with a $60,000 grant to the Population Reference Bureau, marking “the advent of the American foundation world’s involvement with the ‘world population crisis.'”

The movement was fueled by the private sector until 1965, when the Johnson administration urged involvement by the federal government. That milestone, Eberstadt writes, “could not have occurred without the revolution in American attitudes toward birth control (and more generally, toward sexuality) already then underway.”

World events also played a key role in changing the public’s attitude toward population control, particularly in the mid-1960s, when American food aid shipments helped avert millions of famine deaths in India.

But the movement, which by then had grown in size and resources with the help of other major foundations, became its own worst enemy. Research programs it had helped establish at American universities began to challenge earlier findings about the relationship between population growth and economic development.

“Adherents of the population movement, for example, took it as axiomatic that rapid population growth and high levels of fertility posed serious–perhaps even insurmountable–obstacles to economic development in low-income countries,” Eberstadt notes. “Empirical research by America’s foremost population economists, however, suggested otherwise.”

The most devastating of these studies came in 1986 with publication of a National Academy of Sciences report, Population Growth and Economic Development: Policy Questions. While conceding that slower population growth would benefit economic development in the poorest countries, the report concluded that lower populations were considerably less important to economic development than were “quality of markets” and government policies.

At the same time, Eberstadt writes, long-accepted claims that voluntary use of contraceptives and family planning had in fact helped to control population were coming under fire by new evidence to the contrary.

“Although demographers and population planners have, naturally, been long interested in the phenomenon of fertility decline, the striking fact is that they lack any method for accurately predicting its onset, projecting its trajectory, or unambiguously explaining its causes.”

The population control movement was dealt another severe blow in the 1980s, when it was learned that China and other countries had implemented mandatory programs to lower fertility levels. “By the mid-1980s,” notes Eberstadt, “it was incontestable that China’s population program relied upon birth quotas, penalized unapproved parents, and even imposed involuntary abortions upon hapless mothers.”

For the most part, says Eberstadt, the reaction of the population control movement to such revelations is best described as “morally tone-deaf.” Some activists “pretended the evidence about these Chinese abuses was ambiguous,” while others even came to a guarded defense of that country’s policies.

Eberstadt concedes that the growing political strength of religious conservatives and doubts about the value of foreign aid would have created problems for taxpayer-supported population control programs. But it was the moral uncertainties swirling within the population control movement itself, he contends, that led to major cutbacks in federal assistance to population control efforts following the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994.

One should not, Eberstadt cautions, conclude from his analysis that the world faces no population problems. He notes, for example, that industrialized nations must cope with new waves of immigrants in search of better lives, and that nearly half the world will have to address financing retirement for an aging population. Ironically, the American foundations that have actively supported the population control movement seem indifferent to those problems.

Regardless of how the movement identifies itself in the future, “population control” remains its primary objective, Eberstadt says. It continues to have public support for those goals designed to create a more stable and healthier population in areas like the Third World. However, Eberstadt says, “the ideological aims of the population movement are simply not shared by ordinary American taxpayers.”