Not Better Lives, Just Fewer People: The Ideology of Population Control

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Not Better Lives, Just Fewer People: The Ideology of Population Control

by Bob Park

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 6, No. 1, January 1974, p. 18 – 23

Arguments for urgency in global population control are becoming well known. They are frequent fare in the messages emanating from government agencies or foundations and from organizations like International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) or Zero Population Growth (ZPG). These arguments emphasize the extreme poverty of Third World nations, claiming that fewer mouths to feed means more food in each, or demonstrating that economic development with rapidly growing populations is sorely held back by the immediate task of simply surviving. A high fertility population has larger families, a lower proportion of productive workers, and more demands for expensive services (schools, etc.) and is thus less able to save for crucial investment for the future. Most recently, the popularized “Limits to Growth” thesis has pointed out not only the finite resource and space limitations of our own planet, Earth—a further constraint on the development process—but also has argued that we are very rapidly approaching saturation when further economic growth will be impractical or of dubious merit. A central variable in this description is of course population and its growth rate. We are told, “The greatest possible impediment to more equal distribution of the world’s resources is population growth … Equal sharing becomes social suicide if the average amount available is not enough to maintain life …. “1 These arguments constantly refer to real problems in people’s lives—jobs, pollution, energy shortages, crime, inadequate recreation opportunities— in order to impress on the public consciousness the importance of population. 

Other arguments, which tend to be less public, hold that orderly, disciplined economic growth and “modernization” are threatened by the continuing population growth is that the climate for business, alleged to be the ultimate solution to the problem, is itself compromised. The World Bank2  sees population control as a necessary consideration in its lending activities. The Bank does not feel it can legitimately allocate the funds of its bond-holders and contributing states to countries which are bad risks—don’t have population under control. 

There are many assumptions implicit in the argument for population control which are either questionable or outright nonsense from the point of view of radical political economy, and therefore many “radicals” have denounced the entire concept.3 After centuries of rapacious exploitation of the world’s peoples and manipulation of institutions and governments to advance the interests of private wealth, these same interests are now observed suddenly to be very concerned about these populations on ostensibly charitable grounds. In fact, looking into the institutions involved—the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, Population Council, IPPF, the Agency for International Development, the World Bank, etc.—and examining the historical development of population control programs, it becomes quite apparent that population control is motivated by fundamental self-interest on the part of the U.S. and allied ruling classes.4 However it is not enough to prove that population control is another component of imperialist foreign policy or investment interests. The key political question is: what are the interests of the working peoples of the underdeveloped countries concerning population, and consequently, what should our position be toward it? 

Many people who share an anti-imperialist view feel that programs for population (at least voluntary ones, abuses aside) are really very good and necessary in the current world context despite their sponsorship. As a result critics of population control have been attacked on the grounds, for example, that it is sexist and racist to deny to women in the underdeveloped countries the access to birth control which women in the”advanced” capitalist countries take for granted (see the letters from Morales and Melcher, and H.N. Dobbs printed above). 

This article was written in an attempt to resolve these questions. In summary, it will be argued that population control in the world capitalist-imperialist context is inherently destructive and should be attacked for the reasons to be enunciated. It will be proposed that not only does population control fail to come to grips with the people’s fundamental problems, much worse, it actually retards doing this (and not in the sense that unchecked population leads to “revolution” and hence to solutions; that would be simplistic, cynical opportunism). As for the “population problem,” the position of this article is that under any good “solution,” for underdeveloped countries and advanced countries, the population growth rate should fairly rapidly decline toward stability, in almost all cases.

Determinants of Family Size 

Underlying the subjective basis of desired family size is a material basis, which for most people in the underdeveloped countries is the stark reality that there is little or no economic security in old age or in case of disease other than one’s own children, not all of whom will survive until adulthood. In Pakistan, a survey in 1968 revealed that on the average a woman should have five children in order to have a reasonable probability of her husband having at least one son living when her husband reaches 65.5 The situation is similar in India. In an article explaining the trials and tribulations of policies for population control in India, the New York Times reveals the following critical information: 

Essentially, family planning experts here maintain that birth control is hampered by illiteracy, superstition and embarrassment about the use of contraceptives and the yearning among poor parents to have numerous children to support them in old age. The problem is compounded by child mortality, and the fear among parents that their children will not survive to assist them. Thus, families often have numerous children.6

Furthermore, in the marginal economics of the subsisting family, whether rural or urban, an additional child is often a net benefit rather than a cost, aside from considerations of security. 

Closely related to, and frequently derived from the material basis for family size are cultural factors such as customs, superstition, and the endemic sexism by which, for example, a son is a future asset, a daughter much less so. The special value of a son, however, clearly goes beyond his relative economic worth (because of sexist discrimination in employment, land tenure, etc.) to the male chauvinist ideology pervading all operating institutions—religion, education, etc.—and, needless to say, these attitudes are not limited to the Third World countries. Another factor in desired family size is simply the number of kids people want to have around, which is itself a more subtle but no less legitimate product of the material conditions of life. 

The people’s perception of ideal family size—which in most underdeveloped countries appears to substantially exceed that required for an “acceptable” growth rate—is thus a consequence of a traditional, sexist ideology but is based on a not unreasonable assessment of people’s prospects in societies which have extremely restricted options for the majority of the working class. There is considerable debate within the population control establishment about just how badly people’s desired family sizes diverge from the optimum “zero population growth” size in different countries, this being an issue that helps divide the voluntarists from the coercionists of population control. Elaborate and painstaking surveys of the world’s masses have been conducted on this question but with ambiguous results. However, careful analysis of many programs where birth control has been widely disseminated suggests that the fertility reduction attributable only to access to birth control techniques is not substantial; that non-access to contraceptives is not generally the major determinate of “excess” family size.7 In any case it is widely agreed by advocates of population control that the people’s view of family size must be modified, by persuasion or coercion, and thus social-psychological research in this area is a major focus of research and development funding.8 KAP studies (knowledge-attitude-practice), large sample surveys of fertility attitudes and reproductive behavior, have been carried out in most populous countries. These studies attempt to develop the database and empirical support for designing programs to effect the appropriate changes in attitude on family size, use of birth control and related behavior. However, like most social science in oppressive social milieus, these studies have questionable meaning (not to mention relevance) because of inherent bias in their operation. Interviewing peasant women about the family size they “really” want, and why, clearly is not a trivial task. This is a good thing, reflecting as it does a healthy distrust of government agencies. 

Population Control: The Strategy 

The population control programs in operation today, under the direction of outfits like IPPF, the Population Council, AID, etc., but increasingly administered by local government or private organizations, uniformly seek to reduce fertility by changing people’s awareness of their best interests without trying to change the underlying material basis for their current choices. Seriously undertaking the latter, (which would mean creating large numbers of jobs, eliminating sex and racial discrimination and forcing restructuring of investment) would clearly conflict not only with the host country’s governments in most cases but also with the goals of the sponsoring organizations (e.g. AID, the Rockefeller Foundation). Given the extreme economic deprivation and insecurity of the working class in the underdeveloped countries, a situation getting worse as the Rockefellers’ “green revolution” forces people off the land, it must be concluded that “effective” population control programs may actually make things harder for individual families. 

At this point, population control is a program enlisting social science technology for selective attitude correction and behavior modification. However, as the more rabid proponents of population control keep reminding us, there are limits to persuasion technology. With the elaboration of the current population control infrastructure—data bases, technical assistance networks and bureaucracies—the institutional capabilities for coercive methods, both formal and informal, will be ready. In India, “this is just beginning … with Government housing and job preferences for heads of smaller families and men who can show certificates of sterilization. Some private companies have also begun to enforce the same policy.”9 But even this kind of mild coercion has limitations since in the current social order the supply of jobs and housing is obviously limited. The hard-core proponents of population control have already written off places like India as “hopeless,”10 so that for them it is only a matter of time before mass sterilization technology is developed and used. Fertility control agents (e.g. in drinking water) have serious technical drawbacks at present,11 but in the future these may have to be overlooked—if “necessary.” Of course respectable population planning institutions like the Population Council (the top private policy-making population control organization in the U.S.) reject any talk of strong coercive measures, being ever-glowing in their praise of progress under voluntary schemes. However, it should be recognized that this is in fact the only politically viable position for them to take since their major objectives at this time are to make population control an accepted part of government activities and to play a guiding role in the establishment of organizations and policies for regulating population growth. This done, the need for stronger than voluntary measures, as time goes on, will be met with mutual consent. 

There is a much more damaging consequence of population control than the manipulation of people’s fertility in relation to the material conditions of their life. This is the ideological function of “blaming the people” for the society’s severely oppressive nature. The propaganda claims that population is the cause of people’s problems: “you are the cause, by your excessive, irrational family size.” Billboards advertize large families as the enemy, not landlords, industrialists, or foreign investors. Because there are “too many people,” doing something meaningful about the overwhelming problems looming on the horizon for Asian cities like Calcutta, Jakarta, or Manila means getting tough with urban squatters—former peasants forced off the land—by shipping them forcibly back to their villages (already done in Indonesia).12 It doesn’t mean expropriating landowners and setting up labor intensive agricultural projects. Rather than encouraging collective consciousness and action on the real problems, the ideology of population control (not surprisingly) proclaims the role of individuals to be: have a small family and “get ahead;” don’t be like “them.” 

Basis of the Population Control Strategy 

Why do population control programs attempt to treat the symptoms (excessive growth rate) instead of the disease (a social order allowing no hope for a better future)? Capitalist economic development means a continuing and frequently increasing disaster for most of the people. Robert McNamara, former Secretary of Defense and current President of the World Bank, agrees with this assessment. In a rather candid report to the World Bank Group’s Board of Governors he comments that: 

The poorest quarter of the population in developing lands risks being left almost entirely behind in the vast transformation of the modern technological society. The “marginal” men, the wretched strugglers for survival on the fringes of farm and city, may already number more than half a billion. By 1980 they will surpass a billion; 1990, two billion. Can we imagine any human order surviving with so gross a mass of misery piling up at its base? (Emphasis added.)13 

The manifestations of this disaster, nevertheless, can be somewhat suppressed and made more manageable with population control. This is now an urgent concern simply because in many underdeveloped countries the “development process” after several more decades promises still to generate large population increases without a corresponding increase in non-subsistence level opportunities. Thus the improvements in living standards which were experienced following industrialization in Europe, North America or Japan and which led to an automatic decline in fertility, are not expected to be repeated in the Third World countries nearly soon enough. The fear is that the “demographic transition”—the observed fall in fertility with relative economic advancement under contemporary capitalist development will never be realized … before it is too late. There is no doubt that population control is an urgent political necessity for the rulers of these lands. But it won’t in general make the people’s lives better, just fewer. 

Three examples of countries with “population problems” will now be mentioned briefly. Until recently, business leaders in Mexico welcomed increasing population because it meant cheap labor and a large market, but now they are worried. Now, after years of indifference, the 

government apparently plans to work closely with the Foundation for Population Studies, a private organization started in 1965 by leading citizens. It operates on an annual budget of more than $1 million, 40% of it from Mexican sources and the rest from international agencies, among them the International Planned Parenthood Federation and the Ford Foundation.14

President Echeverria, not missing the political significance of the population issue, told a conference of workers and farmers, “Many of the nation’s problems stem from an increase in population.” In a country where sixty years ago a revolution supposedly delivered the land to the people, we now witness the top official, representing the agriculture-business elite, explaining how population is the cause of many problems. 

Egypt is another country with a bad population prognosis. A government survey perhaps reveals why: three out of four are technically unemployed, probably one of the highest rates of overt, or disguised unemployment in the world. Only 7% of women play an active role in the economy, partly due to the 78% illiteracy rate. This report recommends a population control program as part of a short-run solution.15 Fighting a war allegedly to help the Palestinians apparently comes before fighting a crippling illiteracy or sexist traditions, or developing a mass mobilization through which the people would generate solutions to their real problems. 

Indonesia’s capital city, Jakarta, was declared a closed city in 1970, prohibiting further immigration from the countryside (unenforceable). Two thirds of Jakarta’s population of 4.5 million earn less than $75 a year, yet there is a continuing influx because the rural situation is worse. Meanwhile, off-shore oil, minerals, and lumbering concessions make Indonesia one of the high spots in this area for Japanese and U.S. investors. 

Must economic development be this way? Development in the capitalist mode is designed to optimize the use of capital which the people don’t own. The people, in this process, are merely an essential resource whose supply will generally exceed the “needs” of capital, especially in the case of foreign, high-technology capital. As McNamara explains it:

Technology becomes steadily more capital-intensive and absorbs steadily fewer men. Although agricultural productivity is now on the rise, the new techniques are destabilizing in the sense that they widen income inequities and release still more workers from the overcrowded land.16

(Notice how technology suddenly decided that the land was overcrowded?) 

A real alternative would be a development program depending on what the people do have, i.e. people, for their benefit. This would be a very different political solution, naturally, and would have characteristics such as relatively labor-intensive industrialization, non-elite educational systems, and the erosion of traditional sexist roles and attitudes, thus undermining the basis for large families and excessive growth. People’s China is one approximation of this alternative. 

Fundamental Critique of Population Control

The position of genuinely concerned liberals in support of population control amounts to a negation of class struggle, claiming as it does, that people’s rate of progress—quality of their life—is mainly related to their numbers—inversely. This might be true in the extreme case where labor shortages develop, causing wages to rise (not without a struggle), but very rarely do governments or ruling classes allow labor shortages to occur—certainly not in underdeveloped countries. (Japan’s planners recently proposed increasing Japan’s population growth to prevent such shortages.)17 Generally it seems that political factors, such as the strength of the working class, are much more important than numbers in determining the people’s rate of progress. In many sparsely populated countries the people remain very badly off (Paraguay, Bolivia, Ethiopia, Malaysia), while in some highly populated ones, there has been substantial progress (China, Japan during its early phase of capitalist growth which was independent of foreign capital). 

Those Who Take The Meat
From The Table 

Teach contentment.
Those for whom the taxes are destined
Demand sacrifice.
Those who eat their fill speak to the hungry
Of wonderful times to come.
Those who lead the country into the abyss
Calf ruling too difficult
For ordinary men. 

Bertolt Brecht 

An idea closely related to the numbers-progress theory holds that massive population will lead directly to revolutionary upheaval. This premise, which some radicals believe, and other radicals are accused of believing, seems not to be at all accurate. Why hasn’t India long since exploded? Why has Chile a long history of advanced political struggle, but Haiti a relatively stagnant oppression? The much more satisfactory explanation for how things get better, for why people sometimes even revolt against their oppressors, concerns the actual development of the class struggle in each case. Basic improvements in the underdeveloped countries—in land tenure, urban and rural squatters’ rights, for education and other services, the right to organize unions, and in other issues that enter the local arena—result at least in part from concessions by the rulers responding to pressures from the people. These pressures may manifest themselves as sharp clashes, organized “misbehavior,” or just moves by established political parties (where they exist) which feel their hold slipping. Essential to these pressures, however, is an underlying class consciousness—awareness of class allies and enemies—which of course is itself a complex historical development. The history of previous struggles, the creation of organized political groupings and the cultivation of important concepts — unity, class struggle, the role of the state-are primary. But this is precisely where population control (and more traditional, allied, reactionary ideas like nationalism or racism) plays a destructive part, in blaming people’s numbers, obscuring questions of power. Instead, our goal should be to help advance class consciousness and struggle. 

In general terms this would mean contributing to struggles in underdeveloped countries for economic security and better employment, especially for women, for better health care (including birth control, as the “market” for it grows). It would mean fighting reactionary ideology like population control, racism, sexism and elite technology. Serious progress in modifying the material and cultural bases for family size, would have potentially far greater consequences than the ruling classes’ population control programs, including possibly, removing some ruling classes. In contrast, the argument that population control is now a top priority clearly assumes the above changes will not be realized. With this assumption, they are right; population control is urgent: less population growth now means less genocide and murder later. 

Population Control and Political Practice 

There are specific political objectives for technical-professional workers in rejecting the fallacies behind population control, identifying the sponsor’s real motives, and in showing that the world’s “multiplying people” are our allies against multinational corporate marauders, not our enemies. The U.S. and the international medical R&D establishment is an important context in which to make these points. The population control forces recognize the need to consolidate support for their programs among foreign professionals and they conduct seminars for this purpose: 

Doctors and scientists conducting this research sometimes have to be convinced of the necessity for solving the population control problem quickly. The government holds seminars for foreign scientists for this purpose, and has been quite successful. As was pointed out at one of the International Planned Parenthood Federation seminars: “Perhaps one of the most important accomplishments of the seminars has been the change of attitudes on the part of many delegates from a negative or doubtful attitude toward family planning and population problems to a positive, dynamic outlook…18

Clearly a critical analysis of population control is lacking here. Other forums for this debate are numerous: professional meetings (many scientific organizations have population committees, or activities, e.g. AAAS, American Psychological Association); university departments where foreign policy studies, foreign aid, or other international projects are funded (almost all universities); within the ecology movement where population is commonly assumed to be the problem. Criticism of the population control concept certainly should include discussing the role of sexist and related ideology and it would be valuable to formulate concrete suggestions for how institutions and government programs could fight these ideas, if they happened to want to. 

Besides ideological critique, there are many ways people in this country can more directly contribute to real progress in the underdeveloped countries. Attempts to restrict the behavior of multinational corporations, particularly their investment policies, could be the basis for alliance between U.S. and world workers. The issues could include: more labor-intensive production, ending sex and race biases in employment, and social benefits like health benefits, day-care. Exposing the repressive functions of military and “public safety” (police) foreign aid as well as the insidious role of counter-insurgency social engineering in general, would also assist progressive forces in underdeveloped countries. 

Another area of activity is interacting with groups or organizations in other countries concerned with improving comprehensive health care, public health measures, education, old age security, etc, addressing, among other things, the concept of population control. In particular, population control programs that involve drug testing or sterilization should be very harshly scrutinized. No program should be allowed to exploit or cut corners on grounds of “urgency”. Drug testing in underdeveloped countries to evade more stringent regulations in the U.S. should not be allowed. There should be no incentives offered for sterilization and no formal or informal pressure (e.g. at child-birth). Obviously these can be enforced only by mass awareness. Population control ideology in advertizing and public education should also be challenged. 

In cases of well-meaning organizations involved in population control, like the American Friends Service Committee, an attempt should be made to generalize their programs to broader health-nutrition issues, purging any population control propaganda content, while continuing to make available birth control and encouraging open discussion and activities aimed at breaking sexist attitudes and institutional practices. 

Population in “Advanced” Countries

The population situation in industrialized countries is very analogous to the underdeveloped country case: there are material and cultural factors in family size, which again reflect various forms of oppression and damaging ideology (for example the defined sex roles). At least some policy makers and “leaders” in the U.S. would like to modify fertility, especially of low income and minority groups, without inconveniencing the system or modifying the basic options of ,the people involved. The government and private institutions have shown little interest in challenging sexism. A similar political function is manifest in these countries with population—the people—being blamed for environmental destruction, resources shortages, and crime. The political importance of population can also be seen in the constant and not very subtle allusions to the welfare “burden” of urban blacks as a “population problem”. Corresponding to the public racism of the politicians is the private racism which allows young black women to be sterilized unknowingly, or makes black mothers agree to submit to sterilization in order to have a baby delivered under medicare.19

Clearly what problem of population growth there may be in the U.S. (it’s hard to tell since they’ve messed everything up so badly) will readily vanish when women (and most men) gain more appealing options for their lives, than raising families with or without oppressive jobs. In this sense, the population problem in the industrialized countries parallels that of the underdeveloped ones, and therefore, unity with the people, not ideological or technological servitude to the rulers, should be our immediate objective. 


A progressive political role in the developing countries is one which helps advance the people’s class awareness and strength, a process which clearly both depends on and fosters the liberation of women. Accordingly, the practice of birth control would be a likely and desirable concomitant of the developing class struggle. Population control programs, on the other hand, seek to methodically and manipulatively modify reproductive behavior while leaving unchanged and even protecting the fundamental bulwarks of exploitation and oppression in these and all countries. 


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  1. Dennis Meadows, Donella Meadows, Limits to Growth.
  2. The World Bank is an official institution controlled as a joint operation by most ‘western’ countries with the major industrial states dominating and the U.S. leading. Its objective is lending funds to develop new industry and build essential infrastructure (ports, bridges, etc.) in underdeveloped countries, in cases where private capital is not forthcoming. It raises capital by floating bonds in world money markets and through contributions from participating governments.
  3. Bonnie Mass, “Rx for the People: Preventive Genocide in Latin America,” Science for the People, Vol. V, no. 2, March 1973, p. 4.
    Pogrom for Progress, Brazil,” Ibid. p. 9.
    Steve Weissman, “Why the Population Bomb is a Rockefeller Baby”
    Ramparts, May 1970, p.42.
    see also issues of NACLA Newsletter.
  4. Steve Weissman, op. cit.
    See also forthcoming pamphlet of Women’s Issue Group, Boston SftP/SESPA.
  5. “Pakistan’s Program of Birth Control is Making Progress but Nation’s Population is Still Increasing” New York Times, Dec. 2, 1968.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Kingsley Davis, “Population Policy: Will Current Programs Succeed?” Science, Nov. 10, 1967, p. 730.
  8. Ibid.
  9. “Every Birth in Asia Limits Hope,” New York Times, March 19, 1973.
  10. Paul R. Ehrlich, The Population Bomb, Sierra Club-Ballantine 1968, p. 3.
  11. Carl Djerassi, “Birth Control after 1984,” Science, Sept. 4, 1970, p. 941.
  12. “The Jobless and their Problems Jam Asian Cities,” New York Times, March 20, 1973.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Mexico Slowly Advancing Family Planning,” New York Times, June 22, 1973.
  15. “Study Finds Egypt Has Bad Problem of Unemployment,” New York Times, Nov. 8, 1973.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Population Control and Organized Capital — The Case of Japan,” Science for the People, Dec. 1970, p. 22.
  18. Forthcoming pamphlet of Women’s Issue Group, Boston SftP.
  19. Forthcoming pamphlet of Women’s Issue Group, Boston SftP.