Population Control: Letters

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Population Control: Letters

by Rosario Morales, Fred Melcher, & H.N. Dobbs

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 6, No. 1, January 1974, p. 16 – 17 & 46

The two letters that follow were stimulated by articles previously published by Science for the People: the first by a section in the pamphlet, Science and Technology in Latin America: Por Que?, and the second by the article, “Preventive Genocide in Latin America“, in SftP, March, 1973. These letters offer criticisms both of the specifics of these articles and of the broader political sentiment expressed. In an attempt to address this latter criticism, we solicited an article which would try to clarify some of the ideological problems of population control programs. We hope that this article will raise new questions and criticisms and that this dialogue will continue in future issues of the magazine. Due to space limitations, we were forced to delete some of the detailed criticisms of the Dobbs letter. Full copies of this letter are available from the SftP office. 

Dear Friends, 

Traditional religious and ‘machismo’ norms prohibit the woman from regulating her procreation and imposes an exhausting exploitation of her body. The Mexican woman of over thirty years of age has an average of 6.6 children. The ‘radical’ argument that the use of contraceptives is ‘playing the imperialist game’ is nothing more than a male rationalization. History does not show that there exists a mechanical relationship between the number of inhabitants per square kilometer and the revolution. 

Punta Critico, August, 1972 

The argument in Science and Technology in Latin America: Por Que? [a pamphlet published in December, 1972 and available from SESPA/SftP] about the use of population control measures is inadequate. Its inadequacy is so serious that it undermines the revealing of the racist counterinsurgency of the U.S. corporations and government in their support of massive experimentation on and propagation of birth control in the Third World, particularly Latin America. What the argument leaves out is tangentially alluded to in the final paragraph of the section on population control: “While we have been critical of existing birth control programs we are not against birth control per se.” It goes on to explain that birth control is noxious when used against women, when they are guinea pigs for imperialist science and the targets of the unhealthy technology that results. It ends: “In the present context, no birth control programs can liberate Latin American women or men from the oppressive conditions of their lives … Only in a society free of exploitation with free choice can birth control be a liberatory technology.” 

The article from the Mexican radical magazine Punto Critico from which we quote makes clear the following point: 1) that Mexican women are physically exhausted and enslaved by constant pregnancy especially in the countryside, 2) that tradition, religion, and the macho ideology prohibit women’s control of their own bodies, 3) that the very argument of the Porque essay, the argument that birth control is an imperialist ploy is, as the article underlines, a ready rationalization of continued sexist practice and opposition to birth control. A fourth point can be made about the American Left: that the arguments about the inadequacy and therefore uselessness (a non sequitur) of birth control in Latin America is being made by a radical population with the full use of all the birth control information and techniques available in the U.S. today. That means that women in the U.S. Left are freed from constant pregnancy and are enabled to think, write, and advance arguments that postpone this privilege for Latin American women to a distant socialist future. This is racism. 

Let us be clear. The argument in Porque documents well the institutional, imperialist racism of birth control experiments and their economic and political goals in Latin America .. But the argument that Latin Americans should be opposed to birth control in toto until there exists “a society free of exploitation” reinforces the denial that women have the right to control their own bodies now. 

Compare this position with our analysis of health care in the United States. It too is done for profit, it ignores the real needs of patients, experiments on poor patients without their consent and chauvinized Third World people and women. But the response of the Left is not simply to attack health care as capitalist and imperialist; we work to provide alternatives, to make demands of institutions, to educate people around their own needs. We want health care that is run in the interests of the people it affects. So, too, the responsibility of the left is to demand the right of birth control in the interests of the people. 

No woman who is herself protected by birth control can deny that in some measure she is more liberated that if she were not. This measure of liberation however much it falls short of the socialist ideal must be shared with all women everywhere. We must not let our analysis of American corporate and governmental plots in Latin America lead us to abandon the legitimate rights of our Third World sisters. 

Ms. Rosario Morales
Fred Melcher



Brothers and Sisters, 

I’m not at all happy about the article by Bonnie Mass on “Preventive Genocide in Latin America“, in SftP, March 1973. I don’t want to hold up distribution while I produce the detailed response it seems to need, which would be much longer than the original article; so by way of compromise here are some comments, mainly on the philosophy, and (so as to give something more than ‘negative’ criticism) a partial response to a few of the issues raised. 

It does not surprise me that some people regard us as “Marxist-Lenninist-Fascist” when occasionally, however rarely, we publish an article which is based on a circular argument, on the principle of guilt-by-association, and which blindly attacks friends as well as enemies. 

The basic thesis is that population control is genocide. This is assumed throughout, it is not proved and it is not true. Population control is only genocide, from the given definition, if it is imposed by some outside body for some nefarious purpose—specifically, “with intent to destroy”. Again, population control at a national level is different from family planning, which is” different from non-voluntary sterilisation of individuals; but these are tacitly assumed to be the same. 

The question of evil intent in general seems to be settled simply by showing that many capitalists (executives of large companies, duPont, Chase Manhattan Bank, Ford Motors, Continental Can, etc.) and imperialists (U.S. government agencies, presidents and army men) are in favor of population control in one form or another. I think this is superficial class analysis, based on the idea that there are two classes in the world, the capitalists and the imperialists on the one hand and “the people” on the other, and that anything which is good for one class is bad for the other. 

What I see as a circular argument is this: it is genocide because these evil people are involved; and the fact that they are involved in it is further evidence of their wickedness. 

We are appallingly “alienated from the masses”, out of touch, if we totally condemn something which many millions of women (and men) regard as one of the most important forces for liberation from poverty and fear: effective contraception (including sterilisation); however as honest scientists and/or revolutionaries we have the right and the duty to share whatever scientific and historical understanding and information we have so as to help people form a fairly balanced picture of the situation, and this includes criticising the motives, methods, and effects of the drug companies, governments, and other organisations and individuals involved. To criticise is not necessarily to condemn. 


So much has been written about the problem of over(?)population, often with more emotion or rhetoric than facts or analysis, that it is very difficult to arrive at a true picture (I’m not sure that I have). Many different figures tend to be quoted in argument: population density, growth rate, birth rate, fertility, median age, etc., it is worth remembering that there are three degrees of untruth: lies, damn lies, and statistics. 

I read that Bolivia has a population density of less than four persons per kilometre—presumably that should be “per square kilometre”. the context suggests that this is a low figure, but without figures for other countries I can’t tell how low. Even then, for all I know, the land area of Bolivia may be made up of equal parts of desert and impenetrable jungle, in which case I would expect a very low population density. Or supposing that it is a moderately fertile agricultural country which is more or less self-sufficient, I still would not expect to find as high a population density as in Japan or Britain, say, where there is much industry and the country depends heavily on imported raw materials such as food, fuel, and ores. The point is that there is no worldwide standard for what the population density could or should be—Greenland will probably never have the same population density as Boston—so that it is not a very helpful statistic. (In the context, it expects the reader either to know all about it—be, an expert—or to bow before the author’s superior knowledge: I don’t understand it, but I suppose (s)he knows what (s)he’s talking about: I believe because I don’t understand. This is science for the experts, elitism, obscurantism or whatever you like to call it, not science for the people.) 

A more immediately helpful statistic than population density is the median age: if we were comparing an “underdeveloped country” (UDC) with a developed country (DC), we might find that the UDC had a median age of 17, while the DC had a median age of 30 (say). This would mean that half the population in the UDC were .under 17, while half the population in the DC were under 30. This sort of pattern can arise in the UDC because until recently their life expectancy has been low; the death rate among children has been particularly high so that they are used to having many children, of which only a few would be expected to survive long enough to have children of their own. Now with improvements in hygiene and medicine, and with the efforts of various charities and international bodies to prevent starvation, malnutrition and illness among children (without, unfortunately, ensuring that there was going to be food or useful employment for them later), and with developments in communications which at least ensure that if there is food available for distribution in a local famine it can be distributed, a far higher proportion of the children survive—but since this happened only recently, there are still only a few who have reached adulthood, and if nothing too disastrous happens the median age may rise slowly for a while. But if the median age is 17, this suggests that about a third of the population are of what we regard as “school” age, (7–17), and about a third are probably dependent (0–11). This is an enormous burden on the productive workers of the country (farm and factory), especially if their production methods are inefficient. To improve their efficiency, it seems, they need education—which increases the load on everyone else. Solutions have been found to this problem in some places; in China there are schools run by factories, farms and factories run by schools, and part-time-work part-time-study schools. But life could be a great deal easier both for the individual parents and for the workers of the country—if they had fewer children. 

Friends and Enemies 

This is probably my most serious objection to the article. Anyone who treats a friend like an enemy is going over to the side of the enemy, says Mao Tsetung. The American Friends Service Committee are friends of ours. We are forever using and advertising their material on the Indochina War and occasionally getting into trouble with the authorities for doing so. So why are we denouncing them here? “In Mexico, the AFSC has sponsored international training programs for medical personnel and teachers at all educational levels. In 1971, 239 professionals were trained. In Columbia, the AFSC has been proud to claim· 100 monthly IUD insertions in Barranquilla.” Proud? If so, why publish it in a Confidential Report, not in all the newspapers? The footnote to this says “The AFSC requests that no written publicity be given to its family planning programs in Mexico.” So we have carried out a big Nader-style raid on the AFSC and are boasting about it. Is that any way to treat a friend? If I say something in confidence, will it be published with a footnote to say how secretive I am? 

The IPPF may have some rather strange members, but in general it is made up of non-profit, non-governmental family planning associations, and it does help with the establishment of independent associations in countries (such as Ireland) where this is difficult. It is interesting to view IPPF as part of the international capitalist conspiracy when our local reactionaries regard it as part of the international communist conspiracy. 

H.N. Dobbs


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