The “P” Word is Back in Play

The 1994 UN International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo promoted more access to reproductive health care, education, women’s empowerment, and sustainable development. After Cairo, many reproductive rights and health advocates dissociated their work from attempts to control population. However, the conversation about population keeps resurfacing. The Summer/Autumn issue of Conscience, a magazine published by Catholics for Choice, debated the topic.
Laurie Mazur, director of the Population Justice Project (which draws links between human numbers and environmental harm) and a contributor to RH Reality Check blog, gives an introduction to the topic highlighting the eugenics, racism and colonial themes behind population control campaigns.

Interestingly, Mazur, a self-described “left-leaning feminist who has worked on population and reproductive health issues,” is also a population alarmist. She writes that, “we are living a pivotal moment for the world population”; suggesting that a lower population would address the “population dynamics and environmental quality.” Yet, Mazur does not explain how population can be lowered intentionally without women experiencing social coercion around their reproductive freedom.

The “P” debate continues with a roundtable of renowned figures in the field “talking about… Population.” Some of the comments expressed are worrisome not only because of their content but because these experts hold important leadership positions and their views may influence students, health professionals and lawmakers. For instance, Malcolm Potts is the chair in Population and Family Planning in the School of Public Health at Berkeley, and CEO of Family Health International (FHI). He argues that “there is a Malthusian disaster of huge proportions occurring, especially in Nigeria where a population of 140 million people is going to 290 million by 2050. There is no possible way in which the Nigerians can educate themselves, create jobs for themselves or feed themselves.” He adds that family planning is ‘over-medicalized,’ so “what we should be doing is teach Haitian women to give injections of Depo-Provera to those who want it.” The patriarchal, colonialist, and racist overtones in Potts’ comments are precisely the reason that population control is a heated debated.

On the progressive end of the spectrum, Betsy Hartmann, PopDev director and Professor of Development Studies at Hampshire College, gives a different angle to the discussion. Hartmann emphasizes how a “Malthusian understanding of development, poverty, of insecurity… can end up distorting reality and adversely affecting the delivery of [reproductive] planning services,” citing specific examples such as Tanzania and Haiti. Hartmann also responds to Potts, saying that she does not believe that pharmaceutical and hormonal contraceptives should be available without any medical oversight, and that “not all contraceptives are appropriate for all women.” Potts’ proposed solution to deliver reproductive planning not only compromises reproductive health and rights but also seems to underline the history of reproductive and social coercion that the West has had in the Global South.

I am not blogging about this topic only because I am worried about some of these experts’ opinions, but because their views can influence policy, and those who are almost always affected turn out to be people of color, immigrants, and women. Anju Malthora, from the Center for Research on Women (CRW) believes that “population has to be part of a policy agenda” that also includes “climate change, economic growth, social security, urbanization, et cetera, including numbers.” However, like many others concerned about population growth, Malthora does not mention how these policies on population will be created, or who will write them. Will poor women be part of writing such agendas or will they, once again, be made the scapegoats of so-called development? As progressives we should be aware that the “P” word is back in play, even in “left-leaning feminist” circles, and that it has implications for our communities and our movements.

Susana Sánchez, an international student from Costa Rica, works with PopDev as a Research Assistant. She came to the United States to complete her medical degree, and in the process became interested in the social problems that affect Latinos in the United States, particularly undocumented immigrants. She is a fourth-year student at Hampshire College, where she majors in immigration and gender studies. She loves to spend time with her family in New Jersey and dreams of the day she will return to her native Costa Rica to work on public policy and enjoy the country’s beautiful seashore.


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