Ideologues Hijack International Family Planning

Suzanne Petroni is a Senior Program officer for the Summit Foundation in Washington, DC, where she manages the foundation's Global Population and Youth Leadership program.

It's been interesting to read the exchanges here on PAI's latest report, while at the same time researching the history of U.S. international family planning policy.

I'm back in school to take what I've learned in ten years in the population field, add some knowledge and skills, and ultimately—hopefully!—come up with a way to help move our field out of its current political morass. My hypothesis is that, as a field, we're using the same arguments and strategies that we've used for decades, and as a result, we're not gaining ground; rather, we're losing it.

For me, it comes down to this: No matter how many ways we try to present them, the facts just don't seem to matter to our opponents. Religion does.

But we're still making the same fact-based arguments that have been around for 40 years. While I believe this applies to both reproductive rights and population, I'll focus only on the latter today.

A short quiz, if you'll indulge me. Look at the following quotes, and guess who said them and when. (Answers are at the end.):

  • "How will we educate and employ such a large number of people? … How will we provide adequate health care when our population reaches 300 million?"
  • "Are we really going to be able to give these extra people jobs, homes, health care and education?"
  • "High rates of population growth … impair individual rights, jeopardize national goals, and threaten international stability."
  • "The risks of civil conflict … generated by demographic factors may be much more significant than generally recognized."
  • "Where population size is greater than available resources, or is expanding more rapidly than the available resources, there is a tendency toward internal disorders and violence and, sometimes, disruptive international policies or violence."
  • "Population age structure has significant impacts on countries' stability, governance, economic development and social well-being …"

Whether it's from 1969, 1974, 2003 or 2007, it's pretty much the same thing.

I don't intend to criticize anyone for making such statements. Not only have I made many of these exact arguments myself (including on behalf of the U.S. government), but I have also provided my (bosses') foundation's funding to make such a case even more persuasively. The facts are what motivated the U.S. to begin providing international population assistance in the 1960s. And yes, they may help to make the case for continued investments in critically important and life-saving programs now.

My point is that, well, rational arguments don't matter to the right-wing policymakers who have hijacked international family planning.

Look at the history. From the 1950s on through to 2007, it's been the influence of religion on politics—not a lack of awareness of demographic impacts—that has impeded the success of our efforts.

Here's former Congressman James Scheuer discussing President Nixon's reaction to his own Population Commission's findings in 1972: "(he) promptly ignored our final report. The reasons were obvious—the fear of attacks from the far right and from the Roman Catholic Church because of our positions on family planning and abortion."

A decade later, we saw the tremendous influence on American politics of the "Religious Right," which generated the Mexico City Policy and the withdrawal of U.S. funding to UNFPA (the United Nations Population Fund). This movement has worked doggedly (and successfully) since to mold the government's policies to their views, including on the role of the family. In this forum, I certainly don't need to discuss the Bush Administration's willingness to let theology drive policy.

Bottom line: Whether it's the Catholic Church or the Religious Right, fundamentalist religious involvement in politics is at the root of our inability to normalize international family planning.

We can't keep coming up with new ways of saying the same things about global population growth and expect to achieve a breakthrough. We need to develop new ways of tackling this significant and niggling impediment to helping the women and youth of the world achieve their reproductive health and rights.

And if you have any thoughts on just how to do that, you'll make my dissertation a whole lot easier!


Answers to the Quiz:

1. President Nixon's Special Message to the Congress on Problems of Population Growth, presented on July 18, 1969.

2. Official in Uganda's Ministry of Finance, discussing population growth in The Guardian, August 25, 2006, as cited in Population Action International's The Shape of Things to Come (p. 14, link opens as PDF).

3. Panel of the United Nations, quoted in President Nixon's Special Message to the Congress on Problems of Population Growth, presented on July 18, 1969.

4. Cincotta, Engelman and Anastasion. The Security Demographic—Population and Civil Conflict After the Cold War. Population Action International. 2003.

5. National Security Study Memorandum 200 (p. 69). Signed by National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, April, 1974.

6. Population Action International's The Shape of Things to Come (p. 10, link opens as a PDF), 2007.

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  • invalid-0

    Dear Suzanne,
    Having been in those same trenches, I hear you… but two things come to mind:
    – the arguments for family planning (and they are arguments for family planning, not RH or SRH) you cite are rather of the “jobs/security/instability/resources” kind. I guess the only one missing in that category would be the full-blown environmental argument for family planning. Yet a sizeable part of the RH movement has, for years, been making a different argument, about women’s autonomy, bodies and rights – and while this has not had more traction with the right-wing, it has mobilized feminist activists to do amazing things (e.g. 1994 Cairo Conference). Women “get this” on a very personal level. So maybe this is what needs to be reassessed – the jobs/resources arguments may be appealing to some policy-makers, but they don’t move the masses.
    – in any event, what arguments could we muster to convince the right-wing? If certain issues are construed as a matter of faith, then by definition, facts will not prevail. So it might be good to clarify whether you are trying to convince the “middle” who may be religious, but not strictly so… If it`s the staunchly religious, I don`t see what you or anyone else can say that would persuade them.

  • invalid-0

    Good points, Françoise. I’m sure you know that some actually blame the “feminist takeover” at Cairo for recent decreases in funding for family planning AND reproductive health. They argue that because RH/FP are now seen as “just” women’s issues (and no longer urgent matters of national security), governments no longer feel obligated to support them.

    I disagree on two counts. It was the New Right – not the feminists – who initiated the shift away from population and to reproductive rights in the 1980s. The issue has been politicized ever since. And absolutely, the increased focus since Cairo on women’s empowerment and reproductive health and rights has brought a significant new base of support to the issue. We need to sustain and continue building this base.

    At the same time, I do believe there still is a role for targeted discussions about population dynamics. Environmentalists, some developing country governments and others may well be moved by how such dynamics affect their interests. I’m not arguing that we toss this discussion away altogether.

    But I do believe that until we can somehow neutralize religion in this equation, decisionmaking in Washington around these issues won’t change.


  • scott-swenson

    Suzanne, great post today, thanks! I'm wading in to this comment string, which is wonderfully thoughtful, as a person of faith. The word "neutralize" combined with religion makes sense on some level, because many people can clearly distinguish faith from religion. But it does concern me that too often faith gets painted with the broad brush of patriarchal religion, and I think it is a mistake to attempt to neutralize people's faith.

    There are facts, undeniable, upon which public health decisions should be based. The far-right prefers ideological demagoguery to actual facts, because they use fear to manipulate others. But there are many people who work on social and cultural issues from a place of faith in a higher power reflected in the common wisdom of humanity as captured by the brightest minds working to improve the lives of others. We should ensure these people are made a larger part of this discussion and speak from that place of inspiration.

    Some on the "religious left" want to only talk about "safe issues" like the environment and poverty, issues we all care about. They need to understand that attitude is only marginally less stigmatizing as is the dogma of the far-right when it comes to issues of sexual and reproductive health, rights, justice and freedom.

    But far from just creating better messaging to persuade people in the short term, I think more people speaking honestly about why they do this work, about their compassion and concern for others, and the desire to create a society where people live in digntiy, responsibly and with respect, has been a missing part of the dialog.

    To me, the reality is that people do this work from a very deep level of compassion, but too often because "religion" is equated, often rightly, with patriarchal systems that oppress, we self-suppress that connection within us that motivated us all in the first place.

    My ideals, like yours, are based in reality. I think we are entering an era where that is increasingly true for more and more people, and part of the way progressives truly move forward, is by forgiving the failed systems that brought us here, leaving behind some of the false dichotomies — making sure that people see this work for what it is, reality-based efforts to improve lives, empower people, live responsibly, respect others and work toward justice, with forgiveness.

    I truly believe we are winning the culture peace, while others rely on fear and war. The difference this time, is we're reaching out in ways that no longer depend upon someone else translating our faith and what it means for us, but are able to see the evidence for oursleves, and with that, make the best life decisions for us, our families and our communities.

    That is what will ultimately change decisionmaking in Washington and everywhere else.

  • kirsten-sherk

    But, Suzanne, you knew that. I only wish that I were that articulate! I would like to add that there are a lot of mainline denominations that explicitly state their belief in the importance of the health of Creation, the impact of population growth on that Creation,  women's empowerment and access to comprehensive RH care. We of faith may be as unshakeable at this end as those at the other end of the spectrum. 

    Cheers, Kirsten