Is Fear of Population Control Trumping Green Solutions?


For those of us who both want to increase people’s freedom
to limit their family size and save the planet from catastrophic climate
change, a
recent report from the London School of Economics
indicating that condom
distribution is five times more cost
effective than green technologies in reducing carbon emissions seems like
unalloyed good news.  More freedom,
cleaner world—simple, right?  But
if you have even the barest understanding of the history of arguments involving
population control, suddenly it’s not so simple anymore.

It’s easy enough to assume that the Obama administration and
the Sierra Club are
shying away from the issue
because reproductive rights are such an
explosive topic, and even touching it brings a hail of crazy from the anti-sex
nuts down on your head.  Anti-sex
forces have been influential in creating havoc on the health care reform
debate.  If attempts to fight back
against global warming were slowed because the anti-sex brigade got it into
their head that money being spent on global warming was allowing someone,
somewhere to have fun, that would be tragic.  But I can honestly say that I don’t think it’s the fear of
the Anti-Sex Mafia that causes this sort of allergy.  It’s the history of the fear of overpopulation being used as
an excuse to coerce childbirth choices, and the fact that as soon as the
potential for coercion is introduced, you suddenly attract a sea of racists who
love to pontificate about eugenics all day, and would love to be able to
influence policy to reduce the number of non-white people in relation to the
number of white people.

Overpopulation scares from the past had a distinctly racist
overtone, and unfortunately birth control advocates have not been above
race-baiting in order to garner more support for birth control initiatives, a
habit that goes all the way back to Margaret Sanger, whose ardor for her cause
of voluntary birth control led her to make stupid choices like making a speech
to the KKK’s ladies auxiliary, and to employ eugenics arguments aimed at
audiences amendable to those arguments. 
She also employed arguments that are more in line with the freedom and
equality values we espouse today—birth control for women’s health, birth
control for women’s freedom and equality, birth control so poor families can
save more money—but her racist arguments left a stain. 

And while the Holocaust led many Americans to see the
connections and disavow eugenics talk, unfortunately that wasn’t the end of
attempts by racists to force women of color to have fewer children than they
want.  State-sanctioned sterilization
continued
for decades
, and the problem of doctors singling out poor women and women
of color for compulsory sterilization when they come into the hospital to
deliver babies continues to this day. 
We even have a
sitting Senator who was accused of sterilizing a woman against her will
.  Perhaps people who are familiar with
Senator Coburn’s severe anti-sex, anti-choice views will be surprised, but most
pro-choicers shouldn’t be.  For
antis, it’s always been about control and making sure the “right” people have
more children while the “wrong” people have fewer.

Currently, the organized movement against immigration is not
afraid whatsoever to use environmental and population control arguments as a
cover for their racist hostility. 
Witness John Gibson freaking out about the
growing proportion of Hispanics to whites
, and openly engaging in eugenics
rhetoric about how white women need to have more babies.  This kind of race-baiting and
fear-mongering is far from over.

So when someone
starts talking about condom distribution as a means to reduce population and
environmental damage, liberals understandably remember all this history and
decide they don’t want to step on that slippery slope.

This is frustrating all around, because the London School’s
suggestions were framed completely in terms of not just voluntary contraception
use, but they explicitly studied women who want contraception and don’t have
it.  They also focused on condoms,
which are the hardest method to use for coercion, since all you have to do in
order to stop using the method is to leave it in the wrapper. They
explicitly framed the suggestion as correcting an inequality.
  Overall, the report itself and its defenders
are not only not being racist, but are explicitly rejecting condescending
arguments that suggest that women in developing countries—where most lack of
access occurs—can’t make these decisions for themselves.

But it’s unwise to simply wave your hand and say, “That was
then, and this is now, and if you look at the facts unemotionally, all
potential objections about coercion are unfounded.”  With touchy issues like this, simply setting history aside is
never an option.  In fact, one
could legitimately argue that going forward without being mindful of the
abusive history of forced population control would open doors for that abuse to
happen again.  Erring on the side
of caution when it comes to a freedom as basic as the freedom to control your
own reproduction—which is to say not forcing women to bear children but also
not forcing them not to—is a good instinct that should be honored.  If reproductive rights activists want
to work strictly in the frame of freedom, and to be officially indifferent to
the effects that our activism could have on the environment, then there’s an
honorable reason for it.

That said, I’m also sympathetic to the strategy, employed
most obviously by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn in their new book Half The Sky, of trying to match our
goal of greater female liberation to other goals, in order to create coalitions
and get more power and funding. 
Kristof and WuDunn focus on how female liberation can provide dramatic
economic outcomes for developing countries.  Environmentalism could be a hook to get people who aren’t
moved by human rights arguments to pay more attention.  It’s ugly that you need a hook to get
more people to care about women, but if the end result is better lives for more
women, then whatever it takes, right?

And yet, the lurking fear is that going about this the wrong
way could lead to worse outcomes than before.  And I genuinely don’t have a pat answer for how to get
around this conundrum. I wish I did.

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  • jim-pivonka

    Thank you for this information, much of the detail new to me and enough new overall to be very useful in helping me to understand wth is going on.

    It’s reassuring to me, personally, to know there is someone tracking the intellectual, social, and organizaitonal history of groups and individuals influencing public policy and opinion in this area, and doing so as clearly and thoroughly as you are.

    Because of the depths of the organizational and ideological history of the right I am persuaded that in depth, action oriented, study and exposure of these connections is an essential, and perhaps the critical component of activism today.

    I recall that active opposition to the Viet Nam War began, not with street action, or even organizing actions, but with teach-ins. We cannot act to counter the right, without a full understanding of their intellectual and organizational roots, predilections, assumptions, intentions, strengths and weakesses.

    We need more like you. Thanks.

  • sschoice

    Amanda wrote (as a title):

     

    Is Fear of Population Control Trumping Green Solutions?

     

    …and then she wrote:

     

    It’s easy enough to assume that the Obama administration and the Sierra Club are shying away from the issue because reproductive rights are such an explosive topic, and even touching it brings a hail of crazy from the anti-sex nuts down on your head.

     

    …and a few sentences later:

     

    But I can honestly say that I don’t think it’s the fear of the Anti-Sex Mafia that causes this sort of allergy. It’s the history of the fear of overpopulation being used as an excuse to coerce childbirth choices, and the fact that as soon as the potential for coercion is introduced, you suddenly attract a sea of racists who love to pontificate about eugenics all day, and would love to be able to influence policy to reduce the number of non-white people in relation to the number of white people.

     

    So it seems it’s not so much a fear of population control literally trumping “green solutions”, it’s the fear of the appearance or the threat of an image of population control trumping green solutions. It’s reeealy hard to say racism is not an influence — and we’re not saying racism does not exist or have some influence — rather that here it may be more the fear that a progressive group might have of appearing racist by association — like a white liberal guilt-trip by association — with nearly-defunct racist organizations and policies from history when white supremacy was an overt part of some laws and policies, as Amanda refers to above.

     

    There is, for example, nobody today even in fringe racist groups who could go on TV talk shows or on campus tours like William Schockley did in the 1970s and 1980s, to universal condemnation outside of what even then was considered the racist eugenic fringe.  Schockley was rightfully condemmed and today nearly forgotten, though personally we think Dr. Schockley was probably the model for the mad alien scientist Gallaxhar in the movie Monsters and Aliens, at least we notice some resemblence both in ideology, location (Schockley lived in Silicon Valley, Monsters and Aliens was set in the San Francisco Bay area), and appearance.

     

    There’s a pretty close corollary here to the fear the current administration has (both the Obama administration and the policies coming down by appeals from some pro-choice groups) of appearing “pro-abortion” by talking about abortion rights, so they instead pitch “abortion reduction” to pro-choice audiences as the best pro-choice compromise possible for them at least at this point in the administration. We’ve tried looking at "abortion reduction" all kinds of ways — closing one eye, squinting the other, getting moderately drunk and then debating it — and we just can’t see "abortion reduction" as likely not negatively affecting abortion access, especially for young and poor people.

     

    Fear of the "Anti-Sex Mafia", or the socially conservative, superficially pro-family and religious lobby is very real, and probably dominant over whatever one might define as a “racist lobby” in shaping policy. Fears of legitimately being called “racist” at least in the old sense of racist as “white supremacist” in advocating progressive family planning funding is clearly less dominant, and likely to become even less significant over time given how in sheer numbers Caucasian people are becoming a minority in themselves in the US and in some parts of what used to be called the western world.  We’re saying progressive family planning funding, because we’d like to see more attention going to comprehensive reproductive health care for poor young people who aren’t in college, rather than the disparities we see with funding of (by comparison) near-cocinerge care for college students enrolled at major universities.

     

    Attempts at population control by overtly negative eugenic methods – like coercive use of birth control and sterilization – simply haven’t been effective, as evidenced by how few countries (notably China, and a few others) still follow policies like that. If one wants to critique less overtly negative eugenic methods, like Clinton-era (and right-wing pressured) welfare reform and anti-teen pregnancy campaigns (targeting all teens, not just younger ones) which stigmatizes and in effect punishes poor women for carrying pregnancies to term and not surrendering custody, one can critique that. But fewer progressives today are critiquing those arguably coerced childbirth choices, aside from supporting policies that subsidize the most basic of needs like food and preventative medical care (and increasingly reducing subsidy for preventative reproductive health care, like the full range of options for birth control) for the women and families affected.

     

    If progressives were more successful at doing that, besides better advocating the needs of poor women and their families, environmental groups might be more willing to take public stands supporting noncoercive family planning policies, as many did very visibly a few decades ago — and with some success and support from moderates and even some who otherwise would describe themselves as conservative but not, post-60s-civil rights movement, as extremist, like Barry Goldwater, post-60s, most notably.

     

    If nothing else, we’d draw the fire of the "Anti-Sex Mafia" away from environmental groups, who probably do feel more under fire from them than we know.  And we’d also probably help other progressives, like civil rights groups who have traditionally taken more visible pro-choice stands in the past than some thought, anyway, they are taking today.

     

    southern students for choice-athens

  • 7th-generation

    You wrote: "Currently, the organized movement against immigration is not afraid whatsoever to use environmental and population control arguments as a cover for their racist hostility."

     

     

    Your blanket-statement conflation of a) domestic environmentalists who wish to see immigrants invited into the country at a rate that helps stabilize domestic population with b)abhorrent racism is — unacceptable and dis-honest.

     

     

    ….You are basically saying any environmentalist who wishes to stabilize their domestic population is a racist!

     

    ….How ridiculous.

     

    ….Please enlighten me if that was not your intent, which I sincerely hope it wasn’t.