Putting Reproductive Rights and Population Growth in Perspective

This post is published as part of our series in recognition of International Human Rights Day 2010 on Friday, December 10th.  Read more International Human Rights Day 2010 posts here.

You may remember the book by Heidi Hartmann The Unhappy Marriage of Feminism and Marxism, published in the 1980s.  Well, I was a daughter of that marriage.

In the 80’s with the support of the Ford Foundation, I was on the outskirts of Sao Paulo developing a methodology for sex education with grassroots women. The purpose was to promote the right to decide and, very advanced for that time, the right to seek pleasure. As you see, true to form to the feminist lineage.

But I was also mindful of the leftist milieu that nurtured all progressive thinking in the country and to which feminists were held accountable if they wanted to be part of the “luta geral.” So, our sex education project also included a critique of population control. Our concern was both with coercive practices and with an ideology that seemed to promote population stabilization as a substitute for a fairer global economy, for a new economic order, as it was called then. Lyndon Johnson’s statement that five dollars spent in family planning was more productive than one hundred dollars spent in development seemed to justify this view of the population agenda as a threat to the right to development.  

The methodology we were developing was participatory. We used cartoons or photographs to start consciousness-raising discussions. One of the cartoons depicted two women. One of them was saying: “Did you see the TV last night? They said we are poor because we have too many children.” The other responded: “That is nonsense. They should distribute income instead of the pill.”

Even if this dialogue sounds bizarre, it reflected our mentality. Fortunately, I had then one of the teaching moments of my life.  The grassroots women of the periphery of Sao Paulo were unanimous in pointing out the flaw in this dichotomy: they all wanted better income distribution AND the pill.

Many years have passed and I have since tried to contribute to a virtuous synergy between a macro and a micro approach to population and reproductive rights. There was a moment at the MacArthur Foundation, for instance, when I refused a suggestion to change the name of the program to Reproductive Health, keeping the name Population and Reproductive Health. This may come as a surprise to some of you.

Just recently a former member of the International Planned Parenthood Federation board who came from the old school of population and family planning, and had been frustrated by my unwavering defense of the Cairo agenda, was pleasantly surprised at the Women Deliver conference when I used population momentum as one of the several reasons why we should pay much more attention to youth.  I had, of course, been talking about population momentum since Bongaarts seminal article was published many, many years ago but I had focused more on rights. I felt that was the message that had been most neglected. 

So, where do I stand today on the question of whether the population/environment connection threatens the rights agenda? This question elicits four possible responses. The first was dominant in the population community in the past and still finds some supporters. This response is:  No, because rights are not really important. It may not be said in such a blunt way, but it is behind a justification of China’s policy, for instance, based on the argument that it avoided the greater evil of huge population growth.

The second response is more common today: No, because there is a natural synergy between the demographic and the rights perspectives. The organizers of this session described this position very clearly. They argue that regardless of their intent, effective means of slowing population growth benefit women and promote individual rights. The problems with this position are two-fold: first, not everybody is convinced that the promotion of individual rights is the most effective means of slowing population growth, in spite of the powerful arguments by Amartya Sen and others. Some still think women need to be convinced to have fewer children by “whatever means necessary.”

The second problem is the unintended consequences. When policy makers do not make protecting rights a priority, they may end up inadvertently trumping over them. Recent trends towards results-based funding, when adopted with a religious fervor, might skew funding towards long-acting contraceptive methods which can produce measurable results such as CYP and maternal deaths avoided. While such methods certainly should be part of the options available, programs in search of desperately-needed funds may neglect other methods or neglect rights based results such as the empowerment of women.

The third response is the modern version of the traditional critique of the population agenda: Yes, the population/environment connection is a threat to the reproductive and sexual rights and therefore we should deny or ignore that connection. I see two problems with denial. First, it is a distortion of scientific evidence. We all know that population growth is not the major driver of environmental problems, but we can’t ignore that it is a contribution to their aggravation. The second problem with avoiding discussing the connection is that it misses the opportunity to broaden the basis of support for reproductive health and rights.

The fourth response is: Yes, there is a risk, but it can be avoided with concerted efforts to respect, protect and fulfill rights. As you can see, it is similar to the second response, recognizing a potential for synergy but it is different in not assuming that it will happen automatically.  On the contrary, it assumes there is a significant risk that the synergy may not occur, for the reasons I have discussed.

I think that by now, you may have guessed where I stand.

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  • crowepps

    Just like governments resting on the consent of the governed, activists need to keep in mind that activism ‘on behalf of’ a group of real people requires listening to what THEY want.  There is a human impulse to see oneself as a member of an educated, wise elite better able to identify the problem and find the solution that sometimes tips over into feeling entitled to impose both ones ‘big idea’ and ones ‘obvious solution’ on those who are ‘part of the problem’ because they reject the first and don’t want the second.


    There are very, very few problems that can CORRECTLY be expressed as a dichotomy.  Most ‘problems’ have multiple contributing factors and need complicated solutions that continue to be adjusted as the unintended consequences become apparent.  Recognizing that and maintaining some humility about ones own importance are really important.

    “Complex problems have simple, easy to understand, wrong answers.”  H.L. Mencken


  • squirrely-girl

    There are very, very few problems that can CORRECTLY be expressed as a dichotomy.

    I love when people really do understand the fallacy of a forced dichotomy. :)

  • aligatorhardt

    Oversimplification of problems fits well with the bumper sticker politics of today. Of course in order to simplify you have to throw out some of the facts. A careful analysis of population size and human rights is the only way to be assured of approching any goals. Most especially damageing to the birth control and personal rights is the interference of religious dogma instead of scientific and historical analysis. Many programs have been based on wishful thinking, even when that thinking is narrow minded and possibly delusional. Our social programs need much more science and less religion and understanding as well as compassion. Thanks to the author for her work and her voice.

  • johnny-mack

    I’m dismayed that the population/environment connection is viewed by some as a threat to sexual and reproductive rights.  The efforts of both rights advocates and environmentalists would be stronger and more effective if they worked together. 

    I suspect that nowadays this perception is fostered, in part, by the right wing.  Conservative commentaters are quick to bring up China’s coercive population policies whenever population or family planning is discussed, but rarely place it in context: one of many coercive policies implemented by a regime that was not known for respecting individual rights.  This falsely suggests a connection between efforts to deal with population and coercion.  Most population activists advocate expanding reproductive rights while providing the means of excercising them, which has proven the most effective way to reduce birth rates.        

    I support reproductive rights.  I also believe population growth poses grave dangers to the environment.  In my case, these beliefs led me to serve on a local Planned Parenthood board and contribute to prochoice causes, and even small contributions of time and money, like mine, add up.  There are a lot of people out there who share my views.  They’re a resource that deserves to be cultivated, not treated with suspicion.              


  • crowepps

     This falsely suggests a connection between efforts to deal with population and coercion.

    Interestingly, while they get all hysterical about ‘forcing women to have abortions’ they don’t seem to get the connection between making birth control hard to get and ‘forcing women to get pregnant’ which is also a form of coercion —


  • johnny-mack

    Maybe the connection is too subtle….?

    Actually, I there’s not much right wing hysteria about any policies favoring population growth, even blatently coercive ones by governments you’d expect them to condemn.  I don’t recall much talk about coercive policies implemented to increase population growth by Nicholai Ceausescu, the former communist dictator in Romania, or the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran.