When historians study hubris, they usually tell stories about the dazzling, cruel, or ill-fated exploits of specific people—presidents, dictators, revolutionaries. In Fatal Misconception, Matthew Connelly, an associate professor of history at Columbia University, looks instead at an idea: controlling human reproduction. Bold in its claims and wildly arrogant in its approach, the international population control movement of the 20th century provides a stark example of the harms that can occur in the name of benevolence. As Connelly describes in this meticulously researched and well-argued study,
Scientists and activists organized across borders to press for common norms of reproductive behavior. International and nongovernmental organizations spearheaded a worldwide campaign to reduce fertility. Together they created a new kind of global governance, in which proponents tried to control the population of the world without having to answer to anyone in particular.
As Connelly tells it, the population control movement faced the perverse challenge of trying to reverse an extraordinary human achievement: "In the last century, humanity has experienced more than twice as great a gain in longevity as in the previous two thousand centuries, and more than four times the growth in population." But with rapid growth in population came fears of social disruption and food scarcity. The "misery and the fear of misery" caused by overpopulation that mathematician Thomas Malthus first described in 1798 remained a constant concern in Europe and the U.S. During the late 19th century, these anxieties fueled the drive to categorize and make systematic a world that seemed out of control; among the most popular ways of doing this was dividing the world up into different ethnic or racial groups, some deemed more favorable than others. In the United States, fears of "race suicide," an influx of immigrants from Asia and Southern and Eastern Europe, and concerns about the growth of the so-called feebleminded population at home led to the embrace of eugenics, the movement to improve the human race through better breeding practices.
In the 1920s, efforts by activists to organize a birth control movement gained traction, and advocates of population control eventually supplanted eugenicists as the more effective voices for limiting reproduction, Connelly argues. By the ‘30s, the phrase "family planning" became popular, and the global economic crisis prompted more converts to the idea that overpopulation was a definite peril. As Connelly reminds us, during the Depression, "birth control was one of the few American industries to prosper, serving a $250 million market by 1938." And with many more people relying on government assistance, the notion that the state and its experts should have a greater say in who should and should not reproduce began to gain acceptance. In other words: don't breed if the state is the hand that feeds you. By 1937, even the staid American Medical Association had approved family planning.
One of the strengths of Connelly's history is its global scope, and as he demonstrates, India soon became the proving ground—and often the exploitative laboratory—for many population theories in circulation. American birth control activist Margaret Sanger famously debated Gandhi in the ‘30s and traveled the Indian countryside dispensing her wisdom and hawking a contraceptive foam powder she had never bothered to have tested, even on animals, before distributing it to clinics in India. By the ‘40s, Connelly writes, "Innumerable Americans and Europeans...traveled to India, witnessed ‘overpopulation' firsthand, and returned ashen-faced, suitably appalled, to tell others of their experience." As one British colonial administrator bluntly put it, in India, "The people multiply like rabbits and die like flies." Despite concerted efforts to control reproduction, however, activists were flummoxed that "even the poorest people could not be relied upon to want fewer children." In the decades to come, population control enthusiasts willfully ignored this lesson.
The ‘50s saw the creation of a "population establishment" that adopted a more global, beneficent tone than the eugenic-minded rhetoric of earlier days. Rather than persuade developing nations such as India, Pakistan, and South Korea to limit their populations for eugenic purposes, they argued that by "rationalizing and redirecting reproduction, they could make their people modern in a single generation." And as Connelly notes, for the leaders of this establishment, "controlling the birth of this new Third World was just part of a larger plan to remake humanity." Nevertheless, Connelly argues that throughout the population control movement a form of "crypto-eugenics" still held sway. As one adherent described his approach, "You seek to fulfill the aims of eugenics without disclosing what you are really aiming at and without mentioning the word." New euphemisms abounded, including talk of "population quality" rather than limiting births and birth control for "those who needed it most," which meant "the very poorest people."
Money began flowing into the coffers of population control organizations during these years. The Ford Foundation emerged as a party with deep pockets and deep interest in controlling world population growth: by the early 1960s, "The number of Ford personnel in Delhi rivaled the American embassy staff." The Rockefeller Foundation also spent lavishly, and the Khanna Study, for example, funded Harvard University researchers who fanned out across villages in Punjab to record how often villagers were having sex and keep track of women's menstrual cycles. Yet even this richly funded, meticulous (and intrusive) effort proved a failure. As Connelly reports, "After five years, the birth rate of those provided with contraceptives was higher than that of the control group. After a follow-up study featuring even more intensive efforts, it was still higher."
During its period of professionalization in the ‘50s and ‘60s, as the movement grew in power and influence, it also launched an intensive media campaign. Direct-mail solicitations from organizations such as the World Population Emergency Campaign subtly stoked Western fears by distributing images of starving hordes in the Third World.
Money translated into action. In places like India, movement money funded "mobile vasectomy camps" where, during one five-week period in 1960, nearly 15,000 people were sterilized. Alan Guttmacher, president of Planned Parenthood-World Population, launched an intense effort in the early ‘60s to place IUDs (intrauterine devices) in the wombs of as many women as possible, despite reports showing risks of infection and other complications. The appeal of the IUD was clear to people like Guttmacher: "No contraceptive could be cheaper, and also, once the damn thing is in the patient cannot change her mind." The International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) soon issued a press release endorsing the use of IUDs as a safe and effective means of birth control. The practice of sending questionable contraceptive devices overseas continued for decades. In the late 1960s, when the manufacturers of the Dalkon Shield IUD began facing lawsuits over the safety of its device in the U.S., it offered to sell the devices, unsterilized and at half price, to the U.S. Agency for International Development. USAID bought them and by the time the Dalkon Shield recall order was issued in 1975, nearly half a million women in 42 countries were using them.
Also by the 1960s, population workers spoke of "targets" who must be made to become "acceptors" of birth control. Urged on by the Ford Foundation, U.N. agencies, and the IPPF, clinics in India began paying people who submitted to IUD insertion or sterilization as well as "motivators" who convinced others to be sterilized. The movement had transformed from a catch-all group of activists into a "jet set of population experts"—with all of the attendant entitlements. Activists like Alan Guttmacher traveled first class at the IPPF's expense. He was known to write breezy letters with opening salutations such as, "This is written 31,000 feet aloft as I fly from Rio to New York."
Opposition from the Catholic Church (which was formulating its own policies on natural family planning during the 20th century) was a significant force, particularly in the early years of the movement, but Connelly argues convincingly that although religious challenges were important, the movement was its own worst enemy. "Growing disarray at the top, grassroots opposition from below, and a continuing tendency to remove all checks and balances would send it careening out of control." The movement suffered from a lack of transparency about its goals and practices. It bore a striking resemblance to the very act it sought to control: lots of fumbling and groping in the dark, and often questionable alliances. Perhaps the most damning evidence Connelly presents about the population movement is the simplest: it didn't work. As he notes, "Birth rates were actually falling in the 1960s in most of the world, at virtually the same rate as literacy was increasing among women."
By the 1970s, despite the fact that Paul Ehrlich's best-selling book The Population Bomb (which began with a description of the crowded conditions on a "stinking hot night in Delhi") had sold two million copies, the movement was a mess. India was once again the proving ground. After launching an intense, coercive population control policy that was viewed as a model by the movement, Indira Ghandi was resoundingly rejected by her people during elections in 1977. Population control, it turned out, "had no mandate."
Although the movement soon shifted its attention to pursuing a broader campaign for women's rights rather than merely controlling fertility, it did not entirely reject coercive measures. International aid money from the U.N. and from non-governmental organizations such as the IPPF helped China establish the eugenics and one-child policies that have led to forced abortions and infanticide of girl babies. In the ‘80s, pro-life groups in the U.S. launched an effective campaign to convince the Reagan Administration to withhold funding to the U.N. Population Fund unless it took a stand against such "coercive family planning."
Connelly manages well the challenge of pulling together the many threads of his story; the only weak part of his narrative is the vague call for a "reproductive freedom" that is both "pro-life and pro-choice, combining forces to oppose population control of any kind" he makes in his conclusion. But this is only a minor flaw in an otherwise impressive study.
After taking it all in, one is tempted to invoke the hackneyed warning about the road to hell being paved with good intentions. To be sure, many of these activists sincerely wanted to help other people, and thought that fitting them with diaphragms or sterilizing them was the way to do it. But one of the consistent themes that emerges from Connelly's book is just how many of the people intent on controlling others' reproductive lives actually had less elevated intentions. Many of them simply wanted to prevent the wrong sort of people from ever being born. "Population control presented itself as a charity like any other, helping less fortunate people," Connelly writes, "But it was the only one that promised to make them go away."
Today, population control is discussed as a global environmental problem or a women's rights issue. Activists argue about "population stabilization" and the optimum number of people the planet can support. The message is deceptively simple: have fewer children, invest more resources in them, and modernity will soon follow. Yet the population control movement's slogan—"every child a wanted child"—proves hollow in a context where its target audience of women often lack access to education and medical care. As Connelly's history shows, individual reproductive practices are extraordinarily difficult to control—not just technically, but culturally and socially. Throughout the book, he challenges us to look not only at the motivations of the activists who sought to control population, but at their actions. "When people set out to save the world," he reminds us, "the devil is in the details."
Connelly's book stands as a warning about the dangers of seeing people as nameless numbers. The movement's conceit grew out of an unwillingness to recognize the intrinsic humanity and rights of the individual; a readiness to act—and compel—in the name of an amorphous global social conscience; and an eagerness to invoke science and technology to treat problems that are, at root, political. In the end, as Connelly writes, "The great tragedy of population control, the fatal misconception, was to think that one could know other people's interests better than they knew it themselves."