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Worried about a population bust? History shows we shouldn’t be.

Letting panic about fertility rates drive policy is dangerous

Baby cribs in a maternity ward. (iStock)

Fears of a “population bust” have been causing anxiety lately. With fertility declining in the United States, as well as Europe and parts of Asia, we are told to expect fewer children and sluggish economies. Our dismal collective future is represented with images of empty bassinets and deserted playgrounds.

This is not the first time in our history that fertility rates have caused panic.

In the 1960s and 1970s, fears of a growing population — a population “bomb” — shaped public policy. With childbirths increasing, people were told to expect widespread famine, pollution and poverty in an overcrowded world.

Desperate to reduce numbers, governments enacted policies to control population. These efforts mostly failed to slow population growth. But at times, they endangered women’s health and autonomy, particularly among people of color within and outside the United States. The history of the population bomb shows the danger of making fertility rates central to policies about women, children and families. These lessons from the past are important now, as we face another period of anxiety about population.

Concern about the population bomb began in the mid-20th century when global mortality rates were falling but fertility rates remained high. The result was a rapid increase of population, especially in the newly decolonized countries across Asia and Africa. As the United States eased immigration restrictions with the 1965 Hart-Celler Act, fears that a growing population in the developing world would overwhelm a smaller number of native-born (particularly White) Americans became widespread and fueled racialized and nativist sentiments.

These fears prompted a network of American environmental, reproductive rights and philanthropic organizations to campaign to control population growth. These groups forged alliances with governments in formerly colonized countries, where fertility rates were higher on average than in the wealthy, developed world. These governments saw population control as a way to accelerate economic development and curb the number of poor people in their own countries. American population control advocates also pressured their own government to take action, at home and abroad.

Beginning in the mid-1960s, the U.S. government made controlling population growth a priority of its foreign policy. President Lyndon B. Johnson linked international development aid to population control, for example, and declared that he was “not going to piss away foreign aid in nations where they refuse to deal with their own population problems.” American dollars abroad were directed toward efforts to ensure that poor women in developing countries had fewer children.

Closer to home, programs targeted Black, Latina and Native American women. These programs assumed that poor women, especially poor women of color, were excessive “breeders” who could not be trusted to make decisions about their own fertility.

Rather than making contraception or abortion available as a choice for women, these top-down efforts aimed to control the population by controlling women’s reproduction. This approach led to abuses. For example, thousands of women of color in the United States underwent forced sterilizations during the 1960s and 1970s. Drawing upon eugenic sterilization laws from the early 20th century, medical professionals deemed these women “unfit” to reproduce because of their poverty or immigration status.

The U.S. government’s Indian Health Service, for its part, targeted Native American women for sterilization. Women were threatened with the loss of their children or their welfare benefits if they refused the procedure. In some cases, women were pressured to sign consent forms when they were sedated for a Caesarean section or in pain during labor. Between 25 to 50 percent of Native American women were sterilized between 1970 and 1976.

The relentless drive to control population led to a similar disregard for women’s autonomy outside the United States. In India during the mid-1960s, for example, the United States supported a campaign for IUDs as a way to slow population growth. Earlier in the decade, American scientists had developed IUD technology as a population-control method that could be used on a mass scale. In the words of Alan Guttmacher, head of the International Planned Parenthood Federation World Population Division in 1962, the goal was to “apply this method to large populations” in Asia, Latin America and Africa.

In 1965, the Indian government made IUDs a centerpiece of a national population-control program that targeted poor women. Two American organizations, the Population Council and the Ford Foundation, supplied the first IUDs to India and funded an IUD factory in the country to ramp up production. More than 800,000 IUDs were inserted in the first year of the campaign alone.

The results were often disastrous for the women who received them. IUD insertions took place at mass camps that lacked adequate medical facilities. Women had little follow-up care after insertion, and their complaints of pain, excessive bleeding or other complications were often ignored. Some women were denied removal of the device when they requested it, and others were coerced into accepting IUDs to obtain food and welfare benefits.

The single-minded focus on driving down women’s fertility rates also meant a disregard for other aspects of women’s lives. Rather than addressing the root causes of poverty, migration, illiteracy or maternal and infant mortality, population controllers blamed women, seeing their reproduction as a threat. If women could just have fewer children, the logic went, their other problems would be solved.

Many women themselves did not see it quite that way. Children could help secure a family’s future or provide crucial economic support in agrarian societies. Although access to safe and reliable contraception was an important and urgent demand, birth control alone could not fully address women’s economic, social or health care needs — least of all when it was forced upon them. Women often resisted coercive population-control measures and refused to participate in programs that denied them reproductive dignity.

Eventually, fears of the population bomb faded. New technologies enabled farmers to grow more food to feed the world’s growing population, and famine no longer seemed so imminent. Because of economic and social changes, many countries entered into what demographers call a fertility transition, as falling birthrates aligned with falling mortality rates. Global population growth slowed.

Birth control had been pushed both by population-control groups and by advocates for reproductive health care. But with the panic ebbing and social conservatism ascendant within the Republican Party, the Reagan administration restricted access to contraception and abortion both at home and abroad. Without the population-control element, Reagan imposed a “global gag rule” that limited U.S. funding for reproductive health care internationally. But this restriction could be just as devastating for women as earlier population-control efforts. Both approaches undermined women’s control over their own fertility while putting their health at risk.

Today, new anxieties about a population decline are replacing our old concerns about population increase. How might we think differently about population this time around?

Let’s recognize that the panic about numbers is almost always inseparable from racialized fear. You might not know it from the recent angst about the population bust, but world population is still forecast to grow by 10 percent in the next decade. This is in part because some countries, mostly in Africa, have fertility rates above the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman on average, which means population there will continue to increase. Also, in countries like India, where fertility is nearing a replacement level, population will continue growing for some time because of the large number of people entering their childbearing years.

As in the past, population anxieties are taking hold at a moment when population growth is uneven in different parts of the world, with a decline in some places and an increase in others. But our fears about the “bust” can look less dire if we take a truly global perspective. There are still babies to fill the world’s bassinets.

Historically, making fertility rates a driver of policy has led to dire consequences. Supporting people’s reproductive decision-making needn’t depend on population anxiety, whether boom or bust.