Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: McLaren, Angus
Pub Date: 09/22/2009
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Fall, 2009 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 1
Topic: NamedWork: Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Connelly, Matthew
Accession Number: 209577965
Full Text: Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population. By Matthew Connelly (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008. xiv plus 521 pp. $35.00).

The essence of Matthew Connelly's impressive study is captured in a table (page 374) that shows that, in the latter half of the twentieth century, fertility declined as dramatically in countries like Brazil and Turkey which did little to control population as it did in India and China which had launched massive campaigns to impose forcibly restrictions on reproduction. The "fatal misconception" of the western population planners who cheered on such crusades that ran rough shod over human rights was both to believe that they knew what was best for other people and to assume that they had the means to impose their views on the world. What was the source of such hubris? To understand the rise and fall of the population control empire, Connelly argues, one must begin by appreciating the emergence in the late nineteenth century of a world economy. At home Malthusians worried about the over-breeding of the lower classes while eugenicists bewailed the decline of the fertility of the "fit." Abroad white western states expanded their powers, but saw themselves increasingly threatened by foreign masses who, the population experts insisted, could not be left to mindlessly reproduce.

Eugenics being too obviously a tool of the western world, the birth control movement under the leadership of Margaret Sanger assumed the task of launching population control as a world wide crusade. Sanger was the inspiration of the World Population conference of 1927 which, according to Connelly, marked the stage at which eminent demographers and scientists began to take an international view of population. Western commentators came to regard high fertility in the third world as a disease. In reality by 1930 Asia's share of world population had dropped to its lowest level in history. Nevertheless it was declared to have a "population problem" by those who were in effect launching yet another chapter in the history of imperialism.

Western fears were further heightened when it was realized that even the Second World War had not blunted the surge in world population growth. Propagandists reversed the old notion that modernization would lead to population control; now the idea was increasingly expressed that only if poor countries controlled their population could they modernize. These new views were voiced by what Connelly calls the "population establishment" consisting of such men as John D. Rockefeller, and organizations like the Population Council, the Ford Foundation, and the International Planned Parenthood Federation. India became their chief testing ground for a variety of technological fixes. If its population growth were not curbed, the story went, the rising expectations of its masses could become explosive. By 1963 the United States government was supporting this family planning "war" on high fertility in which "casualties"--including septic abortions, ectopic pregnancies, and life-threatening medical complications--were accepted. The excesses peaked with the Indira Ghandi's sterilization camps in 1976. China's one-child policy of the early 1980s entailed similar restrictions on the right to reproduce.

Well before the publicizing of such naked attempts at social engineering, opposition to the population controllers was being expressed. The Vatican, of course, repudiated all artificial means of fertility control, but Connolly traces back to the 1960s the emergence of feminism, the new understanding of the history of eugenics, and the appreciation of the Holocaust, as leading progressives to expose the racism and classism of population control. At the 1974 World Population Conference in Bucharest feminists like Germaine Greer and Betty Friedan protested that women's voices were not being heard. In Connolly's view the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development held at Cairo, where women won the delegates' repudiation of coercive family planning and the acknowledgment of women's right to choose, spelled the demise of the population control movement.

Though his book is more an administrative than a social history, Connelly has produced an important study that anyone interested in the history of reproduction will want to peruse. But readers expecting to find within its covers any discussion of sexual ideas and practices will be disappointed. This is somewhat of a surprise given that Connelly repeats and appears to agree with the feminists' charge that the population control movement was dominated by men so preoccupied by demographic theorizing as to be in effect "sexless." The Vatican's position on family planning obviously reflected the Catholic hierarchy's sexual concerns; the attitudes of the other key players warrants attention.

Running throughout Connelly's discussion is the telling argument that fertility was being reduced before the population planners arrived, that many wanted to reduce their family size, and that birth rates around the world were indeed falling in the 1960s. The implications of these findings are never fully fleshed out, but one doubts Connelly is indifferent to the need for reliable contraceptives. He does acknowledge in passing that in their absence high rates of maternal mortality resulted. The point is that Connelly's penetrating and exhaustive account of the population control issue is focused on the "supply side," that is, the white western men who doled out advice and appliances, not on the men and women of color--the "users" and "acceptors"--who received them.

There does not appear to be a single twentieth-century population conference whose minutes Connelly has not closely perused. His thorough analysis of the complicated financing of family planning programs entails a painstaking account of the relationships of granting agencies, government watchdogs, NGOs, field officers, and recruiters. Many studies have critiqued the population planners but no scholar can rival Connelly in his fierce denunciation of their coercive programs or in his knowledge of the key roles played by the BCIIC, FPA, IPPF, PAA, UNFPA and the network of other international agencies dedicated to policing the reproduction of the poor.

Angus McLaren

University of Victoria
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.