A Brief History
On May 7, 2018, while the latest movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Avengers: Infinity War, is breaking box office records, we stop to ask about the main premise of the film, the arch villain Thanos and his plan to reduce life in the Universe by half in order to prevent an overpopulation catastrophe. Our question is, “Has anyone tried this plan in real life?” In 1968, Paul and Anne Ehrlich published a book titled, The Population Bomb, a dire warning about the catastrophic consequences of overpopulation of people on Earth. So far, those predictions have not come to pass. Yet, although the world has doubled its human population since the book was published (population in India tripled!). So, we ask, “Has anyone tried this plan in real life?”
In a word, yes! The most populous country on Earth, China, instituted a “One Child” policy whereby married couples were limited to having only one child. This plan went into effect in 1979 and lasted until the draconian measure was relaxed in 2015 (effective January 1, 2016), with couples now allowed to have 2 children. This one child policy was not quite as strict as popular impressions would have you believe. For one thing, only the Han Chinese ethnic group was limited to having one child only, while other ethnic minorities did not face the same restriction. Just over half the population was subject to a clause that allowed for a second child if the first born child was a girl. The Chinese government claimed about 400 million births were prevented by their population control policy, a claim that is not uncontested.
On the surface and according to the Chinese government the plan was a success, but researchers point out that fertility trends were on a rapid decline before the policy went into effect and the real impact of the policy was far less than reported. Allegations that such a restrictive law led to abortions of female fetuses and infanticide are hard to prove, but the fact that the ratio of male babies to female babies born during the tenure of the one child rule was 117:100 in favor of males hints at some truth to the previously mentioned rumors. (Normal male to female birth ratio is from 103:100 to 107:100.) In other news, the city of Shanghai just announced a limit on their municipal population, 25 million people maximum. And to think, that is a limit! In India, China’s rival as the most populous country on Earth, population control became an accepted idea in 1952 and fallout of a late 1960’s drought, the Indian government implemented sterilization and birth control programs, including policies that tied welfare to voluntary sterilization. (And yet, their population has tripled since then!)
Closer to home, in the United States, birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger opened her first birth control clinic in 1916, and founded the American Birth Control League in 1921, the organization that became Planned Parenthood in 1942. Sanger not only was an advocate for birth control as an empowering factor for women and poor people, but she also was a supporter of eugenics, a concept where human fetuses or babies that have severe mental and physical disabilities are euthanized to avoid decreasing the quality of the human gene pool and limit the drag on society for supporting unproductive members. Her “Negro Project” aimed to reduce reproduction in the African American community. In some forms, the eugenics idea was actually implemented in the United States, with regular programs of sterilization of institutionalized severely retarded people. (Sometimes not so severely retarded, especially if the “patient” was a racial minority.) From 1909 to 1979 tens of thousands of people in the US were sterilized, mainly in institutions, but also some unwed mothers, incarcerated people, poor people, minorities and other unfortunates, often without their knowledge or consent. Some reports of unwanted sterilization of female convicts continue to reach the public, especially in California. While people are no longer forcibly sterilized (supposedly) in the US, organizations such as Planned Parenthood and others advocate for chemical, physical, and surgical birth control measures (conception prevention), as well as making legal abortion of an unwanted fetus readily available.
In 1942, the US Supreme Court ruled in Skinner v. Oklahoma that forced or surreptitious sterilization was not Constitutional if the reason for the procedure was based on the subject person’s ethnicity, religion, or having been convicted of a lesser felony. This decision overturned a 1927 Supreme Court case that gave the okay to government sponsored sterilization for broad reasons.
Just when you thought the United States was getting out of the sterilization business, we find that in 1965 a whopping 30% of women in Puerto Rico had been forcibly sterilized since the end of World War II! Apparently the governor of Puerto Rico thought there were too many poor and unskilled workers in the Territory already and that he did not need many more. While over 3400 Native American women were forcibly sterilized courtesy of the US government in the 1970’s, President Richard Nixon authorized a program of voluntary sterilization to be made available to ethnic minorities.
English cleric Thomas Malthus (1776-1834) was a noted proponent of population control, arguing that rather than reproduce to the point of the capacity of the Earth to feed and shelter humans, we would all be better off to limit population in order to enjoy a higher standard of living. His 1798 book, An Essay on the Principle of Population, describes his theory, sometimes referred to as the “Malthusian Trap” or the “Malthusian Spectre.” A key component is the illusion of progress that increased food production gives. The increase offers only a temporary improvement in the standard of living because population growth quickly negates the positive effects of improved food production. Charles Darwin himself is reported to have read Malthus’ works with some degree of respect. Others have debated his theories.
Even more sinister than American programs that targeted racial minorities and poor people, other countries have engaged in programs of “ethnic cleansing” and genocide in attempts to wipe out people of certain nationalities, ethnic groups, or even religion. Most notorious of these attempts were those efforts put forth by Nazi Germany in the 1930’s and 1940’s, when Hitler’s henchmen targeted people of Jewish, Slavic, and Roma (“Gypsy”) origin, while also throwing in homosexuals, communists, malcontents, the mentally ill, mentally retarded, and physically handicapped people for extermination. Not to be outdone by his German rival, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin purposely starved somewhere between 5 million and 11 million Ukrainians to death in the 1930’s in a deliberate attempt to reduce their population to a non-threatening number. (Seems the silly Ukrainians were not all that keen on being part of the Soviet Union.) If you think only deranged psychopaths and dictators are capable of mean spirited population control, look back to Ancient Greece, the cradle of democracy, where the Spartans allegedly tossed imperfect babies off cliffs! Turkey purposely starved a million or 2 million Armenians in a blatant act of genocide, and in North America European settlers may have engaged in intentional biological warfare against Native Americans by supplying the Natives with blankets containing infectious material from smallpox, killing off large portions of the native population.
A quick word about eugenics and gene pool manipulation: Many of our most brilliant people have been outside the “norm” of what may be considered “ideal” at the time. Scientists such as Charles Steinmetz had physical deformities, Stephen Hawking (often referred to as the smartest man on Earth during his life) suffered from ALS, and many great scientists and other contributors to society have had imperfections such as hearing or sight deficiencies. I personally knew a municipal judge that had malformed arms, just a portion of the size of regular arms. This judge served honorably and well, despite his handicap. The cable television programming is full of shows about “little people,” those folks we formerly called midgets or dwarves. Many are highly intelligent contributing professionals such as doctors. In a society obsessed with eugenics, many of these fine people may have never been allowed to grow up. Efforts to control population growth and/or eugenics are often stiffly opposed by people or organizations on moral, religious or political/philosophical grounds. Most often in the US this opposition comes from the Catholic Church (with its well established proscriptions against birth control and abortion) and the right wing portion of the American political spectrum. Far right conspiracy theorists are especially leery of any suggestions of population control, especially of people with Western European heritage.
Many writers and lecturers have warned of the overpopulation of humans on Earth making a crisis inevitable, where too many people mean not enough food to go around, pollution of the land, air and water beyond the ability of the Earth to absorb the toxins and refresh itself, and a tipping point in ocean fish populations which will result in catastrophic decrease in food from the oceans. In recent years those dire warnings have included the specter of Global Warming and Climate Change due to the equation More People= More burning of Fossil Fuels= More Pollution= More Feed Animals= More Carbon Dioxide and Methane Production (biological)= Increased Wood Consumption (paper and building needs) = Fewer Trees/Reduced Rain Forest= More Buildings and Pavement= More water runoff/Less Groundwater replenished, etc, etc, etc!!!
Question for students (and subscribers):We have previously talked about the need for a serious look at population control, and we invite our readers to tell us your opinions and thoughts on the subject. Even if your opinion is that such measures are not called for, we want to hear from you in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Hartmann, Betsy. Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control. Haymarket Books, 2016.
Mosher, Steven. Population Control: Real Costs, Illusory Benefits. Transaction Publishers, 2008.