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Population Control Evolved

By Steven Mosher and Colin Mason

But a billion human beings are not added to the planet’s population very often. Annual funding requests needed an annual justification. Thus the following July 11th was billed as “World Population Day (WPD),” as has every subsequent July 11th up to the present day.

In its initial iteration, World Population Day consisted of dismal pronouncements from the United Nations Population Fund—the lead spear carrier for this unholy day—bringing us the bad tidings that we are breeding ourselves off the face of the planet. This early “apocalypse now” style proved effective at generating massive press coverage, which in turn prompted parliaments around the world to open up their purses.

The rhetoric of World Population Day has softened considerably in the years since. First of all, the numbers simply didn’t support the old population-bomb thesis. Birth rates were falling farther and faster than anyone thought imaginable. Second, forced-pace population control programs in China and elsewhere had produced a backlash in the West.

The 1994 Cairo conference marks a watershed in the rhetoric, if not the reality, of population control programs. Largely because of opposition from a consortium of Catholic and Muslim countries, the Programme of Action that resulted from the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) contains no population projections, no demographic analyses, no universal right to abortion, and no hard targets for contraceptive acceptance, fertility decline or population levels. What survived the prolonged and often fractious negotiations was a pastiche of less controversial policies centering not on the numbers but on what came to be called “reproductive health care.”

This outcome was initially quite a disappointment for the hard-line controllers who, in the words of Adrienne Germain,

argued that Cairo’s “reproductive health approach” will be far more expensive and less efficient than vertical family planning programs. Rather, they say, priority should be given to meeting the unmet need for contraception, as conventionally defined. They further argue that “population” resources, small to begin with, certainly should not be stretched to cover the kind of “social engineering”—that is, health, empowerment, and rights—mandated by the ICPD. If there is to be any “social engineering,” they say, it should take the form of incentives or other persuasive measures directly targeted on fertility and, in particular, contraceptive use.

In other words, they wanted to continue the hard sell, complete with hard targets, which relied upon bribes, sanctions and propaganda campaigns to ensure compliance.

Advocates of a “reproductive health care” approach, including Germain herself, sought to reassure the hard-liners that the “demographic imperative”—that is, the need to control population growth—remained the top priority:

[A] reproductive health approach will be more cost effective in meeting demographic goals … by reducing dropout and failure rates, and … by appealing to the younger individuals and couples who, in demographic terms, need to …contracept earlier and longer. Proponents of the ICPD also look to broad “social engineering,” rather than fertility-centered propaganda or incentives … That is, we argue for creation of socio-economic conditions in which it makes sense for individuals to have two or fewer children. [italics added]

Germain concluded by reassuring hard-line controllers that these presumably costly social engineering programs would not compete with their existing programs for funding. Rather, they would be paid for by “broader development agencies and budgets, not from family planning budgets; nor would ministries of health and family planning be responsible for their implementation.” This new money, according to Germain, would ensure that the reproductive health approach would not compete with, but work alongside existing top-down, numbers-driven population control programs. This point bears repeating: The hard-line approach was slated to continue, with or without the infusion of new funds necessary to initiate full-service reproductive health care programs.

In [any] event, the UNFPA’s fundraising drive and those of related organizations, stalled shortly after takeoff. In the years since, it has issued increasingly frantic calls for donor countries to “honor” the ICPD commitments—that is, put more money into population control—only to have these increasingly ignored. Of the projected tens of billions of dollars that these new commitments to reproductive health care supposedly required, only a fraction has actually been raised. The 179 nations present at the ICPD have not even come close to meeting their pledges. Annual funding in 2003 stood at only $4.7 billion, a handsome sum of money, to be sure, but only one-quarter of the estimated $18.5 billion that had been pledged at Cairo.

Caught between the demands of the Cairo agreement for reproductive health care programs, on the one hand, and the reality of existing family planning commitments and essentially static budgets on the other, the population bureaucracy has had to improvise. They have done so by dressing up existing fertility control programs in the guise of reproductive health care. And they now tout such “reproductive health” programs as a great boon to women and children. Among the many [alleged] benefits of reducing the birthrate they list lower maternal mortality, reduced infant mortality, improved overall health and higher living standards. The claims of the controllers are greatly exaggerated, if not entirely bogus.

But this year’s World Population Day rhetoric is even blander than “reproductive health” and “reproductive rights.” This year’s theme— “be counted” and “everyone counts”—is so soft that it can mean almost anything. According to UNFPA Director Thoraya Obaid, it means,

Every country counts its people. The numbers tell decision-makers about current and future needs …With world attention focused on achieving the Millennium Development Goals by 2015, and the upcoming MDG10 Summit at the United Nations in September, the availability of consistent and comparable statistical information has become even more crucial. Data for development plays a prominent role in monitoring progress, assessing and realigning plans and strategies, and conducting effective advocacy. Data, and public access to it, contributes to transparency and accountability.

So the UNFPA’s job is now … carrying out a census? Data for resource allocation? Even the official UN Secretary-General’s statement has only passing reference even to reproductive rights, normally the cornerstone of UNFPA rhetoric.

On the ground, however, it’s business as usual, and the locals know it. News photographs of WPD celebrations from Delhi, India, for example, bear captions quoting Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit saying, “There is a need for small families as resources are limited and uncontrolled population may result in slower development.” From Africa, we are assured that, vis-á-vis WPD, “Family [p]lanning is an investment in the people’s needs and the needs of the population. It’s a win-win situation.”

The United Nations, in the person of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, has even proclaimed, “[I]ndividuals have a basic right to determine freely and responsibly the number and timing of their children,” adding, “Millennium Development Goal 5, improving maternal health, affirms this right.”

The minds behind World Population Day understand that top-down population control has too much bad press. Places like China and Peru have shown the world what coercive population policies really look like, and the results are ugly and violent.

They understand that in order to sell population control, it has to look like human rights. It has to look like choice. It has to look like help. It has to look like anything but what it really is.

Steven W. Mosher is president of the Population Research Institute, an international nonprofit working to end coercive population control and fight the myth of overpopulation that fuels it. He is also an internationally recognized authority on China and population issues, as well as an acclaimed author and speaker. He has worked tirelessly since 1979 to fight coercive population control programs.

Colin Mason is director of media production at the PRI, as well as its primary media contact and liaison. He also conducts research and writes articles regularly for the PRI. He has produced seven television shows for EWTN on the state of the pro-life movement worldwide, in addition to numerous mini-documentaries and short pro-life films, all of which are available on YouTube.

This commentary is reprinted with the PRI’s kind permission.