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INHL 681

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Design & Evaluation of Reproductive Health Programs*

(Hewlett Guest Lecture Series 2000)

*This course was formerly known as INHL 681: "Methodologies for Evaluating Family Planning Programs"











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Dr. Margaret Catley-Carlson
(Read for class on 10/6/00)

Subject: For moderation - People are poor because they have too many children?

Cross-Dressing Malthus

BY Betsy Hartman

Betsy Hartmann is the director of the Population and
Development Program at Hampshire College and a co-founder
of the Committee on Women, Population and the Environment.

October 12, 1999 has the dubious distinction of being both Columbus Day and
'Day of 6 Billion,' ostensibly the day world population will pass the six
billion people mark. A well-funded media campaign, organized by the United
Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), the Communications
Consortium Media Center and others is already revving up to spread
demographic alarmism, despite the fact, or perhaps because of it, that
population growth rates are declining worldwide faster than anticipated.
While many of the campaign's messages include the need for women's
empowerment, the main theme reaching the press is that population growth is
a major drain on social, economic and environmental resources. Left out of
the picture are the real culprits: capitalist exploitation of both people
and nature, obscene income and consumption disparities, inappropriate
technologies and hyper-militarization. The belief is you can have your cake
and eat it too: you can support women's rights, while scapegoating their
fertility for the planet's ills. You can cross-dress Malthus and parade
him around as a feminist.
Five years after the 1994 UN population conference in Cairo, the population
establishment is experiencing a sort of ideological schizophrenia. On the
one hand are positive calls to make women's empowerment and broader
reproductive health services the centerpiece of population policies and the
rightful condemnation of the use of coercion and demographic targeting in
family planning programs. In some countries there have been serious
attempts to reform population programs, and within institutions like the
UNFPA, there are progressive individuals struggling to change policy.

On the other hand, many population and environment groups, especially in
the US, continue to blame poverty, environmental degradation, political
violence and even the spread of diseases like AIDS on rapid population growth in the
Third World. Zero Population Growth, for example, links 'Y6B' to 'Y2K',
claiming that world population passing the six billion mark is a more
threatening problem than the potential computer glitch. Lester Brown of
the Worldwatch Institute has taken an even more cynical approach, arguing that
African countries which have experienced rapid population growth are
suffering from "demographic fatigue", accounting for their inability to
take adequate measures to halt the spread of the AIDS epidemic.

These messages actually undermine the Cairo reforms by reinforcing
demographic targeting and spreading fear and loathing of the faceless,
nameless masses 'over there.' Despite the Cairo reforms, population control
programs remain in place in many regions. Sterilization abuse of poor
women is still common in a number of countries, including Peru, Mexico, India and
China. In many national and international family planning programs,
long-acting, provider-dependent contraceptives like Norplant are targeted
at poor women since these methods are considered more effective in preventing
pregnancy even if they present greater risks to health and do nothing to
block the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases like HIV/AIDS. The
main rationale for US foreign assistance in the reproductive health field
is still reducing population growth; according to the Center for Reproductive
Law and Policy, USAID continues to give less funding for maternal services
than it does for family planning.
Why is neo-Malthusianism so powerful in the US, much more powerful than it
is, for example, in European development and environment circles? There
are a number of different but related reasons. For one, we have a strong
anti-abortion movement which makes the population establishment seem
reasonable by comparison -- at least it supports family planning, though
often of the wrong kind. We also have a well-funded population lobby that
has influence at the highest echelons of government. Money talks in
Washington, DC.

In addition, we happen to live in one of the most parochial countries on
the planet, where knowledge about development issues in the Third World is slim
indeed. Just look at the social studies and biology textbooks kids read in
school and you'll find that population is typically blamed for poverty and
environmental degradation. This is very unlike curricular materials in the
UK, where competing theories on population are taught in a sophisticated
and complex way, and geography involves more than learning the location of the
fifty states.
Then there is the wilderness ethic, the belief in a pure nature, unsullied
by human beings. (Of course we created our wilderness through the genocide
of its Native American inhabitants.) There is little appreciation that
human communities can and do live in more sustainable relationships with their
environments in other countries. Poor peasants, we are taught, overmine
the soil and cut down the rain forests -- there is little knowledge about how
peasant agriculture actually contributes to biodiversity and land
conservation in many areas, or about the business interests responsible for
most forest destruction.

But the roots of the neo-Malthusian success go deeper than this.
Neo-Malthusianism is a useful ideological glue which binds liberals, and
even some leftists, to conservative causes. It is a tricky little belief
system, constantly mutating to fit the political moment. Just last year,
right-wing anti-immigration activists tried to change the Sierra Club's
neutral policy on immigration by arguing that immigrants, by contributing
to US population growth, were the main despoilers of our environment. And
just watch the debates over climate change. The spin doctors are trying to
divert attention from the US refusal to take serious measures to cut carbon
emissions by playing up the threat of China and India's populations as
future energy consumers. Better the one child family over there than a one
car policy here, or raising taxes, god forbid, to finance public transport
and energy conservation.
But probably the single most important reason neo-Malthusianism is so
powerful in the US is because it resonates so well with domestic racism and
sexism. Images of overbreeding single women of color on welfare and
bare-breasted, always pregnant Third World woman are two sides of the same
nasty coin. And both groups, it is believed, are excellent candidates for
social engineering. Insert Norplant, tie their tubes, put them to work in
fast food chains or sweat shops, and give them a little micro-credit and
education if you're feeling generous... And meanwhile call their young
male counterparts barbarians, whether they live in the US inner city or Robert
Kaplan's African anarchy. Lock the boys and men in prison.
Don't get me wrong. I'm all for people having access to safe, voluntary,
and affordable birth control and abortion services as part of, not a
substitute for, comprehensive health services. Reproductive rights are a
vital part of a human rights agenda. I also support many of the reforms
outlined at Cairo, though most are yet to be realized. But I believe that
once and for all support for reproductive rights needs to be divorced from
the neo-Malthusian agenda, which not only distorts the delivery of family
planning services, but wider social policies.
Except for the women's movement, the American left has remained much too
silent on this issue. On Columbus Day in 1992 progressives here and in
Latin America joined together to say that 500 years of colonialism and
imperialism were enough. This year 'Day of 6 Billion' would be a good date
to strip Malthus of all his trendy trappings and put him back in his grave
where he belongs.