Population control has been a central axis of eugenics movements across the globe for more than a century, although a visible and active movement to control population growth emerged with force only after World War II. Today, population control rationales continue to influence policies related to reproduction and remain laden with implicit assumptions of who is fit or unfit to procreate and/or parent.
During the 19th century, the scarcity model articulated by Thomas Malthus – in which population growth exponentially outpaces resources, gained much currency. In the 20th century this model folded with easy affinity into the eugenics movement, resonating with ideas about desirable and undesirable individual traits and burgeoning demographic plans of many consolidating nations. For example, in the first decades of the twentieth century France, which formally eschewed negative eugenics (unlike Germany and the United States which much more actively sough to reduce the numbers of the unfit) nonetheless promoted a vision of enhancing populating quality (although this took a harder turn during the Vichy era).
Many other countries, including Mexico, Australia, and Italy just to name a few, developed plans for population control and growth that included components of natural resources allocation, and immigration restriction, incentives for procreation among those groups deemed fit. In its most extreme, negative population control targeting specific ethnic, racial, and social groups resulted in large-scale sterilization programs or mass euthanasia or genocide.
After World War II, population control shifted from being primarily the concern of nations to become an international movement albeit largely dictated by the goals of the United States, other western countries, and new international bodies such as the United Nations. Under the aegis of organizations such as the Population Council, Population Reference Bureau, and Planned Parenthood, an ideal replacement model of 2.1 children per couple was promoted around the globe. In the United States, this ideal was portrayed with seeming innocence in TV shows like “Leave it to Beaver.” However, population control had nefarious effects around the world, as it supported continued and in some cases expanded sterilization programs, as well as the launching of tubal ligation and vasectomy campaigns targeted at certain populations in places including India, Puerto Rico, and Indonesia. The publication of Paul Erlich’s The Population Bomb in 1968, a dramatic call to arms that urged implementation of population control policies including sterilization especially in developing countries such as India, increased awareness as well as heightened rhetoric around global population trends.
Even with growing awareness of the human rights violations associated with coercive population control, population control policies have retained a great deal of staying power. In some instances, for example, in Peru in the 1990s when approximately 300,000 indigenous women and men were sterilized as part of a governmental program, international aid organizations, feminist groups, and according to some accounts, United Nations programs, supported this campaign as a vehicle for expanded reproductive health services for poor Peruvians.
One arena of population control that continues to produce angst is the long association of the environmental movement with population control goals. This is aptly captured by the group Zero Population Growth (now renamed Population Connection), established the same year as the publication of The Population Bomb, urged strict demographic control and tied control of human growth to protecting natural resources and wilderness. In some cases, environmental groups have been quite anti-immigrants, viewing foreigners as a threat to natural purity and pristine resources. These orientations are quite common among bigger environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, although in recent years they have tried to deflect attention from this part of their advocacy platform.
Bashford, A. (2014). Global Population: History, Geopolitics, and Life on Earth. New York: Columbia University Press.
Connelly, M. (2010). Fatal Mis-Conception: The Struggle to Control World Population. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Gutiérrez, E. (2008). Fertile Matters: The Politics of Mexican-Origin Women’s Reproduction. Austin, University of Texas Press.
Schneider, W. H. (2002). Quality and Quantity: The Quest for Biological Regeneration in Twentieth-Century France. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Shapiro, T. (1985). Population Control Politics: Women, Sterilization, and Reproductive Control. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.