Duff Gillespie Reviews Global Population Policy: From Population Control to Reproductive Rights

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Nov 01, 2005

No one can accuse Paige Whaley Eager of being overly nuanced. Starting with the title of her book, Global Population Policy: From Population Control to Reproductive Rights (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2004; 234 pages), she confronts the reader with absolutes. There has never been, of course, a "global population policy," nor can humankind's complex and diverse response to population and reproduction be easily separated into two camps, population control, and reproductive rights.

For Eager, the evolution of population policy has been a tectonic battle between evil ("population controllers") and good (the "Global Women's Health and Rights Movement" or GWHRM). Population controllers are white men, mostly American, who are hell-bent on reducing the rate of population growth for economic, political, and national security reasons. Until the Reagan Administration, these powerful men made population control the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy. They encouraged "governmental use of coercive methods" to compel women to use "unsafe contraceptives" (page 6).

Eager outlines the population controllers' other transgressions, the most egregious of which is their disregard for women, who they view as little more than instruments for lowering the population growth rate. While there is no doubt that government family planning programs have perpetrated serious human rights abuses, Eager spends little time documenting them. If she had, she would have found such abuses to be the exception, not the rule, and certainly not as pervasive as her book implies.

Arrayed against this monolithic cabal of population controllers is the GWHRM, a construct Eager never really explains. She does describe in some detail how various women's groups, mostly from the North, altered the policy landscape in fundamental ways. Their labors were rewarded at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, where essentially all countries endorsed a more comprehensive view of population that encompasses the concepts of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). Surprisingly, Eager spends very little time explaining SRHR but dwells extensively on what it is not: population control.

Quite rightly, Eager states that such terms as "population control" have been largely banished from official lexicons throughout the world. This excision is more than symbolic; policies and government officials are generally more sensitive to the rights and needs of women. Indeed, Eager could make a stronger case for the GWHRM by documenting the significant policy changes since Cairo throughout the developing world, such as raising the age of marriage, liberalizing abortion and divorce laws, and criminalizing or discouraging female genital cutting.

When polemists dichotomize complex subjects, their simplifications often distort reality. Eager is no exception: she gets many things—far too many to cover here—just plain wrong. One of her most egregious errors is her disdain for the underlying rationale of "population controllers": that rapid population growth impedes socio-economic development. Her derision is based on her personal philosophy; she makes no attempt to refute this assumption analytically and appears unaware of the extensive literature on population and development. If Eager had consulted the masterful volume edited by Birdsall, Kelley, and Sinding (2001), she would have learned that the importance of population dynamics to development has never been as well documented as it is today. Most of what the "population controllers" have been saying over the last three decades is actually true.

Eager's biggest mistake is grossly overstating the influence of the United States in convincing the developing world to decrease fertility rates. She is not only wrong, but also insulting. First, Eager tries to make the case that decreasing fertility is a core component of U.S. foreign assistance policy, which has never been the case. Uncomfortable realities that would call into question her assumptions about the United States' priorities are not presented or, perhaps, not known by the author. Eager feels the United States was particularly influential in the 1970s; yet, the annual budget for population programs ranged between $120 million to $250 million, and the total staff never exceeded 200 people. This modest level of commitment hardly reflects a high priority.

Unintentionally, I am sure, Eager's portrayal of U.S. population controllers convincing or hoodwinking developing-country governments into mounting efforts to reduce their fertility is demeaning and wrong. For example, if the author had even cursorily examined the literature she would have discovered that Asian countries incorporated fertility reduction in their development plans before the United States even had a population program. It never seemed to occur to her that these countries, and just about every developing country today, might institute such policies and programs because they meet the needs and desires of their citizens when carried out in ways that respect those needs and desires.

Duff Gillespie, PhD., is a senior scholar at the Bill and Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He is also a visiting professor in the Department of Population and Family Health Sciences.

References

Birdsall, Nancy, Allen C. Kelley, & Steven W. Sinding (Eds.). (2001). Population matters: Demographic change, economic growth, and poverty in the developing world. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jain, Anrudh (Ed.). (1998). Do population policies matter?: Fertility and politics in Egypt, India, and Mexico. New York: The Population Council.

Mason, Andrew (Ed.). (2001) Population change and economic development in East Asia: Challenges met, opportunities seized. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

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