While the modern family planning movement has a checkered past, the history of a movement is not necessarily its destiny. In a presentation that looked at both the positive and negative roots of the family planning movement, Matthew Connelly argued that we cannot discredit a 20th century movement because of its past distortions or simply because it was founded on 19th century values. Rather, Connelly said, we must examine that history and learn from it.

The Uses of Population

Connelly began by noting that both population and its reduction have been used throughout the last century as platforms for a variety of political projects. Even the eugenics movement—commonly seen today as automatically negative—has in some contexts had more positive aspects and consequences. In the U.S. and Germany, this movement was indeed primarily negative in character and used to justify the oppression of certain sectors of society. But in France and certain areas of Latin America, eugenics took on a more pro-natal aspect, and was used as a political argument to support greater investment in social systems and state-sponsored health programs.

Connelly also cited the anti-colonial movement in India for its intriguing use of the population issue. Indian independence activists turned the population growth question on its head by asserting that the problem was not too much Indian population growth but instead the worldwide expansion of white colonial populations (which these activists termed the "white peril"). While Indian leaders also wanted to reduce population growth, Connelly noted that they made the issue explicitly one of Indian welfare. They linked high rates of population growth to high levels of poverty and child and infant mortality as well as to the lack of education available to women. In this formulation, reducing poverty was seen as the way to slow population growth. Colonialism was blamed for the existence of these conditions, and so promoting family planning became a way to critique the colonial structure.

The Focus Shifts to Health

According to Connelly, population growth was seen by 1950 to be a serious international concern. Theories of economic development focused on the necessity for countries to undergo demographic transition (moving from a state of high birth rates and high death rates through a period of high birth and falling death rates to a situation of low birth and low death rates) in order to progress to a new stage of development. Contraceptives were seen as the essential quick fix to facilitate this transition in poor rural areas. As a result, the focus of family planning became contraceptive distribution and growth rate control. In many cases individual rights became less important than the overall societal need for progress and transition.

But by the end of the 1960's, Connelly said, this paradigm came into question. With the less-than-overwhelming success of many contraceptive programs and a few highly publicized cases of coercive family planning measures, the focus for population advocates once again began to shift toward female and child health. This shift was firmly in place by the time of the International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo in 1991. According to Connelly, the family planning movement today has three priorities:

  • The welfare of mother and child;
  • Individual choice about reproduction; and
  • Poverty reduction through family-size reduction.

A Return to Positive Roots

Connelly concluded by pointing out that, in contrast to the usual perception of the term, "population control" could be seen as a form of freedom. Population policies, he said, have always had the potential to be used of both good and evil ends. However, a look through a historical lens at family planning reveals that the movement has indeed come full circle. Instead of recapitulating its darker chapters, Connelly said, family planning has returned to its more positive roots by emphasizing improved infant health, women's liberation, and individual choice.