Christian Responses to Population Control

Author(s): Andy Smith
Date Published: July 15, 2006
Source: Political Environments #3, Spring 1996

Population control rhetoric is becoming increasingly popular, particularly among liberal and even conservative Christians. Liberal Protestant organizations have been largely supportive of population control. Dianne Moore notes that there is a relationship (albeit a complex one) between the eugenics movement in the 1930s and the first statements coming from churches supporting birth control. In 1969, Rienhold Neibuhr (Union Theological Seminary), Henry Fosdick (Riverside Church) and Rev. Henry Knox Sherrill (World Council of Churches) signed on to a full page ad of the New York Times, calling for mass population control efforts in Latin America . Most mainline denominations have issued statements supporting population control, and the writings of Euro/Euro-American liberal Christians concerned with environmental issues, as well, tend to accept the population paradigm. Unfortunately, even among progressive Christian thinkers, there has been little critique of the racist implications of the population control movement.

Euro-American Christian feminists, such as Sallie McFague, Rosemary Radford Reuther, Catherine Keller, and Christine Gusdorf, devote much of their writings on population to analyzing the relationships between overconsumption, socio-economic injustice and population growth. However, they, as well, do not challenge the population paradigm. One reason may be that they do not seem to base their analysis on the work done by Third World women or women of color on this issue. In recent writings by all of these authors, they do not reference a single work by a single person of color on this issue. It is ironic that, given their feminist commitments, they do not take the communities whose populations they advocate reducing as the starting point for their discussions. They do, however, approvingly quote individuals who have supported implicitly and explicitly racist population control programs, such as Paul Ehrlich, Margaret Catley-Carlson of the Population Council, and Werner Fornos of the Population Institute. This gives the (hopefully mistaken) impression that they consider these people to be more expert on the situations facing Third World women and women of color than the women themselves. Keller, in particular, most puzzlingly states that there is a "conspiracy of silence" on this issue, despite the work done by women of color/Third World women to address it. It is also interesting that apparently she, and not a woman of color, was asked to write the contribution on population ecology in Ecotheology.

One reason for these omissions may be that these authors inadequately describe "overpopulation" as a racialized issue. Ruether, for instance, states:

The challenge that humans face ...is whether they will be able to ...organize their own reproduction, production, and consumption in such a way as to stabilize their relationship to the rest of the ecosphere and so avert massive social and planetary ecocide.

She seems to assume that all humans contribute equally to ecological disaster, that they are all equally affected by population policies, and that all humans have the same access to power to organize their production and consumption.

This is not to say that all these authors completely ignore the differing positions between western women and Third World women. McFague, for instance, does say in her discussion of environmental degradation that "we are not all equally responsible, nor does deterioration affect us equally." But then she says that ecology is a "people" issue in relationship to non-human creatures. The problem, then, is "human" overpopulation. In fact, however, since most industrialized countries have replacement level fertility, with some even experiencing declining populations, it is clear that it is not these citizens who are considered to be "overpopulating" the earth and who are the target of most population programs.

Keller and Gudorf further say that all women should make the commitment to have no more than one child. Keller makes an exception for women from communities that have been targeted for genocide, implying that population policies are not in themselves genocidal in intent (in fact, many population policies do violate the UN Convention on Genocide). It would logically follow from Keller's recommendation that only Euro/Euro-Americans should reduce their population. In addition, this "one-child" recommendation implies that a Third World woman and a white woman are equally impacted by having only one child. But, while a white middle-class woman may stand to gain economically by having only one child, a third world woman often stands to face tremendous economic hardship as a result of such a policy. Actually, Gudorf does acknowledge this point, but says that is just a consequence Third World women will have to suffer.

Keller also erases the particularity of women of color by saying that "the rising global population rate is a catastrophic trend variously underplayed both by right-wing antiabortionists and feminists combating the misogyny implied by monofocal emphasis on population (often encouraging female infanticide and forced sterilization)." She describes these population practices as "misogynist" and not racist as well, as though they impact all women and not primarily women of color and Third World women. In addition, she implies that "feminists" are concerned only with "abuses" in population programs instead of the fact that they are designed to serve as a smokescreen for the larger structures of socio-economic injustice (from which Euro/Euro-American middle-class women gain many privileges). Also, given that it is women of color and Third World women who suffer the primary brunt of environmental destruction, it might be helpful for Keller to ask them what they think the real "catastrophic trends" are.

All these authors discuss the environmental destruction caused by Western consumption patterns. They also analyze how population growth is affected by colonialism. Keller, for instance, states:

Justice-centered Christians speaking on behalf of the world of the poor make the irrefutable point that ... it is the exploitation of the resources of the Third World for the sake of the First World and its client elites -not over-population - which deprives those "others" of the resources they need. Is not the focus on population control thus dangerously akin to the genocidal policies which seek to rid the world of the troubling, potentially revolutionary masses of the poor?

She then proceeds not to address this issue in the rest of her essay. If population is a symptom rather than a cause of other global trends, which these authors themselves state, why do they value the population paradigm so highly? Ruether and Keller in fact, describe overpopulation as one of the "four horsemen of doom", the others being Economics, War and Environment. Essentially, they are arguing that the patterns of reproduction of Third World women and women of color that have developed as a result of colonization are as bad as colonization itself. A parallel argument would be if a man stood on a woman's toe, who then started screaming, and then complained that this screaming was diminishing the general quality of life because of the noise level. Following the same logic regarding population, these feminists would be saying that the woman who is screaming is as responsible for causing damage to the quality of life as the person standing on her toe. Ultimately, claiming that population is as much a problem as social injustice is not really an improvement on the argument that overpopulation is wholly to blame for the world's problems. It still attempts to mitigate the responsibilities of those in power.

Gudorf seems to let the rich off the hook when she prioritizes population stabilization over social justice by arguing that "getting the rich to agree to any standard significantly below what they now receive seems equally doubtful." The implication seems to be that we should focus on imperialistic population control policies because they will be easier to implement than economic justice. Furthermore, she states that "combating hunger and ...malnutrition must come primarily from population stabilization, not increased food production." Apparently, ending hunger through economic justice is not ultimately a primary consideration for her. Ruether does not even say that population and overconsumption are equally to blame; rather, "the major cause of destruction of species comes simply from the expanding human population [emphasis mine]." Furthermore, she says, it is overpopulation that leads to "war famine, and disease," not the other way around. Ruether then calls for "the promotion of birth control" instead of meeting women's unmet needs for contraceptives, seemingly oblivious to the devastating health effects such "promotions" have had for women of color and Third World women. Her envisioning of "a good society" apparently entails population control, but it does not include redistribution of resources from the North to the South or anything that would significantly affect the privileges the North has at the expense of the South.

In addition, these writers uncritically espouse rather questionable ideas. Keller, Ruether, and McFague regard Malthusian orthodoxy as indisputably true, despite its flawed assumptions. Ruether describes population in the Third World as rising independently from patterns of colonization. She also uncritically appropriates Paul Ehrlich's formula: population x affluence x technology = environmental impact (I=PAT). H. Patricia Hynes states that this formula is problematic because it assumes that all populations are the same, ignoring different people's differing impacts on the environment. It also views all humans as takers from, rather than enhancers of, the natural environment. "This truncated, culture-bound view of humans in their environment originates from an industrial, urban, consumerist society." Affluence is conceived only as per capita consumption and does not include systemic inequities such as structural adjustments. I=PAT neglects the fact that the Third World sustains not only its own consumption, but also the consumption of the North. Technologies are all assumed to be equally harmful. In addition, the military is glaringly absent in this equation.

Probably most disturbing is Gudorf's approval of incentive and disincentive programs (such as paying women to use Norplant), as long as they "are as voluntary" as possible. Given the oppressive conditions most Third World women live in, it is unclear how incentives can be even remotely considered voluntary. If one is living hand-to-mouth, is the offer of any kind of financial resources in exchange for controlling one's reproduction a choice? The use of incentives in population programs has been devastating for Third

World women and women of color. Even the UN Cairo Programme of Action in its draft form (before it was improved by the lobbying of women's reproductive rights groups), condemns the use of incentives and disincentives.

Finally, these writers talk quite eloquently on the responsibilities of the Western world in addressing environmental degradation by targeting consumption patterns. But ultimately they say that the West should do so in order that the Third world people will reduce their populations. McFague states: "Unless and until we drastically modify our life-style, we are not in a position to preach population control to others." This is true, but it also suggests that the reason one should modify one's lifestyle is to be able to preach population control.

Perhaps one reason why even progressive Christian writers do not challenge the population paradigm is because of the efforts by foundations such as the Pew Charitable Trusts to enlist both liberal and evangelical churches into the population control movement. Most recently, this February the Center for Development and Population Activities (CEDPA), in partnership with Pew, sponsored an Interfaith Conference on Women, Poverty and Population: A Call to Engagement for People of Faith. The week before, the evangelical organization, World Vision, also sponsored a population conference.

At the CEDPA conference, which I attended, while attention was paid to consumption issues, population continued to be the overriding concern. In addition, there was little discussion of the impact of structural adjustment, multinational capitalism or colonialism on population growth rates. Apparently, the National Council of Churches is developing proposals to encourage churches to put population on their social action agenda. This conference was one of the many events that is to help develop this action plan. In the next issue I will talk more about how funding from Pew serves to constrain the discussion of population in Christian churches and organizations, and the possible impact Pew's Global Stewardship Initiative may have on communities of color both in the US and the Third World.