Population reduction: a war on women’s bodies

Pro-choice activists must defend women’s reproductive rights against those who say we should curb population growth to save the planet.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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Fears that a growing world population will worsen the problems caused by climate change have led some to propose voluntary strategies of ‘population reduction’. How should advocates of reproductive choice respond?

Progressive developments in women’s equality have crucially involved access to safe, legal and effective contraception and abortion. However, history is also populated with examples of circumstances in which contraception, abortion and sterilisation have been imposed upon women, in situations where the authorities – not the woman – decide who should have how many children.

There is now great sensitivity surrounding explicit population-control programmes that have been used by governments in the developed world, and imposed on countries in the developing world. Today there is little sympathy within the West for continuing population control programmes such as China’s One-Child Policy, which is being relaxed in some districts of China. However, it would be naïve to assume from this that birth control today is always promoted positively, with the only considerations being women’s rights and bodily autonomy. Old arguments about why women’s personal reproductive decisions should be made to fit with broader social objectives can be recycled in new forms, and this requires continued vigilance from those working to promote the cause of genuine reproductive choice.

These issues form the backdrop to a debate that has come to the fore in recent years, to do with the impact of continued world population growth upon the natural environment. The issue, starkly put, is framed like this: Climate change is taking place as a consequence of human activity. The more human activity there is, the more climate change will accelerate, posing big problems both for global human society, and for the rest of life on Earth. Recognising this problem means working to reduce the ‘carbon footprint’ that people leave upon the planet. One way of doing this is seen to be to reduce individuals’ consumption of natural resources.

The question of the actual impact upon climate change that can be made by the modification of individuals’ lifestyles continues to be hotly debated. But even if one assumes that reducing humanity’s carbon footprint through changes to individual behaviour should be a key goal, is it acceptable to point to population reduction as a means to this end? Or does that cross the line between promoting birth control as something to be freely used by women, and seeing birth control as something that should be done to women by society, in order to meet instrumental ends?

Who’s arguing what?

In the UK, the debate about the rights and wrongs of population reduction as a strategy to limit the impact of climate change has taken a headline-friendly form through the work of the Optimum Population Trust (OPT). The OPT wants couples to sign up to its online pledge that they will limit their families to two children, for the sake of the environment. It bases its arguments on complex mathematical calculations about how many fewer emissions could be produced if everybody in the world agreed to ‘stop at two’ (1).

The high profile of some of OPT’s patrons – who include Jonathon Porritt, chair of the UK government’s Sustainable Development Commission, and the famous nature broadcaster David Attenborough – has added to the OPT’s status and the amount of interest its ideas have attracted from the mainstream media (2). But the Optimum Population Trust is not the only voice calling for population reduction. On both sides of the Atlantic, it is increasingly common to read commentary, often from those who would consider themselves to be on the liberal left or part of the progressive family-planning movement, that explicitly or tacitly accepts that the most effective strategy to reduce humanity’s carbon footprint lies in discouraging people from having children. In a revealing, though tongue-in-cheek, online poll for the Guardian newspaper asking whether the UK’s recent ‘baby boom’ was a good thing, only a quarter of respondents chose the answer ‘Yes – we need more young’uns to pay for our pensions’, while 75 per cent agreed with the statement ‘No – the planet can’t sustain more mouths to feed’ (3).

It should be acknowledged that fears about ‘overpopulation’ are not new; and nor is it new that such fears can be shared and promoted by those who consider themselves to be on the left of the political spectrum. Since Thomas Malthus’ seminal 1798 ‘Essay on the Principle of Population’, concerns about natural, social or economic limits have often taken the form of a discussion about demography (4). Creating the conditions for smaller family sizes has for decades been viewed by some as a reasonable goal in relation to addressing the problem of poverty in the developing world. In relation to the UK, discouraging young people or those on low incomes from having children, or from having more children, is often presented as a pragmatically sensible measure in a social situation where resources are tight.

There are political and philosophical discussions to be had about whether it is accurate or right to view more people as the cause of social and economic problems, or fewer people as a solution. But again, if one accepts at face value the claim that overpopulation is a problem, one still has to answer the question of whether it is acceptable to try to steer women’s reproductive decision-making in a particular direction. If a woman feels under pressure to decide the size of her family for broader reasons than her own personal circumstances, whose decision is it really?

Coercion and the contours of persuasion

Organisations such as the Optimum Population Trust nowhere suggest that their campaign encouraging people to ‘Stop At Two’ is anything but voluntary. Even the more extreme Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (5) stresses that it has no intention of preventing women from ‘breeding’ if they don’t want to: it merely hopes that they will decide not to. But in a recent debate about this question, Adrian Stott, a trustee of the OPT, suggested that society should provide incentives to women not to have children (6). When direct incentives are offered to push fertility trends in a particular direction, personal decision-making becomes subject to wider considerations, and is therefore compromised. Serious questions have to be asked about how genuine the commitment to free choice is among those who ultimately would like women to choose not to have children, or more than a certain number of children.

This danger is highlighted by the US women’s health activist Betsy Hartmann, debating on Alternet against a proponent of the view that population growth will damage the environment (7). ‘Raising alarms about overpopulation distracts us from the real environmental tasks at hand’, writes Hartmann. ‘It also undermines the provision of good quality, voluntary family-planning services, instead legitimising top-down punitive policies that hurt women.’

She concludes: ‘Women’s health activists, in the US and around the world, have fought long and hard for the right to safe, voluntary birth control and abortion services. Pitted against them are not only religious fundamentalists who would deny them access to contraception, but those who are prepared to sacrifice reproductive rights, and human rights, on the altar of population control… The war on population always has been, and will continue to be, a war on women’s bodies.’

If it is accepted in principle that it is right for women to make reproductive decisions based on social ends, rather than their own personal choices and circumstances, then it becomes relatively easy for state authorities to introduce policies that validate one choice over another. This poses a clear threat to women’s autonomy and the meaning of ‘choice’.

Even if such policies are not explicitly formulated, it is problematic to assume that ‘responsible decision-making’ means women basing their decisions, not on whether they want a child and are capable of raising it, but on a generalised expectation of how many children it is right to have on a global or national level. As Hartmann suggests, pro-choice advocates have fought their arguments on the basis that the woman should be absolutely at the centre of reproductive decision-making. It is a woman who must bear a child, and in our society it is usually she who will have the practical, emotional and financial responsibility for raising that child. To attempt to displace the woman from this decision by encouraging her to regulate her fertility in line with the abstract demands of ‘the environment’ implicitly pushes the woman to a more marginal, negotiable and ultimately vulnerable position in the decision-making process.

The problem with the ‘pro-life’ perspective

Understanding the problematic character of the arguments put forward by organisations such as the Optimum Population Trust and other supporters of population reduction does not mean that these organisations should not be allowed to air their opinions freely, or that to debate population and the environment is dangerous in itself. Debate provides an opportunity to clarify the meaning and consequences of these campaigns. It also, importantly, puts the onus on advocates of choice to engage with this debate on terms that we can fully support.

One unfortunate feature of the debate about population and the environment to date has been that, with a few exceptions, the most coherent and high-profile critiques of the goal of population reduction have come from those who oppose contraception and abortion per se. It is easy to understand why those who object to individual women controlling their fertility because they believe in the sanctity of life from the moment of conception will also balk at the idea that women’s fertility should be controlled for the sake of the natural environment.

But while many such critics of population reduction correctly identify an element of misanthropy, they are rarely challenged about the degree of misanthropy within glib pro-life arguments, which equate ‘human life’ in its basic, biological, potential form with the life of an adult woman, and demand that biology should be what determines the life of this woman from conception onwards.

To allow the anti-abortion perspective to dominate the opposition to population-reduction arguments risks making the pro-choice movement appear one-sided in its commitment to the choice not to have children. It will also fail to convince those who do not believe that an embryo or fetus has the same moral status as a baby, and do not believe that all conceptions should result in live births just because they have occurred, but who are nonetheless troubled by the suggestion that it is a positive social goal to encourage women not to have the number of children that they want. To breed or not to breed: the only question here should be whose choice it is, and the answer has to lie with the woman who will bear and raise her child.

Jennie Bristow is editor of the Abortion Review, published by BPAS. This article first appeared in the Autumn 2009 print edition of the review. BPAS is sponsoring a series of debates on reproductive choice in London on 31 October 2009 at the Battle of Ideas festival.

Previously on spiked

Adrian Stott of the Optimum Population Trust explained why we need population reduction. Frank Furedi asked why the British elite is so scared of babies?. James Heartfield attacked the Optimum Population Trust for seeing people as a plague on the planet. Rob Lyons asked if there were too many people. Frank Furedi confronted the new misanthropy and was unafraid of the population bomb. Daniel Ben-Ami disputed the over-crowded world of ‘Safe Sachs’. Ahead of the 2009 UN World Population Day, Brendan O’Neill asked ‘Who’s afraid of billions of people?’. Or read more at spiked issue Population.

(1) Stopping at Two: The green gains from smaller families. An Optimum Population Trust Briefing., February 2009 (PDF)

(2) See What is the Optimum Population Trust? on the OPT website (accessed 5 August 2009). Also see Population growth and climate change, by John Guillebaud and Pip Hayes, British Medical Journal, 24 July 2008

(3) Poll: Is the new baby boom a good thing?, the Guardian, 28 August 2009

(4) For a useful roundtable discussion about this historical debate, see Do we need population control?, by Katharine Mieszkowski, Salon, 17 September 2008

(5) See the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement.

(6) This debate is linked to by the New York Times blog Dot Earth. See 90 Billion People, 1 Planet?, by Andrew C Revkin, Dot Earth, 13 July 2009

(7) Are We Breeding Ourselves to Extinction, by Chris Hedges, AlterNet, 11 March 2009 and Rebuttal to Chris Hedges: Stop the Tired Overpopulation Hysteria, by Betsy Hartmann, AlterNet, 14 March 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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