Population control or empowerment of women?

November 2, 1994

By Lynette J. Dumble

The overwhelming majority of print and electronic media conveyed a message of consensus from last month's International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo. Similar messages appeared even within the hallowed pages of Lancet, British Medical Journal, Science and Nature. In other words, international experts are agreed that population control is the way to go if we are to avoid being overtaken by global poverty, famine and environmental decline.

These same accounts implied that a highly visible development phase, focusing on girls' education and women's rights, and a carefully worded abortion compromise had pacified feminist, Vatican and Muslim objections to the principles of population control.

One might well question how this morally objectionable movement acquired worldwide support and acceptance in the first place? As Marina Carman pointed out in "Population Control & Women's Rights" (Green Left #160), the population movement has roots that stem not from Adolf Hitler, but from Thomas Malthus, an English clergyman, who, two centuries ago, blamed the poverty of the masses, marginalised during Europe's industrialisation, on their own excessive breeding.

During this century, United States efforts to "regulate the fertility" of the 1920s undesirables — blacks, Catholics and Jews — practically escaped condemnation, and it took the frank genocide perpetrated by the Nazis in Europe to awaken the world to the horrors of population control.

Since World War II, the shameful history of the population movement has been whitewashed by scientists who, from Nobel prize-winning biologist Paul Ehrlich in the 1970s to today's beknighted transplant surgeon Roy Calne from Cambridge University, have elevated population theories to answer environmental problems.

Ehrlich's equation, I = PAT, or IPAT, is retained to this day to simplistically measure the impact of persons on the environment, denoted I, from the product of three variables, where P refers to population size, A to the amount of goods consumed by each individual and T to the technology which generates the environment-polluting consumables.

Together with threats of a perilous population explosion in Asia and Africa and the impunity accorded the World Health Organisation to execute the Human Reproduction Program, IPAT underpins neo-Malthusian policy to target women's fertility, foremost in developing countries, as its answer to global destitution and environmental carnage.

Yet, as US environmental engineer Patricia Hynes explains in Taking Population Out of the Equation, IPAT omits to acknowledge the bearing of military personnel and their power-brokers on P, the amounts consumed by military infrastructure from A and the military technology which pollutes through its war operations from T — with the net result that militarism's impact on the environment is underestimated or denied.

IPAT also makes no allowance for consumerism and trade imbalances between developing and developed countries, and it neglects the issue of wealth and its redistribution as compensation for the debt of European nations to those left in the wake of African, Asian and South American colonisation.

Lastly, IPAT is devoid of humanistic considerations. Social justice and human rights are excluded from its parameters, so that environmental resources that are consumed, and indeed preserved, for the express purpose of survival rather than luxury, receive no consideration.

Returning to what actually happened in Cairo, it would be less than naive to believe the story that consensus prevailed and this conference was a victory for women. How could this be true, when a retained IPAT reinforces the population movement's position that women, because of their fertility, are public enemies and the Plan of Action from Cairo was formed by government delegates who either can't understand or don't give a damn about the real impact of population control on women's lives.

While the official Australian delegation deserves credit for its key role in promoting the cultural interests of indigenous people onto the official ICPD document, it was only Senator Brian Harradine, or his wife Marian, who were visible amongst the audience at parallel NGO forums in Cairo, or who came to speak with us before and after our presentations within these forums. More commonly, and at an international level, official delegates neglected the chance to hear what population control meant at the grassroots level, just as they remain apolitical when it comes to speaking out against the violation of human rights in countries that are spending our foreign aid in these pursuits.

Dissenting voices at NGO forums came from across the globe, united by feminist principles, understanding the true meaning of women's reproductive rights when isolated from men's reproductive responsibilities, and experienced to see through lip-service policies. Reproductive rights have no real meaning when viewed outside the context of women's lives and the gender and economic relations which govern them.

Testimonies came from Tibetan women suffering under Chinese occupation, subjected to extreme physical and psychological torture from second and even third trimester pregnancies that were aborted without anaesthetic as a means of birth control, and indeed punishment; stories of injections to cause stillbirths, and lethal injections to babies whose parents held no state authorisation for their birth; other stories of sterilisation camps for both women (tubal ligation) and men (vasectomy), and identifying too the anti-woman bias of tubal ligation in terms of its surgical mortality and morbidity, and irreversibility compared with vasectomy; women's personal accounts of population control with long-acting contraceptives — the three-month injectable, Depo Provera, and the five-year implant, Norplant — which compromised their everyday existence.

Headaches, fatigue, fluid retention, increased weight and blood pressure, and loss of libido, are among Depo Provera's more than 70 known side effects. These very same side effects were sufficient to have other contraceptives deemed an unacceptable burden for men. Further questions were raised about women's infertility post Depo Provera, birth defects post-Norplant, and the long-term safety of these and other long-acting contraceptives, given Depo Provera's proven links with breast cancer in younger women, and loss of bone density within the lower spine that may predispose to osteoporosis.

Population policies, whether pro-natal in the form of government subsidies for children, outlawed or limited access to safe and efficient contraception and abortion, or anti-natal in the form of enforced sterilisation, unsafe and/or forced abortion, clearly breach human rights. Women are entitled to make decisions about their own reproductive lives. Such a decision can only be of their own choosing — not imposed by a state, church, society, community, family, in-laws, spouse or population policy makers.

What has surfaced from Cairo is that population control will proceed, possibly for a further 20 years, while more realistic causes of poverty and global degradation, namely consumerism and militarism, have been placed on the back burner.

Upjohn Pharmaceuticals donated its US patent rights for Depo Provera to the Population Council more than a decade ago. In May 1994, the Population Council inherited the same for RU 486 from Roussel Uclaf. As a result, the movement can add the French abortion pill to its already impressive armour of pesticidal, or more specifically femicidal weapons, which disrupt women's fertility, and maybe even chemical sterilisation, if we take into account the approval recently accorded the use of quinacrine (an antimalarial agent) in 30,000 Vietnamese women.

Padraic P. McGuinness from the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age advocates that population control has no time to wait for "women's empowerment through the development phase of the United Nations Plan of Action". Others go even further. I have seen an Internet suggestion that population expansion could be more rapidly halted from the use of a genetically engineered virus that would provide a "not necessarily" lethal scheme of sterilisation that inhibits fertility over several generations. Does this not warn us that the population ideology is a threat to a just society, and that some have not learned the lessons from Nazi Germany?

How many more years, and billions of dollars, can be justifiably spent in this direction, particularly when, despite 40 plus years of WHO-sponsored population control programs, the movement has made almost no impact on human poverty? Nor has it fulfilled its promise to promote environmental stability.

And at what price the movement's failure? In the main, Western ideology steamrolling other cultures to disrupt, ravage, compromise and extinguish people's lives, via so-called family planning which clearly violates human rights, mostly those of women. The problems faced by people within developing countries would find a more compassionate resolution if population control was dropped from the United Nations Plan of Action, and all of the resources earmarked for that purpose were redirected to the plan's other phase, development, to provide the basic human right of every man, woman and child — education.
[Dr Lynette J. Dumble is a member of Feminist International Network of Resistance to Reproductive and Genetic Engineering (FINRRAGE).]

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