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A 1960s population control organization rebranded in 2002. Now it’s recruiting UNC students.

[1]Organization does good work to promote reproductive freedom, but it should disclose and disavow its troubling past and connections.

Population Connection is the largest grassroots population organization in the United States, with over 40,000 members. In 2018, it celebrated its 50th anniversary. When it was founded in 1968, however, it had a different name – and very different goals.

Dr. Paul Ehrlich, a biologist at Stanford University and author of the influential but controversial 1968 book The Population Bomb, founded Zero Population Growth (ZPG) with lawyer Richard Bowers and entomologist Charles Remington. Ehrlich’s inspiration for the organization and his book was a trip he and his family took to the Indian city of Delhi in 1966. The book opens with his account [2] of this trip:

“The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, and screaming. People thrust their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people. . . . [S]ince that night, I’ve known the feel of overpopulation.”

“It’s never about ‘population control.’ It’s always about empowering people — especially women and girls,” reads Population Connection’s website [3]. But that’s not exactly accurate. The word ‘never’ implies that neither Population Connection nor its earlier iteration, ZPG, had ever endorsed population control.

On the contrary, Ehrlich did not shy away from the term. “We must have population control at home, hopefully through a system of incentives and penalties, but by compulsion if voluntary methods fail,” he once wrote. Internationally, he was even more adamant. “We must use our political power,” he wrote, “to push other countries into… population control.”

“The battle to feed all of humanity is over.” This is the first sentence of The Population Bomb, which argued that the growing population would outstrip the world’s resources, and as a consequence, the world would witness a “series of cataclysmic disasters,” including famine, disease, and death.

A troubling organizational history

ZPG was inextricably linked to the The Population Bomb. The theories put forward in Ehrlich’s seminal book shaped the goals of the organization. Ehrlich and ZPG believed that the only way to stop this coming apocalypse was to stringently regulate the human population.

Even after Ehrlich’s predictions were proven false (for example, he predicted that by the end of the 1970s, India would be starving, and it was not), ZPG continued to promulgate the idea that families should “stop at two,” because any more children per family would be catastrophic for the environment and the planet.

The concept of zero population growth is based on the idea that the earth has a fixed carrying capacity for every species, and once that capacity is exceeded, extreme negative impacts on the world’s resources and the environment will follow. The term was originally used to determine how many animals could graze on a plot of land, and was then expanded to include many other species, including humans.

ZPG and Ehrlich’s idea of human carrying capacity is summed up by ecologist Garrett Hardin’s “lifeboat ethics” [4]: [4]

Metaphorically, each rich nation amounts to a lifeboat full of comparatively rich people. The poor of the world are in other, much more crowded lifeboats. Continuously, so to speak, the poor fall out of their lifeboats and swim for a while in the water outside, hoping to be admitted to a rich lifeboat, or in some other way to benefit from the ‘goodies’ on board. What should the passengers on a rich lifeboat do? This is the central problem of ‘the ethics of a lifeboat.’”

This framing of the concept of carrying capacity was “echoed in Zero Population Growth’s statement of goals,” [5] which, like the parallel eugenics movement, “presumed that a ‘scientistic,’ fully rational and dispassionate analysis of complex human circumstances is possible.

A ZPG mission statement began: ‘the long term survival of the human species is dependent upon the establishment of an equilibrium between human demands and the carrying capacity of nature’. ZPG then was committed to a view of natural resources as not only finite, but mathematically calculable: ‘the number of human beings that the earth can support is a function of per capita demands of those individuals.’”

“The difference, of course,” between carrying capacity for humans and every other species is that humans “are conscious beings,” according to [6] development economist Gita Sen, who also posits that we are endlessly capable of self-betterment and relentlessly committed to the pursuit of our own survival. “We do all kinds of things to change our destiny,” she said to The New York Times.

These apocalyptic theories also failed to account for the demographic transition. This transition is the phenomenon which describes the way that as societies develop, birth rates naturally tend to fall. In fact, the education of girls is as important [7] to a stable society as family planning is, and none of the 1960s population control organizations — including ZPG — ever focused on that.

The Population Bomb triggered a wave of anti-population-growth panic around the world, leading to fertility reduction programs championed [2] both by international organizations and by governments.

‘The results were horrific,’ says Betsy Hartmann, author of Reproductive Rights and Wrongs, a classic 1987 exposé of the anti-population crusade. Some population-control programs pressured women to use only certain officially mandated contraceptives. In Egypt, Tunisia, Pakistan, South Korea and Taiwan, health workers’ salaries were, in a system that invited abuse, dictated by the number of IUDs they inserted into women. In the Philippines, birth-control pills were literally pitched out of helicopters hovering over remote villages. Millions of people were sterilized, often coercively, sometimes illegally, frequently in unsafe conditions, in Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Indonesia and Bangladesh.”

Population growth was a popular concern in India, too.

“The core message of the book — population growth outstripping food supply — resonated quite a bit with India’s elites, with the middle classes,” said Sen. “They much preferred to believe that the poor were poor because of too many children rather than being too poor because of an unfair and unequal economic system.”

India’s prime minister at the time, Indira Gandhi, used this theory to justify massive sterilization campaigns [2]. In some cases, this came in the form of population education; in many others, states required sterilization to get water, medical care, electricity, education for children, and ration cards. In even more extreme cases, authorities used coercion.

In the mid-1970s, white nationalist and anti-immigration activist John Tanton took over the presidency of ZPG. Tanton was a powerful political figure, but don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of him. In 2011 [8], Linda Chavez, a former aide to President Ronald Reagan, called Tanton “the most influential unknown man in America.”

Dr. Tanton, an ophthalmologist by trade, originated the modern grassroots effort to limit both legal and illegal immigration, founding two major groups: The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), and the Center for Immigration Studies, which together held what the New York Times called in 2011 “near veto power over effort to legalize any of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States.” The Southern Poverty Law Center, which has designated FAIR a hate group, describes [9]Tanton’s organizations as standing at the “nexus of the American nativist movement.” (Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly characterized Tanton’s involvement with Numbers USA [10], a controversial organization he helped to create, although its founder was Roy Beck.) 

FAIR began as an offshoot of another group: ZPG. At the time, ZPG had an Immigration Committee, in which Tanton took a special interest. Tanton was president of ZPG from 1975 to 1977, and in 1978, ZPG approved a proposal severing the Immigration Committee from the larger organization and creating FAIR. In 1979, Tanton left ZPG to head FAIR.

After Tanton’s departure, ZPG abandoned its interest in immigration restrictions, but the fact that a man like Tanton was president in the first place is telling.

In 1975, the year Tanton assumed the ZPG presidency, he wrote a four-page paper entitled “The Case for Passive Eugenics,” [11] in which he attempted to argue the distinctions between “active eugenics” and “passive eugenics,” the strategy of letting undesirable people die. One example of Tanton’s passive eugenics was “restricting childbearing to the years of maximum reproductive efficiency, between the ages of 20 and 35.” He did not discuss whether these restrictions would be consented to or coerced.

Tanton was deeply interested in the theory of eugenics and believed in the idea popular among the eugenics movement that the intelligent are more worthy of reproduction. In a 1992 letter to his friend, fellow eugenicist Robert Graham, he wrote, “Do we leave it to individuals to decide that they are the intelligent ones who should have more kids? And more troublesome, what about the less intelligent, who logically should have less? Who is going to break the bad news to them?”

(Graham is infamous for his Repository for Germinal Choice [12], nicknamed the “Nobel sperm bank,” which aimed to foster “positive eugenics” by collecting only the sperm of geniuses in order to “better” the human population and increase its overall intelligence.)

ZPG changed its name to Population Connection in 2002, but its mission remained the same, according to its website [13], despite plunging birth rates in many countries and population statistics that countered Ehrlich’s predictions.

Population Connection claims to want to educate women in third-world countries about their reproductive rights to counter global poverty and the worldwide climate crisis. But the number of people on the earth is not what is causing its rapid destruction.

It is the greed of corporations who peddle substances that are actively destroying our environment, prioritizing their own personal gain over global sustainability. Telling people in low-GDP countries with high infant mortality rates to “stop at two” does little to salvage the world’s resources, since the wealthy in developed countries actually use [14] more of them than do the poor. Population Connection’s Population Education program for students in the U.S. focuses on how these students can be the next generation of policymakers, not on reminding them to be more mindful of the resources they use.

Of course, Population Connection does not endorse coercive sterilization today. The focus of the organization is supporting the rights of women to receive education about contraceptives and family planning measures. But the organization stubbornly refuses to move away from the ideals of its founders, despite concerns from employees themselves.

Connection to UNC

How is this connected to UNC? Population Connection has an action arm, a campaign called #fight4HER [15], which recruits students primarily from UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus.

The “HER” stands for Health, Empowerment, and Rights, referring to the Global HER Act, which would overturn the Mexico City Policy. Referred to by activists as the Global Gag Rule, the Mexico City Policy withholds U.S. aid for any foreign healthcare facility that mentions abortion as a method of family planning, even if the healthcare facility does not itself perform abortions. This includes clinics treating malaria, HIV, tuberculosis, and other regional diseases.

It is an awful and counterproductive piece of legislation — which would be repealed by Congress’ Global HER Act —that accomplishes nothing and results in the deaths of thousands of women every year.

The problem is that #fight4HER is using UNC’s campus and students to boost membership without telling them the full story about the organization they are pledging to support. It doesn’t disclose the breadth of Population Connection’s goals, subsuming the entire organization’s population stability message into a fight for reproductive rights, which they know many young women at UNC support.

The #fight4Her campaign itself is a fantastic cause. But its refusal to distance itself from Population Connection, and Population Connection’s unwillingness to distance itself from its troubling origins, is disturbing. As early as last year [16], Population Connection’s website celebrated Ehrlich’s misguided creed and tied it to real victories for women and the earth like Roe v. Wade and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

“All too easily arrogance slides into inhumanity,” reads a review [17] of Fatal Misconception, a 2008 account of the history of the population control movement.

Much of the evil done in the name of slowing population growth had its roots in an uneasy coalition between feminists, humanitarians and environmentalists, who wished to help the unwillingly fecund, and the racists, eugenicists and militarists who wished to see particular patterns of reproduction, regardless of the desires of those involved. The first group knew perfectly well that economic development, education and rights for women were very effective in reducing birth rates. But the second regarded promoting these ends as too slow and expensive. And even suggesting them risked shattering the coalition: among the hardliners were many who found the tendency of educated women to have fewer children almost as problematic as that of uneducated ones to breed prolifically.”

Population Connection is still committed to this uneasy coalition, even as its feminist compatriots have abandoned it. The #fight4HER campaign should either call on its parent organization to disavow its past or break away from the organization entirely. It owes its volunteers that much.

Aditi Kharod is a senior political science major at UNC-Chapel Hill and a former intern at NC Policy Watch.