Population Control

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Author: Timothy B. Jay
Editor: Timothy B. Jay
Date: 2017
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 3
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Population Control

The awareness that there are too many people and there is not enough food for them to eat introduces the question of whether we should limit population growth under such circumstances. It should be mentioned that population control efforts are not new; they trace back to ancient Greece where men did not marry until they were forty years old and in this ancient era eugenic infanticide along with abortion was practiced. Population control has been and will be a controversial, if not taboo, topic for Americans where many people think they should be free to have as many children as they please and the government should have no say in limiting population. The topic of population control has associations to birth control, family planning, euthanasia, abortion, poverty, food insecurity, immigration, segregation, and climate change; no wonder the topic riles so many people. Population control did not become an issue until it was apparent that populations across the globe were increasing faster than food supplies. If climate change continues to cause weather conditions that limit food production, population control will need to be addressed in the future.

Historically the question of population control is traced to the late 1700s to economist-sociologist Thomas Robert Malthus (1776-1834) who pioneered the study of population. Malthus argued that population increases faster than the rate of the means to support subsistence (food and supplies); these trends result in poverty and distress. He saw that the only checks on population growth were famine, disease, war, and “moral restraint.” These ideas gave rise to nineteenth-century “workhouses” where poor family members were segregated by gender in order to prevent pregnancy. During this era a group of philosophers known as social Darwinists, who believed in Charles Darwin's (1809-1882) theory of evolution, argued that sophisticated forms of life evolved from more primitive forms. However, they distorted Darwin's theory to also argue that poor humans were relegated to the lower levels of human potential, hindering the advancement of the human race. Helping the poor was viewed as interfering with natural selection toward more advance forms. The population problem was framed as a human problem (poor people reproducing), not an economic one (poverty, poor economic conditions). Eugenists who believed in eugenics (from Greek, meaning “well born” advocated for the marriage of the physically and mentally fit and the prevention of marriage (reproduction) of the unfit. By the 1830s some advocated for the control of the poor by segregation, sterilization, abortion, euthanasia, and extermination. In the early 1900s, Henry Goddard (1866-1957), a prominent American psychologist, wanted to test all immigrants and advocated for the selective exclusion of those determined to be “mentally defective.” In 1910 Prince Albert Morrow (1846-1913), who was the president of the American Society of Sanitary and Moral Prophylaxis, Page 288  |  Top of Articlecharacterized the eugenics view at a child welfare conference as “the sex problem lies at the root of eugenics”; poor people having sex was the problem. Educational programs that associated sexuality and reproduction provoked a good deal of controversy, especially with the working poor. American businessmen who required a pool of cheap laborers were not interested in eugenics either. The early 1900s were noted for clashes between those who believed in birth control and abortion rights versus the religious and moral conservatives who supported neither as a means of population control for poor Americans.

The next clear landmark in the population control controversy cropped up in the 1960s and early 1970s; notable in 1968 is the founding of the group Zero Population Growth (ZPG), Inc. Zero population growth was a goal for the United States and the rest of the world; members of ZPG were mainly college students. No population growth meant that two parents should only have two children, in a sense replacing their numbers but not increasing the number. At the same time biologist Paul Ralph Ehrlich (1932-) published his best-selling book, The Population Bomb (1968; followed by The Population Explosion, 1990) based on his research showing that the population was too large and threatened sustainable life for humans in the future. Ehrlich gave speeches and appeared on television shows, warning of the impending population crisis ahead. These conversations made some Americans worry about the future and what to do about it. These tensions play out in popular movies: The Last Child (1971) was a TV movie showing a dystopian world where couples can have only one child. The science-fiction movie Z.P.G. (1972) revealed a dirty, overpopulated future where the government has banned giving birth to children for an entire generation. The movie Soylent Green (1973) has the world devastated by poverty, pollution, greenhouse effect, and overpopulation. The tension has not abated on the topic of overpopulation. The 2011 documentary film Mother continues the tradition.

One must consider the statistics on population growth. In 1970 there were half as many people living in the world as there are today, 3.7 billion versus 7.3 billion people. There were 205 million people in the United States in 1970; that same year China, with a population of 818 million, developed a one-child policy, limiting couples to one child in order to curb population growth. There were 320 million people living in the United States and 1.4 billion in China in 2015. It is projected that in the year 2024 there will be 8 billion people living on earth. Americans have been reluctant to address these issues in public, private, or political conversations; suggesting that women or families should limit the number of children they have is not a popular stance and harkens back to the early 1800s when Malthus first started the debate. The industrialization of food production (pesticides, herbicides, fertilizer, and genetic modification of seeds) has been responsible for developing crop yields that far out-produce what was generated in Page 289  |  Top of Articlethe past but people worry if these gains will be sufficient to feed the world population in the future just as they did two hundred years ago.

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Timothy B. Jay

Further Reading

Farmer, A. (2008). By their fruits: Eugenics, population control, and the abortion campaign. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press.

Hardin, G. (1995). Living within limits: Ecology, economics, and population taboos. New York: Oxford University Press.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX7128300127