The Rebel Girl: Whose Population Bomb?

Against the Current, No. 83, November/December 1999

Catherine Sameh

IN MID-OCTOBER, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan made a visit to the maternity ward of the University Clinical Center in Sarajevo. There, he greeted the symbolic six billionth human in the world, an eight-pound boy born to 29-year-old Fatima Nevic.

The UN’s choice of Sarajevo, a war-decimated city, as the symbolic place to honor baby six billion seemed well-conceived to stifle the most inflammatory outcries from population control proponents. The UN could easily have chosen China or India or somewhere in Africa, places usually blamed for overpopulating the world and depleting its resources.

Instead, the event was presented as a cozy event, life replacing death, pictures of the rosy-cheeked and light-skinned Nevic and son beaming across newspapers, television and the web.

But has the ghostly voice of Malthus [the eighteenth century prophet of human overpopulation and starvation—ed.] really been quieted once and for all? A more apt word might be muffled. The most blatant Malthusian responses from world media were hard to find, buried under a family planning rhetoric which has clearly responded to its critics.

In an article in the Christian Science Monitor (October 20), Nafis Sadik, executive director of the UN Population Fund says: “In many countries there’s been quite good involvement and participation of religious groups and leaders . . . Iran has a very excellent adolescent reproductive sex education and service program . . . In the case of China you have the one-child policy. We have a program now in 32 [Chinese] counties where there are no targets and no quotas. The population has been informed that they can have as many children as they want.

“The outcome is not that women or couples have unlimited numbers of children. If you visit some of these villages they say, `Why would we have more than two children?’ Some only wanted to have one child.”

In other words, kinder, gentler family planning programs are being guided by education, not coercion. Yet, if the racist Malthusians have been banished from the official debate, a more covert racism persists in the liberal family planning rhetoric.

Certainly no one in their right mind would argue against real sex education and contraception for all women. But without a broader analysis of, and programs to address, the effects of global capitalism on poverty, the environment and reproductive choice, poor women remain scapegoats for panic about environmental destruction, and their long term freedom is sold down the road.

While concern about the depletion of the earth’s resources is legitimate, the causes remain obscured by racist anxieties about poor women having children. And while the populationists in the liberal environmental and feminist movements have been challenged by their comrades to the left of them, they have not stopped promoting a narrow view of population.

Faced with a right-wing Congress which stopped funding the UN Population Fund because its programs might enable abortion, and a world-wide right which opposes any and all family planning, the liberal populationists defend the right to abortion and contraception for poor women—but often forget about the larger picture of international debt and poverty, militarism, first world consumption, and women as agents of their own liberation, as if a pill can solve it all.

Women’s access to contraception and abortion around the world should be defended in its own right, just as any woman’s right to bear children should. And environmental devastation must be stopped. But once and for all, we must de-link the fight for reproductive freedom from population control, just as we must get beyond the notion that all women need is good sex education.

Sex education and contraception should be available to all women (and men, too!), in addition to safe abortion services, education, jobs with justice, housing, health and child care, and access to material resources that make life better for all humans.

The disparities in wealth, consumption patterns in rich industrial countries, militarism, and the machine of global capitalism are some of the forces responsible for our ravaged planet. Women and men on every part of the planet need dignified and materially comfortable lives free of coercion and suffering, and full of self-activity and justice. Liberation is not a luxury.

ATC 83, November-December 1999