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Family planning gone awry

The drive to control human population can lead to abuses, warns a historian.

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Columbia University historian Matthew Connelly makes no effort to mask his support of reproductive rights in this disturbing and compelling global history of population control programs. The dedication in his most recent book, Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population, reads “To my parents, for having so many children.”

Connelly, the youngest of eight children to Roman Catholic parents, nonetheless manages to write a fairly balanced history of the broad population-control movements in the 20th century. As populations and life spans rose dramatically over that time period, countries and organizations initiated immigration restrictions, breeding programs, compulsory sterilization, and other directives aimed at adjusting human reproduction.

Often launched under the guise of reducing poverty and even saving the earth, family planning became a means for wealthy foundations, foreign aid agencies, the United Nations, and others to plan other people’s families, he concludes, and without the perpetrators having to answer to anyone. On the day the author was born in 1967, the cabinet of India under Indira Gandhi first considered compulsory sterilization for parents with more than three children.

What sparked the broad efforts to control population? In the 20th century, internationalization made the world seem smaller even as life spans increased. In the past century, humans have lived more than twice as long as in the previous 2,000 centuries and grown more than four times in numbers. By the 1980s, the earth was gaining about 80 million inhabitants per year.


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