Population Policies Research Paper

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Population policy has a long history of engendering political controversy that promises to persist as it is fueled by divergent views of the Good Society. The deeply held beliefs that make population policy an object of intense dispute have their roots in such issues as political and economic ideologies, religion, morality, nationalism, and ethnicity. The impetus for governmental intervention into demographic processes grows out of the realization that births, deaths, and migration are not merely a question of numbers, but are critical to the social, economic, and political character of a nation. As Kingsley Davis has pointed out, ‘Never, apparently, is a demographic goal sufficient by itself to justify a population policy. People judge a population trend to be good or bad only in the light of its presumed social and economic consequences’ (Davis 1971, p. 6). Although Western nations have been deeply involved in the effort to curtail fertility in the Third World beginning in the 1960s, the West’s experience with population policy has been mainly to encourage higher fertility in their own countries. This research paper will discuss the difficulties faced by governments that adopt policies to either lower or increase birthrates.

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1. The Definition Of Population Policy

The controversial nature of population policy extends to the definition of the term itself. There has been a tendency among scholars as well as government officials to abuse and misuse the definition. Population policy has often been defined in terms designed to advance a particular social or demographic agenda rather than to provide a rigorous structure for understanding and analysis. Many writers, including population professionals and students of demography, define population policy as any action of government that directly or indirectly influences population size, distribution, or composition (Eldridge 1954). Other writers go so far as to treat population policy as any government action that directly or indirectly exerts an effect on health, well being, status, or quality of life. These definitions are broad and encompass almost everything a government does. However, this is also the weakness of these definitions as almost every government policy, from the construction of roads to the provision of health services, has demographic implications.

For those interested in the formulation, content, or outcomes of population policy, a more exacting definition is required such as that found in the United Nations volume, The Determinants and Consequences of Population (1973). This definition, based on statements by Spengler and Duncan, states that population policy consists of ‘a specific set of governmental objectives relative to the population magnitude and/or composition together with the instruments by which it may be possible to achieve them’ (United Nations 1973, p. 632). Implicit in this definition is the expectation that government will establish an agency or organization to advance these goals, and will also provide resources to enable that agency to succeed. While the Spengler–Duncan definition provides a rigor that is missing in most definitions of population policy, it may at the same time not allow sufficient latitude for the give and take, negotiation, and compromise that characterize the policy process.

2. Structure Of Population Debate

The structure of the population debate was formed when Karl Marx bitterly attacked and condemned Malthus and his ideas more than a half a century after Malthus published his famous Essay on Population in 1798. Although Marx never formulated a ‘theory of population,’ he adamantly maintained that ‘over population’ was a consequence of the economic system, and would be remedied once the goal of socialism had been achieved. Marx recognized that if Malthus were correct to say that human poverty is anchored in human nature, then the intellectual edifice of Marxism was threatened. While the Marx–Malthus dispute provides a backdrop to the entire controversy over population policy, neither Marx nor Malthus had a profound affect on policies governments adopted until well into the twentieth century, when governments began to decide that their birth rates were either too high or too low to achieve national goals.

3. Population Policies In The Premodern Era

From earliest times, rulers and governors have attempted to increase the size and growth of their populations, which were periodically ravaged by famine, epidemic disease, and warfare. A large and growing population was universally regarded as a sign of a healthy and vital society while small or decreasing numbers signified weakness and decay. In classical Greece, the most martial city-state, Sparta, enacted laws that made marriage compulsory and imposed special taxes, civil indignities, and political disadvantage on celibates. Procreation was similarly encouraged in Rome when that city was still a city-state intent on conquest. Later, the famous population laws of Augustus, elaborated between 18BC and AD9, tried to address the low fertility of the senatorial class, on which the empire relied for the administration of its colonies (Hutchinson 1967). During this period pronatalist policy had its origins in nationalism or imperialism, sentiments that would motivate pronatalism through the mid-twentieth century. Before the modern era, however, the government lacked the means to reach into the hinterland, and it did not command the technologies required to enforce the law. Thus, it is doubtful that these policies were effective.

A second rationale for pro-natalist policy emerged in the Mercantilist states of Europe during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. To the Mercantilist rulers, a large and growing population was equated with a rich and prospering nation; therefore, the more people the better. While Mercantilist theorists disagreed over many points, most regarded labor as the most important factor of production. They also observed that high production density fostered industry and commerce and provided the basis for the establishment of colonies that would further enrich the nation. Mercantilist policies thus encouraged marriage and procreation, severely limited emigration, and encouraged immigration, especially of skilled tradesmen. Once again, effective techniques for implementation were lacking and it is unlikely that the laws had much effect (Spengler 1960).

4. Population Policies In Developed Countries

In the belief that population size and national power were closely related, political leaders in the late 1920s and 1930s saw a low birth rate and population decline as nothing less than a threat to national survival (Tietlebaum and Winter 1985). Concerned by the phenomenon of below replacement fertility, several governments adopted policies to raise their birthrates in an effort to alleviate severe economic depression and assure that the state would not decline in its relative power status in the future.

Mainly in the 1930s, several European governments formulated policy responses to declining fertility, utilizing both repressive and social welfare measures (Glass 1940). The first moves were to reactivate abortion legislation already inscribed in the criminal codes, which imposed Draconian penalties for convicted abortionists and forbade advice on birth control and the advertising and sale of contraceptives—except for condoms which were regarded as prophylactics. On the welfare side, child and family allowances, marriage and housing loans to subsidize maternity leave, benefits to reduce infant mortality, the establishment of nurseries and day care centers, and campaigns of pro-natalist propaganda were among the most significant measures introduced.

While France, Sweden, and other European nations relied mainly on welfare measures to encourage higher fertility, Nazi Germany initiated a vigorous pronatalist policy for those thought to be of Aryan stock while simultaneously pursuing a policy of sterilizing the ‘hereditarily unfit’ and ‘racially impure.’ At the same time that Germany was urging its women to bear more children for the Fatherland, it invaded neighboring countries on the ground that it needed additional space, Lebensraum, for its people. Germany also utilized the power of the state and its extensive control apparatus to enforce its prohibition against abortion (Harmsen 1950). However, other than in Nazi Germany the restrictive legislation on abortion in other European nations had only a small effect, as judges and juries were loathe to convict because of the severity of the penalty and their own lack of commitment to the abortion law (Glass 1940).

Despite the anxiety over ‘depopulation,’ the liberal democracies of Europe could not achieve national consensus over the adoption of coherent pro-natalist policies until the late 1930s. By this time, however, birth rates were already starting to rise as preparations for war contributed to the end of the Depression and the return of full employment. Pro-natalist measures were introduced in the Soviet Union immediately prior to World War II and spread to Eastern Europe after the war. Moreover, pro-natalism in the Soviet Union was buttressed by Marxist ideology that held that ‘overpopulation’ was only a problem under capitalism.

Fertility started to fall in Communist bloc states in the mid-1950s, soon after abortion was liberalized in these countries. Eastern Europe responded quickly by placing restrictions on abortion, with the most severe in Romania. Though legal, contraceptives were to all intents and purposes difficult to obtain or unavailable. Child allowances were increased and long-term maternity leave of one to three years was introduced (McIntyre 1975). A benefit was provided that varied between the minimum and average wage and reemployment was assured in the same or a similar job. These policies largely succeeded in maintaining fertility above the replacement level.

In Western Europe, by contrast, fertility fell below replacement level, and governments once again adopted pro-natalist policies. Recognizing that in the contemporary world national power no longer depended on numbers alone, policy makers gave increased emphasis to enhancing the quality of the population, that is, the health, education, and other factors that contribute to what has been called ‘the effective population’ (Organiski et al. 1972). Equally important as a gauge of national power was economic and technological superiority, as well as a nation’s structure of alliances. For those nations intent upon encouraging couples to have at least an additional child, the most effective approach seemed to be a policy that lessened the difficulties of balancing paid work and motherhood (McIntosh 1983). Pro-natalism proved to be less than a successful undertaking for Western democracies as they were constrained by their own liberal democratic politics from implementing the multifaceted measures required for an effective policy aimed at increasing the birth rate.

5. Population Policies In Developing Countries

Although population had been a subject of philosophic speculation and debate since ancient times, it was not until the middle of the twentieth century that it became a cause inciting intense political controversy. There were several developments that moved population from speculation and theory to the policy arena. Of singular importance were demographic trends in less developed and colonial countries that challenged leaders of these nations, especially after they had achieved independence. Earlier, both fertility and mortality rates were high. After World War II the introduction of improved public health measures, especially clean water and improved sanitation, as well as the new availability of antibiotics, led to a decline in infant and child mortality and an unprecedented increase in the rate of population growth.

Beginning in the 1950s, leaders in developing nations came to regard rapid population growth as an obstacle to their country’s economic development, a view that was reinforced by census results which showed that population size and growth exceeded earlier expectations. Four years after gaining its independence from the UK, India adopted a population policy as part of its initial five-year plan in 1951. In roughly the same time period, Pakistan and Sri Lanka instituted population policies. There were also leaders and political elites in many developing countries who, while they recognized the burden of rapid population growth, were nevertheless reluctant to adopt population control policies, partly because of the ‘distrust the leaders had of the former metropolitan powers’ projection of population as the greatest threat to national development.’ (Made with reference to Sub-Saharan Africa in UNECA Population Policy Overview Report 2000).

Meanwhile China, the worlds most populous nation, captured the imagination of many Third World countries at the Bucharest Conference in 1974, by proudly proclaiming that socialist China could accommodate increasing numbers of people. Significantly, within five years China implemented the most vigorous population control program in modern history. The sharp changes in China’s population policy were not merely a response to demographic conditions but were closely linked to the revolutionary fervor of China’s leadership and their economic goals. The One Child Per Family policy, adopted by the People’s Republic of China in 1979, imposed penalties—at times severe—on those who abrogated the law. The policy succeeded and China achieved the sharpest fertility decline that any country had ever experienced. In achieving this goal, many women either sought or were compelled to undergo abortions in order to avoid a second child and avoid the possible legal consequences. A better understanding of demographic processes by Chinese officials combined with resistance to the one child policy within China and criticism from abroad, contributed to a de facto modification of the policy (Banister and Harbaugh 1994). Chinese officials realized that their population goals could be achieved, albeit more slowly, and with less public resentment, by implementing the one child policy less strictly.

Population policy came to be recognized internationally as emblematic of a nation’s commitment to modernization. This trend was abetted and encouraged by the rich industrial nations, especially the USA, as well as by the United Nations, most particularly the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the World Bank. Industrial nations of the West felt that high fertility in poor countries would keep them poor forever. Consistent with this attitude, the USA, Canada, European nations, Japan, and indeed all donor nations began to support efforts to limit population growth.

In 1967, partly as a result of a financial contribution from the USA, the UN began to address the issue of population growth. The Secretary General created a trust fund which eventually became the UN Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), whose purpose was to encourage countries to identify their population problems and to attempt, with international assistance, to cope with them. Although many branches and organs of the UN would eventually be involved in curtailing rapid population growth, the creation of UNFPA was critical to the entire multilateral effort.

A point that is often neglected is that ‘overpopulation’ was attractive to both industrial societies as well as to developing countries as an explanation for the poverty of much of the Third World. It was much easier to attribute ‘underdevelopment’ to excessive population than to confront social and economic inequality, culture, religion, female subordination, or other plausible contributing factors. In the same spirit that western industrial nations found population control an appealing remedy for Third World poverty—for population control did not demand radical changes in the social and economic structure—scholars, intellectuals, and political leaders in developing countries also embraced population control as it did not require them to question fundamental attitudes and beliefs of their society. Thus, poor countries felt they could address their problems of development without first coming to grips with the social costs imposed by established structures of their societies. The discourse on the relationship between development and population has flowed from country to country and in the process has become universal rather than contained by national boundaries. The centrality of population to society assures that population issues will not be confined to any subsector of society but will become an issue that demands the attention of the polity. This has been the case in the past, and there is no reason to question its continuation.

6. The US Influence In Population Policies

The USA played a particularly significant role in shaping world population policy starting in the 1960s and in framing the modern debate over the politics of population. Until the 1960s, the USA was firmly opposed to playing any role, except a negative one, in the incipient population control movement. In words that he later came to publicly regret, President Dwight D. Eisenhower said, ‘I cannot imagine anything more emphatically a subject that is not a proper political or governmental activity or function or responsibility’ (Critchlow 1999, p. 44). Under Eisenhower’s successors the American government became steadily more supportive of family planning at home and abroad.

Once the USA decided to assist poor nations to curtail their population growth, it became an American ‘cause.’ The USA soon became the world’s largest donor to population assistance and used its political influence and financial resources to motivate the United Nations system to support family planning efforts in developing countries. Although the UK, Scandinavia, and other northern European states were important in the spread of the population movement, it was once again the political and economic influence of the USA that played a dominant role in persuading Third World countries that family planning programs were essential to their social and economic development. Equally important, the USA developed a strong professional cadre of population specialists covering every aspect of population and family planning from medicine to demography to management and communications, to assist family planning programs in almost every country in the developing world.

Perhaps of even greater importance in shaping population policy as well as in creating an international community of population experts was the investment made by the USA in training large numbers of men and women from the Third World at American universities. Upon returning home, graduates of these educational programs often filled critical positions in development programs and family planning. The USA also invested heavily in applied research designed to enhance the effectiveness of family planning programs as well as to provide an empirical base for health policy. One early research effort, the surveys of family planning and contraceptive knowledge, attitudes, and practice (KAP), demonstrated in country after country that women were having more children than they desired. The scientific contribution of KAP surveys was limited; however, they were believed to be politically valuable in persuading leaders to adopt national population policies.

As the USA exported its expertise and beliefs in voluntary family planning, so too did it export its profound political problems centering on the population issue. In the USA, the population dispute was entangled with such issues as foreign aid, state intervention in fertility decisions, sex education, contraception as a source of immorality, and, most serious of all, the abortion controversy, the most divisive issue in American society since the Civil War.

Family planners hold that abortion is a necessary backup procedure in the event of contraceptive failure. Other supporters of abortion argued that it is an essential component of any successful effort to limit population growth. A third group, led by but not limited to feminists, held that it is simply a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion. Thus, while family planning and abortion are analytically distinct, there is a general tendency for family planning proponents to be pro-choice. Conversely, anti-abortion or pro-life advocates were prone to broaden their target to include opposition to family planning. Both pro-life and pro-choice advocacy groups created international linkages whereby they have attempted to replicate the Western abortion controversy in developing countries as well as in the international arena.

7. Population Policies And International Conferences

United Nations conferences reflect the highly political and ideological quality of population policy at the international as well as the national level. Since the Stockholm Conference on Environment in June 1972—a conference generally regarded as highly successful—the United Nations has increasingly relied on the mechanism of international conferences to shape global policy on a variety of social and economic issues ranging from women, children, and human rights to population and development. In contrast to regular UN proceedings, these conferences have been more open to the inclusion and participation of nongovernmental organizations representing a broad spectrum of interest groups. To the extent that the policy process becomes more open and diverse groups acquire access to power, it is almost inevitable that political considerations are likely to play an important, if not a dominant, role in formulating policy at UN population conferences.

United Nations sponsorship of international population conferences actually began with gatherings in Rome in 1954 and Belgrade in 1965. The United Nations jointly sponsored these conferences and the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population (IUSSP), a highly respected international nongovernmental organization (NGO) with a comparatively small but influential worldwide membership of population professionals. The UN and IUSSP invited population experts to participate in the Rome and Belgrade conferences. These meetings, while of some intellectual significance, had only a modest impact on national population policies. Conference participants were invited as ‘experts’ rather than as representatives of government. Concerned about the lack of policy impact, the United Nations, as well as some of its more powerful members, changed the structure and composition of these early conferences. Their intent was to move the population debate out of the hands of scholars and experts and into the domain of government where population policy is made.

Under the leadership of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and with the strong support of the USA and other Western donor nations, the UN convened its first of a series of decennial population conferences in which governments rather than individual experts were represented. In contrast to the earlier World Population Conferences in Rome and Belgrade where participants were invited in their individual capacities as experts, delegates to the UN population conferences in Bucharest in 1974, Mexico City in 1984 and Cairo in 1994, were representatives of their government. Members of national delegations were not exclusively government officials and political leaders; governments also chose to select physicians, family planning activists, social workers, as well as feminists to represent their countries.

Contrary to expectations, these changes did not result in a stronger commitment by governments to population policy. Instead, they opened the door to a variety of interest groups to advance their own agendas and redefine population policy in terms that were more congenial to their interests. Governments also found these intergovernmental conferences a convenient host to their efforts to promote their own ideological and political agendas in collaboration with other friendly governments. Population conferences became far more controversial, interesting, and perhaps even more significant. For example, at Bucharest the Population Plan of Action, the consensus statement of the conference, urged a new and more equitable international economic order. In language that resembles a Marxist critique of development theory, the Background section of the Plan held that population problems are really symptoms of imbalances in the development process and a faulty international economic system. Twenty years later at Cairo, the new definition of population was one that gave primacy to women’s reproductive health and the status of women. Nongovernmental organizations were far more prominent at Cairo than at either Bucharest or Mexico City, a move intended to gain the support of the growing universe of nongovernmental organizations. This too resulted in further politicization of the conference proceedings as NGOs at Cairo were articulate, well organized, and embraced an agenda that paid little attention to demographics.

8. The Future Of Population Policies

Notwithstanding the near universality of fertility limitation programs in developing nations, world population reached 6.1 billion in mid-2000 and, according to UN estimates, was growing at an annual rate of 1.2 percent or 77 million people per year (United Nations Population Division 2001). According to the United Nations ‘medium’ projections, by 2050 world population will reach 9.3 billion. This growth is not evenly distributed throughout the world: almost all of it is taking place in developing countries. Clearly, on a global basis, the total fertility rate is above replacement level. Population growth will continue, if for no other reason than the momentum inherent in the age structure, that is, the large numbers of young people who have yet to complete their reproductive years (Bongaarts 1994). Thus, if world population is moving toward stabilization, it is moving at a much slower pace than the population community predicted or desired. To the extent that societies and political leaders are dissatisfied with demographic conditions in their own countries, there remains little question that they will introduce population policies in an attempt to ameliorate these conditions. Whether they will set clear goals, create an organization to implement these goals, and provide sufficient resources to successfully carry out their policy remains, as in the past, a matter of political commitment.


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