Our VoiceNews & Politics

Population Numbers & the Scapegoating of Female Fertility


Guest Blogger • Jan 05, 2012

Photo: Torsten Mangner's Flickr page

by Courtney Hooks

Beyoncé and Jay Z just had the 7 billionth-or-so baby to ever be born. The only people on planet Earth who probably aren’t excited by that beautiful fact are population alarmists. But seriously, alarmist rhetoric about population numbers must stop. It is dangerous, divisive, and a gross distortion of reality.

Some journalists who cry wolf about ‘overpopulation’ claim to be “breaking the silence” on a taboo subject. In actuality, these ideas are part of a long-standing tradition rooted in white supremacist, eugenic thought. The latest spotlighted ‘issue’ may shift from hunger and poverty to political instability and war, or most recently, climate change, but the basic idea stays the same:

  • One, that reproduction—especially that of women of color, poor women, and disabled women in the global south and global north–is a threat.
  • And two, that people who reproduce are responsible for large-scale social ills.

The conclusion drawn from there is that we need to find ways to “stabilize population,” or in other words, reduce or eliminate childbearing. Some advocates seem to think it’s politically expedient or strategic to promote this idea by couching it in “women’s empowerment,”  “reproductive and environmental justice,” and sexual health and rights rhetoric. White middle class women like Lisa Hymas have even promoted their choice to remain childless as an act of martyrdom for the ecological cause, hinging eco-cred on how few children one has. But the core premise remains faulty and the fallout from such misunderstandings incredibly dangerous and most likely to land on the bodies of poor women and women of color, the usual targets of population control measures. An honest examination of population paints a very different picture.

Feminist icon Gloria Steinem recently re-hashed the idea that conditions of violent political conflict and instability can be traced back to large numbers of young men in a given population. This argument reinforces gender stereotypes about aggression, ignores how young people are often positive agents of change in their communities, and places blame on women’s childbearing (in this case, of boys). Instead, we should put responsibility for political unrest where it belongs–squarely upon the shoulders of oppressive regimes, greedy leaders, exploitative corporations, and institutions like the U.S. military that bomb countries abroad and leave social, political, and economic devastation in its wake.

Since we’re already on the subject of corporate greed and militarism, lets consider how U.S. corporations and the military use a hugely disproportionate share of the world’s resources, including energy. Unsustainable and unregulated industrial and manufacturing practices cause the worst pollution abuses. The U.S. military-industrial complex has a long record of environmental degradation and is the largest consumer of oil and biggest polluter of any entity in the world. So why are some eco-minded folks hopping on the omg-women-should-stop-having-so-many-babies bandwagon instead of raging against the war machine? While they’re busy saving food scraps for future fertilizer use (good) they’re wasting our valuable time and energy directing attention and efforts to programs that will not solve the climate crisis (bad). Put your money and political power where your local-grass-fed-beef-free-range-egg-only-eating mouth is, eco-bourgeoisie.

Speaking of mouths and foodstuffs: we’ve all heard that there are “too many mouths” to feed and that poor people and people on welfare shouldn’t have kids if they can’t afford to feed them. The truth is, hunger is not the result of too many people. There is enough food to feed every person on the planet far more than they need. The U.S. is the largest food producer in the world, yet more than one in 10 American households are either experiencing hunger or at risk of it.

In addition. poor and indigenous people around the world have been and are being forced off of arable land and denied opportunities for sustainable agriculture. The government is subsidizing industrial agriculture, creating artificially low prices for food cultivated by energy intensive processes that poison our land, water, air, and bodies. This keeps healthy foods and small, family farmers competing in an unfair market and keeps food prices further and further out of reach for low-income families. Food isn’t what’s lacking. What’s lacking is an equitable, just agricultural system. As my friend Unique so aptly put it, “when a Dollar Menu cheeseburger is cheaper than fresh produce, it’s time to reassess.”

Now is the time to stop placing the blame on women’s bodies, start demanding accountability from the real culprits, and real solutions to the urgent social problems we face. We can’t afford to lose vital time by focusing on false solutions to made-up problems.

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Courtney Hooks is a Reproductive & Environmental Justice Fellow at the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College

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