Ideologues Hijack International Family Planning

Suzanne Petroni

Suzanne Petroni is a Senior Program officer for the Summit Foundation in Washington, DC, where she manages the foundation's Global Population and Youth Leadership program.


It's been interesting to read the exchanges here on PAI's latest report, while at the same time researching the history of U.S. international family planning policy.

I'm back in school to take what I've learned in ten years in the population field, add some knowledge and skills, and ultimately—hopefully!—come up with a way to help move our field out of its current political morass. My hypothesis is that, as a field, we're using the same arguments and strategies that we've used for decades, and as a result, we're not gaining ground; rather, we're losing it.

Suzanne Petroni is a Senior Program officer for the Summit Foundation in Washington, DC, where she manages the foundation's Global Population and Youth Leadership program.

It's been interesting to read the exchanges here on PAI's latest report, while at the same time researching the history of U.S. international family planning policy.

I'm back in school to take what I've learned in ten years in the population field, add some knowledge and skills, and ultimately—hopefully!—come up with a way to help move our field out of its current political morass. My hypothesis is that, as a field, we're using the same arguments and strategies that we've used for decades, and as a result, we're not gaining ground; rather, we're losing it.

For me, it comes down to this: No matter how many ways we try to present them, the facts just don't seem to matter to our opponents. Religion does.

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But we're still making the same fact-based arguments that have been around for 40 years. While I believe this applies to both reproductive rights and population, I'll focus only on the latter today.

A short quiz, if you'll indulge me. Look at the following quotes, and guess who said them and when. (Answers are at the end.):

  • "How will we educate and employ such a large number of people? … How will we provide adequate health care when our population reaches 300 million?"
  • "Are we really going to be able to give these extra people jobs, homes, health care and education?"
  • "High rates of population growth … impair individual rights, jeopardize national goals, and threaten international stability."
  • "The risks of civil conflict … generated by demographic factors may be much more significant than generally recognized."
  • "Where population size is greater than available resources, or is expanding more rapidly than the available resources, there is a tendency toward internal disorders and violence and, sometimes, disruptive international policies or violence."
  • "Population age structure has significant impacts on countries' stability, governance, economic development and social well-being …"

Whether it's from 1969, 1974, 2003 or 2007, it's pretty much the same thing.

I don't intend to criticize anyone for making such statements. Not only have I made many of these exact arguments myself (including on behalf of the U.S. government), but I have also provided my (bosses') foundation's funding to make such a case even more persuasively. The facts are what motivated the U.S. to begin providing international population assistance in the 1960s. And yes, they may help to make the case for continued investments in critically important and life-saving programs now.

My point is that, well, rational arguments don't matter to the right-wing policymakers who have hijacked international family planning.

Look at the history. From the 1950s on through to 2007, it's been the influence of religion on politics—not a lack of awareness of demographic impacts—that has impeded the success of our efforts.

Here's former Congressman James Scheuer discussing President Nixon's reaction to his own Population Commission's findings in 1972: "(he) promptly ignored our final report. The reasons were obvious—the fear of attacks from the far right and from the Roman Catholic Church because of our positions on family planning and abortion."

A decade later, we saw the tremendous influence on American politics of the "Religious Right," which generated the Mexico City Policy and the withdrawal of U.S. funding to UNFPA (the United Nations Population Fund). This movement has worked doggedly (and successfully) since to mold the government's policies to their views, including on the role of the family. In this forum, I certainly don't need to discuss the Bush Administration's willingness to let theology drive policy.

Bottom line: Whether it's the Catholic Church or the Religious Right, fundamentalist religious involvement in politics is at the root of our inability to normalize international family planning.

We can't keep coming up with new ways of saying the same things about global population growth and expect to achieve a breakthrough. We need to develop new ways of tackling this significant and niggling impediment to helping the women and youth of the world achieve their reproductive health and rights.

And if you have any thoughts on just how to do that, you'll make my dissertation a whole lot easier!

***

Answers to the Quiz:

1. President Nixon's Special Message to the Congress on Problems of Population Growth, presented on July 18, 1969.

2. Official in Uganda's Ministry of Finance, discussing population growth in The Guardian, August 25, 2006, as cited in Population Action International's The Shape of Things to Come (p. 14, link opens as PDF).

3. Panel of the United Nations, quoted in President Nixon's Special Message to the Congress on Problems of Population Growth, presented on July 18, 1969.

4. Cincotta, Engelman and Anastasion. The Security Demographic—Population and Civil Conflict After the Cold War. Population Action International. 2003.

5. National Security Study Memorandum 200 (p. 69). Signed by National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, April, 1974.

6. Population Action International's The Shape of Things to Come (p. 10, link opens as a PDF), 2007.

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