Putting Reproductive Rights and Population Growth in Perspective

Dr. Carmen Barroso

Is it possible for a feminist to be worried both about human rights and demographic trends?  My answer is yes.

This post is published as part of our series in recognition of International Human Rights Day 2010 on Friday, December 10th.  Read more International Human Rights Day 2010 posts here.

You may remember the book by Heidi Hartmann The Unhappy Marriage of Feminism and Marxism, published in the 1980s.  Well, I was a daughter of that marriage.

In the 80’s with the support of the Ford Foundation, I was on the outskirts of Sao Paulo developing a methodology for sex education with grassroots women. The purpose was to promote the right to decide and, very advanced for that time, the right to seek pleasure. As you see, true to form to the feminist lineage.

But I was also mindful of the leftist milieu that nurtured all progressive thinking in the country and to which feminists were held accountable if they wanted to be part of the “luta geral.” So, our sex education project also included a critique of population control. Our concern was both with coercive practices and with an ideology that seemed to promote population stabilization as a substitute for a fairer global economy, for a new economic order, as it was called then. Lyndon Johnson’s statement that five dollars spent in family planning was more productive than one hundred dollars spent in development seemed to justify this view of the population agenda as a threat to the right to development.  

Appreciate our work?

Rewire is a non-profit independent media publication. Your tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.


The methodology we were developing was participatory. We used cartoons or photographs to start consciousness-raising discussions. One of the cartoons depicted two women. One of them was saying: “Did you see the TV last night? They said we are poor because we have too many children.” The other responded: “That is nonsense. They should distribute income instead of the pill.”

Even if this dialogue sounds bizarre, it reflected our mentality. Fortunately, I had then one of the teaching moments of my life.  The grassroots women of the periphery of Sao Paulo were unanimous in pointing out the flaw in this dichotomy: they all wanted better income distribution AND the pill.

Many years have passed and I have since tried to contribute to a virtuous synergy between a macro and a micro approach to population and reproductive rights. There was a moment at the MacArthur Foundation, for instance, when I refused a suggestion to change the name of the program to Reproductive Health, keeping the name Population and Reproductive Health. This may come as a surprise to some of you.

Just recently a former member of the International Planned Parenthood Federation board who came from the old school of population and family planning, and had been frustrated by my unwavering defense of the Cairo agenda, was pleasantly surprised at the Women Deliver conference when I used population momentum as one of the several reasons why we should pay much more attention to youth.  I had, of course, been talking about population momentum since Bongaarts seminal article was published many, many years ago but I had focused more on rights. I felt that was the message that had been most neglected. 

So, where do I stand today on the question of whether the population/environment connection threatens the rights agenda? This question elicits four possible responses. The first was dominant in the population community in the past and still finds some supporters. This response is:  No, because rights are not really important. It may not be said in such a blunt way, but it is behind a justification of China’s policy, for instance, based on the argument that it avoided the greater evil of huge population growth.

The second response is more common today: No, because there is a natural synergy between the demographic and the rights perspectives. The organizers of this session described this position very clearly. They argue that regardless of their intent, effective means of slowing population growth benefit women and promote individual rights. The problems with this position are two-fold: first, not everybody is convinced that the promotion of individual rights is the most effective means of slowing population growth, in spite of the powerful arguments by Amartya Sen and others. Some still think women need to be convinced to have fewer children by “whatever means necessary.”

The second problem is the unintended consequences. When policy makers do not make protecting rights a priority, they may end up inadvertently trumping over them. Recent trends towards results-based funding, when adopted with a religious fervor, might skew funding towards long-acting contraceptive methods which can produce measurable results such as CYP and maternal deaths avoided. While such methods certainly should be part of the options available, programs in search of desperately-needed funds may neglect other methods or neglect rights based results such as the empowerment of women.

The third response is the modern version of the traditional critique of the population agenda: Yes, the population/environment connection is a threat to the reproductive and sexual rights and therefore we should deny or ignore that connection. I see two problems with denial. First, it is a distortion of scientific evidence. We all know that population growth is not the major driver of environmental problems, but we can’t ignore that it is a contribution to their aggravation. The second problem with avoiding discussing the connection is that it misses the opportunity to broaden the basis of support for reproductive health and rights.

The fourth response is: Yes, there is a risk, but it can be avoided with concerted efforts to respect, protect and fulfill rights. As you can see, it is similar to the second response, recognizing a potential for synergy but it is different in not assuming that it will happen automatically.  On the contrary, it assumes there is a significant risk that the synergy may not occur, for the reasons I have discussed.

I think that by now, you may have guessed where I stand.

Load More

We must defend reproductive rights at every level. That includes staying informed. Sign up for our email list now.

Thank you for reading Rewire!