A breathless moment in the history of reproductive rights

The population control lobby is far from dead. There still are highly influential academics who fervently believe that increasing aid for population control (aka reproductive rights, women’s health, safe and legal abortion) is absolutely necessary. Without it, the world will turn into an over-heated, war-torn slum heaped with festering mountains of garbage. This is the message that comes through loud and clear in a special issue of an influential British journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, called The Impact of Population Growth on Tomorrow’s World. The special forum was edited by an Australian, Roger V. Short, and an American, Malcolm Potts. (The editorials are free, but a subscription is required to access the articles.)

Roger Short has been pushing population control remorselessly for decades. In this issue of the journal, his contributors quarry an inexhaustible mine of demographic clichés. In his words:

World experts, in a wide range of disciplines, explore the ways in which the inexorable increase in human numbers is exhausting conventional energy supplies, accelerating environmental pollution and Global Warming, and providing an increasing number of Failed States where civil unrest prevails. Few can be left in any doubt that calling a halt to future population growth in both developed and developing countries is the greatest challenge now facing our world.

Professor Short is a reproductive biologist but he has a genius for weaving a story out of capitalised platitudes: Global Warming, the Anthropocene, the Global Economy, the Revenge of Gaia, women’s Freedom from the Tyranny of Excessive Fertility, the God Gene, the Selfish Gene and so on.

Anyhow, amongst the Malthusian yadda-yadda, I found this stunning anecdote, which left me breathless. I think it even left Professor Short breathless, although it is hard to tell whether he regarded it as a success or failure of reproductive freedom:

I will never forget going to Skopje, in what was then Yugoslavia, in the mid 1970s to look at family-planning methods. When I asked Prof. Antonovski what contraceptives Macedonian women used, he told me that the hospital preferred abortion to contraception—it was more profitable. When I asked him the largest number of vacuum abortions he had ever performed on one woman in her lifetime, he paused for a moment and then replied ‘Sixty’. Incredulous, I asked him how that was possible. He said it was easy—you only needed to do four a year starting at about the age of 16, and it did not take very long to get to 60.


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