Population control abuses overseas don't fit into the US progressive narrative

On November 15, the world reached 8 billion people, according to UN estimates. The symbolic milestone gave population pundits an opportunity to dominate the news for about 10 minutes.  

Two other major population milestones have come and gone largely unnoticed since the world hit the 7 billion mark in 2011. First, China ended its one-child policy. Second, India’s Supreme Court ordered an end to sterilization camps. These policy changes occurred in the world’s two billionaire countries, home to one-third of all women of reproductive age.

China’s one-child policy

The end of the one-child policy was perhaps the greatest human rights victory of our generation. For over 30 years, China’s one-child policy had been a human rights disaster. The government used propaganda, coercion, and violence. It stingily granted birth permits and without a birth permit, women could not legally have a child.

This system was enforced by officials under immense pressure from their superiors to prevent “excess” births by any means necessary. “Use whatever means you must to reduce the population, but do it,” proclaimed Deng Xiaoping.

This led to abuses on an unimaginable scale. Only a few sensational stories of forced abortion and mass sterilizations were ever published in Western media. The defense of the policy that I heard most often was “but it wasn’t always enforced” which is a feeble excuse indeed.

At the end of 2015, the Chinese government announced a two-child policy. Today, it is a three-child policy.

India’s sterilization camps

India’s sterilization camps are part of India’s long history of prioritizing overpopulation fears over human dignity. In 1966, family planning workers were assigned numerical targets for contraceptive “acceptors”. In 1970, the southern state of Kerala pioneered the world’s first vasectomy camps and an average of 2,000 acceptors were sterilized every day for over a month. Abuses climaxed during the 1975-1977 Emergency Period when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended a wide range of civil liberties. Over 19 months, more than 8 million people (mostly men) were coercively sterilized in a population control frenzy.

After the Emergency Period, the government turned to women. For over 50 years now, Indian women have been pressured legally and socially to limit births. In some states, people with more than two children cannot run for local office or hold a government job. Health workers offer money in exchange for being sterilized.  

Over half of Indian women were being sterilized before they turned 35; two out of every three said they had not informed about possible side effects (which was an improvement from previous years). The conditions in the sterilization camps ranged from adequate to disgraceful. The Indian Supreme Court ordered a stop to the camps in 2015, after 12 women died in a particularly squalid camp. And that made the news only because the death count was exceptionally high. In the early 2000s, three women were dying every week from sterilization complications.

Under the radar

There are two reasons why these monumental changes went unnoticed.

First, violations of reproductive rights continued anyway. The Chinese government has never conceded wrongdoing and still insists upon its right to control people’s childbearing—it simply changed the ideal number of children. In India, sterilization camps still exist. Abuses and deaths continue.

The second reason is that many of the narrative-shapers in the West see reproductive issues through an American lens. In the US progressive narrative, effective contraception emerged in the 1960s due to consumer demand and scientific advances. The Pill liberated women by giving women control over their bodies. Roe v Wade allowed abortion to be the necessary back-up to guarantee women’s liberation and equality.

People who oppose contraception and abortion are believed to be wealthy, white, Christian Republicans who want to control women. As luminaries like Gloria Steinem, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Betty Friedan argued, women had been liberated from the shackles imposed by a privileged Christian patriarchy.

American social conservatives work hard to counter this narrative by arguing: “the pro-life movement is mostly women”; “Planned Parenthood is racist”; and “equality begin in the womb.” Although these rebuttals broaden the discourse, they still do not transcend the US framework, but instead echo the particular issues of gender, race, and equality that are so compelling for Americans.



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The US narrative fails overseas

But if the US progressive narrative is a poor explanation for domestic reality, imagine how much worse it fits internationally. For example, the progressive narrative misses things like sterilization camps.

If you believe that contraception is a liberating force necessary to advance female education, India simply does not fit. In India, 40 percent of women with no education are sterilized. By contrast, only 11 percent of women with higher education are.

If you believe that you live in the Republic of Gilead and that American Christian men are determined to control your body, then the possibility that menstrual apps might be used as evidence in a criminal abortion case seems plausible.

But since the Chinese government doesn’t employ evil white Christian men, the fact that it really does track menstrual cycles to catch illegal pregnancies is ignored. Such a fact is so alien to the world described by the US progressive narrative that it is dissonantly implausible.

In the Indian context, if you oppose sterilization camps, you might technically be arguing against contraception. But you won’t find yourself allied with wealthy, white Christian Republicans. (There are very few white Christian Republican in India, by the way.) Instead, you will find yourself aligned with Dalits, the Adivasi, and the poorest and disenfranchised who are disproportionately victimized. You won’t even find yourself arguing against contraception—you would simply be against a system that exploits poor women to control population growth.

In the Chinese context, you can oppose coerced abortions without being against all abortions.  And it certainly doesn’t mean you’ll end up chanting “Let’s Go Brandon” at a Nascar race. 

Because of the poisonous tribalism of American politics, US progressives shrink from acting as advocates for victimized women in China and India. This is a mistake. If the Indian and Chinese governments are complicit in human rights abuses, they should be denounced. Advocacy should transcend partisan identity, nationality, religion, or race. Narrative-makers must shake off the belief that contraception and abortion are always and everywhere indisputable benefits. Such a lens leaves no room for instances where governments use contraception and abortion as tools to violate people’s rights.

Hyper-partisan politics is bad enough at home. It’s toxic when we export it.

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