Cracks in the population consensus

Joseph ChamieJoseph Chamie, a former director of the United Nations Population Division now working in migration research in New York, is worried. According to a recent article, he finds himself caught in the abortion bind: on the one hand he supports a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion; on the other, he opposes the growing practice of choosing to abort a child (usually a girl) because it is the wrong sex. Actually, he writes about this dilemma in the third person plural, but it is clear that he is one of the “many people” wrestling with it. 

The problem as he describes it is less a moral one than a demographic one: in the world’s two largest countries, China and India, the ratio of boys to girls at birth is badly skewed and there is a growing gender gap. Abortion, embraced by their governments as an instrument of population control, has in the past two decades joined hands with the ultrasound machine to open up some scary scenarios.

In another decade or so there could be as many as 35 million “surplus” males in China and 25 million in India. Unable to find brides of their own age, says Chamie, many may look in younger age groups, “allowing the re-emergence of customs like child brides and marriage promises”; they may try to import brides from distant regions; the trafficking of women, prostitution and bride kidnapping may increase, and gangs are likely to generate other types of crime and disorder. “The trends could even lead to the build-up of large militias to provide a safety valve for the frustrations of numerous bachelors.” And how would they let off steam?

Moreover, problems have a way of spreading in a globalised world. Asian immigrants abroad bring their ideas about family size and gender with them, and although some Western countries have specific bans on sex-selection abortions for social reasons, most have already conceded so much ground to “reproductive rights” that it is difficult to see how they can withstand this new pressure, which comes not only from immigrants. Just this week a New Zealand government committee has recommended allowing sex selection by parents using in vitro fertilisation technology -- to “balance their family”.

Freedom to abort a child is something Chamie supports in the interests of balancing the world’s population -- although he knows very well how much compulsion surrounds abortion, especially in China. But freedom to choose the sex of children is something he clearly does not support because, whatever it might do for individual families, it unbalances the population, with far-reaching consequences. Both China and India have outlawed sex-selection abortions and Chamie clearly believes this is the correct line of action, even if the laws are widely flouted. He would like a consensus on this point.

But he is evidently not going to get it. Pro-choice feminists, who have carried the flag for abortion, and nowhere more than at the UN, will not accept any limits on “a woman’s right to choose”. They say that son-preference -- on which the gender gap is blamed, although it could more justly be blamed on population control itself -- must be corrected through public education campaigns. (Something for the bloated standing armies of China to do in the 2010s and 2020s?) Chamie thinks this is pie in the sky, and that economic development, education and equal employment opportunities for men and women is more likely to be effective. But even that will not happen as fast as concerted action to stop sex-selection abortions.

Do we see here a significant crack opening up in the pro-choice facade that has made population control respectable during the last two to three decades? If demographers and feminists cannot agree about reproductive choice, how will the former justify their efforts to manage the world’s population in future? And which of the two will governments listen to?

There is another reason for the population control movement to rethink its strategies, if not its goals. A new book by Columbia University history professor Matthew Connelly documents -- probably for the first time in mainstream academic publishing -- the arrogant and coercive nature of the movement that arose from distaste for brown and yellow skinned people and alarm over their growing numbers in the mid-20th century. Connelly seems to think those days are over and that the net gain from 60 years of interfering with other people’s fertility is, yes, reproductive choice. Whether he is right about that is a matter of opinion, but his book, Fatal Misconception, stands as a major rebuke to the movement and another sign that it cannot count on the old consensus to throw a veil over dubious and inhumane tactics. 

Interestingly enough, something similar may be happening in the AIDS establishment. Earlier this month the czar of the World Health Organisation’s HIV/AIDS department, Kevin de Cock, announced that the WHO no longer believes there will be a heterosexual epidemic of the disease outside of sub-Saharan Africa. As many people have always thought, and as some experts have insisted, AIDS is largely a disease of men who have sex with men -- a fact, says Dr de Cock, that has been badly neglected in the developing world, and masked in the developed world by general public health campaigns, including safer sex lessons for schoolchildren.

This may be an inconvenient truth for AIDS activists who wish protect homosexual lifestyles from criticism, but those actually at risk from HIV/AIDS have nothing to lose and much to gain from a more soundly based, independent stance by UNAIDS -- if, indeed, the UN needs to be involved at all in epidemics that are localised and call for specific solutions.

AIDS is part of the fallout, the cruellest, of the sexual revolution set in motion by the birth control, or population control, movement. Misguided and dishonest campaigns to manipulate fertility and deal with epidemics such as AIDS will no doubt continue. But new winds of realism blowing through the ranks indicate that they will not have it all their own way, and that more thoughtful approaches to the world’s problems may prevail.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.


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