Quietly, over the past three years, a few international bureaucrats and academics—mostly Americans—have been laying the intellectual foundations for a major new scheme to control family making. They want to save the planet and improve life for the citizens of the world. Unfortunately, the world's citizens may have little or no say in their salvation.
Historically, international family-planning efforts aimed simply to bring new contraceptive services to people who wanted them. The programs extended human choice. Recently, however, this long-standing commitment to strict voluntarism has waned. Important parts of the international family planning apparat have begun to veer dangerously toward social control and coercion.
In a widely cited 1984 report, the population division of the World Bank presented one of the first mainstream rationalizations for taking the voluntary family-planning movement a step further, into active efforts by national governments to suppress reproduction through financial, political, and social pressures. "Ensuring that people have only as many children as they want…might not be enough," the report asserted. Where "privately desired" childbearing exceeds the "socially desired" level, government ought to step in.
In 1986 the U.S. National Academy of Sciences issued another influential study. "When a couple's childbearing decision imposes external costs on other families," argued the Academy professors, a case may be made for policies that go beyond voluntary family planning. These policies could include "persuasive campaigns to change family size norms" and a variety of financial incentives and penalties. Making the case for "drastic financial or legal restrictions on childbearing" is "more difficult," the report allowed.
Readers with a respect for private liberties and a sense for realpolitik will detect in these developments a chilling door-opening for massive state intrusion into the most private of human choices. Starting a family, having children—it is hard to imagine more intimate and fundamental rights. None but the most determined brave-new-worlder would want to see these delicate decisions transferred from the private to the public realm.
The idea that the social costs and benefits of childbearing could be objectively measured is ludicrous. Even more troublesome are the practical political exigencies: these most sensitive of judgments would have to be entrusted to a government potentate. According to the authoritative Freedom House, only 29 out of 135 Third World nations display a modicum of political freedom today. Mechanisms for effective citizen recourse against official injustice are few to nonexistent in most developing nations. In such countries, are we to encourage further state intrusion into individuals' lives?
This is not merely a hypothetical concern. In 1976 the Indian government declared, "Where a state legislature, in the exercise of its own powers, decides that the time is ripe and it is necessary to pass legislation for compulsory sterilization, it may do so." In the six months following, over six million Indians were sterilized, many thousands forcibly. The episode inspired such fierce resistance that the Indian government—a rare Third World democracy—fell, and the program was repealed.
Residents of less democratic states have been less fortunate. "Beyond family planning" measures are currently in effect in China, Vietnam, Singapore, and South Korea. China's program is particularly ugly. By government edict, most couples are forbidden from having more than one child. Perhaps 3 million Chinese women are forced to have an unwanted abortion every year. Many millions more are sterilized under terrific pressure. In some hospitals, according to the Washington Post, attending obstetricians are under orders to see that newborns do not survive if they are second children.
Tens of thousands of infants are also killed by parental infanticide. No wonder: the penalties for having a child without government authorization include job loss, an end to land access for raising food, and fines equivalent to three years' income. (All this in a country where the government is far and away the major employer.)
The distinguished demographer Richard Easterlin has written tellingly on the hazards of allowing control over procreation rights: "We have had sufficient experience now with population programs to realize that they can easily become a vehicle for elite pressure on the poor. I fear that the elevation to legitimacy of 'beyond family planning' measures lends itself to precisely such pressure.…Of course, one might claim that such measures are in the 'ultimate' interest of the poor, but this view leaves one in the uncomfortable position of having to define the person, group or institution that is better able to judge the interests of the poor than the poor themselves."
(That judgment is not one that United Nations officials have shied from. When the first UN medal for family planning achievement was awarded recently, its joint winners were—you guessed it—the heads of the Chinese and Indian programs.)
This is an issue that ought to be of paramount concern to advocates of liberty and private choice. But by and large, criticism of the Chinese program—and creeping coercion in the family-planning movement generally—has come not from libertarians but from other quarters: the right-to-life movement, moral traditionalists, antitotalitarians.
Persons interested in promoting personal freedom would do well to recognize that that sometimes requires defense of its incubating institutions: neighborly networks, local sources of authority, the family in particular. Protesting attempts by international controllers to further circumscribe human choice by coercively dictating family size would be a good place to start.
Karl Zinsmeister is a Washington, D.C., demographic analyst and a commentator for Radio America.