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This Totem Too Shall Fall

The U.N. Population Division told us some years ago that, with the exception of a few countries in sub-Saharan Africa, by the year 2025 every country on earth would be in below-replacement fertility. Two weeks ago, the same U.N. Population Division released a briefing paper saying that even this is unacceptable and that those few recalcitrant states must be brought into line. Their fertility rates must decline, and fast.

The paper focuses on the forty-nine countries the U.N. General Assembly defines as the “least developed.” It makes the case that fertility reduction is required for poverty relief and “the achievement of other internationally agreed development goals,” and goes on to assert that the only way out of poverty for these countries is a massive influx of family planning programs. To the United Nation, this means exclusively condoms, injectables, pills, and the whole panoply of what they call “modern contraceptive means.”

This drum beat was picked up within days by population control fan Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, who clucked, “Global family planning efforts have stalled over the last couple of decades” and “family planning programs have been shorn of resources and glamour for a generation now.”

Both the report and Kristof also talk about something U.N. population bureaucrats call “unmet need.” “Unmet need” assumes there is a great need for “modern contraceptive methods” and that, for various reasons, women who do not want to have any children just can’t get their hands on contraceptives.

Put aside for a moment that the world is awash in “modern contraceptive methods.” The United States alone has spent billions promoting “modern contraceptive methods” for decades around the world. So has the United Nations. And the European Union. So have a dozen rich European governments. But let’s talk about the claims made on behalf of fertility reduction and U.N.-style family planning programs.

Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute calls the new U.N. report “statist” and “Malthusian.” He says they are “zombie dead ideas that died a long time ago.” In a paper published last year in Great Britain, he pointed out that in the early days of the republic the United States had one of the highest rates of population growth ever recorded, yet the new nation experienced explosive economic growth. Similarly, total global population quadrupled in the twentieth century, which he credits to a global health boom, and during that same period of remarkable population growth global GDP per capita “more than quintupled.”

One of the theories of the modern population movement touted in the U.N. paper and by Kristof in The Times is that education is one of the answers to high rates of fertility. Those peasant women do not know enough to stop having babies, or at least delay their arrival. Eberstadt points out that the first society to experienced marked fertility reduction was uneducated peasant France in the middle of the eighteenth century, also a time and place that did not posses “modern contraceptive methods.”

But Eberstadt directs his greatest scorn at the insistence that massive family planning programs will initiate fertility reduction. It’s as if human beings were mechanistic and “infinitely malleable,” such that their own desires have nothing to do with decisions on family size. Eberstadt says that argument was answered conclusively fifteen years ago in a study by a then-senior economist at the World Bank, Lant Princhett.

Writing in Population and Development Review, the leading journal in the field, Pritchett, now at Harvard, made the convincing case that desire is the key determinant of family size. That’s right. The key thing in determining family size is the decision of mommy and daddy. It’s not education. It’s not access to “modern methods of contraception.” It is desire.

Pritchett examined voluminous survey data from a number of different sources and concluded that “in countries where fertility is high, women want more children. ‘Excess’ or ‘unwanted’ fertility plays a minor role in explaining fertility differences. Moreover, the level of contraceptive use, measures of contraceptive availability…and family planning effort have little impact on fertility.”

Pritchett also punctured one theory of “unmet need,” which is defined extremely broadly: “in calculating ‘unmet need’ all women not wanting a child immediately who report not using contraception (even for reasons other than cost and availability – for example, infrequent sexual activity, dislike of side effects of contraception, or religious objections) are classified as ‘needing’ contraception.” Harvard’s Pritchett termed this definition “paternalistic.”

No matter what evidence of their effectiveness to the contrary, much of modern social policy is tied to contraceptives. It’s as if these pills, latex sheaths, needles, and the rest are modern totems and only they are able to ward off the bad juju.

No matter what the evidence – contraceptives do not determine family size, or contraceptives do not ward off HIV, or contraceptives do not stop unwanted pregnancies – one cannot question the great god Contraception. Even more, to be taken seriously, one is obligated to spread its gospel. Look at what happened to Benedict XVI when he suggested condoms might actually exacerbate the global AIDs crisis.

We know this though: one day this totem too shall fall. They all eventually do.

Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washington, D.C.-based Center for Family & Human Rights (C-Fam), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy. The opinions expressed here are Mr. Ruse’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of C-Fam.