The return of population control: Incentives, targets, and the backlash against Cairo

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Worldwide political upheaval, financial crisis, and urgency around climate change inspire hope for radical change and reform in some, while others see an opportunity for a return to the old days of coercive population policies.

In the latest issue of DifferenTakes,  longtime international women’s health activist Betsy Hartmann, author of Reproductive Rights and Wrongs, calls on the reproductive health community to stand strong against incentive programs in family planning, long proven to be harmful to women and to the cause of reproductive freedom.


The Cairo Plan of Action, endorsed by most of the world’s governments, came out against the use of coercion and incentives and disincentives in family planning programs and instead called for the provision of broader, voluntary reproductive health services. …

The reconsideration of incentives reflects a backlash against the Cairo reforms. For the more hardline proponents of population control, driving birth rates down still remains a higher priority than providing a broad array of reproductive health services or empowering women. The Cairo approach is too slow for their certainty that population growth is a primary cause of social and environmental ills. These proponents want immediate, quantifiable results, especially in countries where birth rates remain relatively high —such as those in sub-Saharan Africa.

USAID funds a diversity of programs, some more attentive to reproductive health and rights than others. The current foray into incentives may well represent an attempt by population hardliners within the agency to gain the upper hand over feminist reformers. …

Elites in many countries are looking for scapegoats for the financial crisis, climate change, and widespread political upheaval. In the media, as well as many policy circles, blaming ‘overpopulation,’ and hence the fertility of poor women, especially women of color, is back in vogue. …

Neoliberalism’s vicious assault on social welfare has also intensified the view of poor people as unworthy burdens on the state, economy and society. The political mood is turning toward a re-embrace of population control.

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