“Victory Beyond Sims” is an 18-foot high Black angel. In one hand, she holds a caduceus, the symbol of medicine, and in the other, she raises an open flame, representing sacrifice and enlightenment. Twelve women gaze out from under her skirts. They depict formerly enslaved women who were subjected to unethical and forced experimentation without painkillers by Dr. J. Marion Sims, troublingly known as the “father of gynecology.” The New York City Parks Department erected a statue in his honor in 1894; it came down in April 2018 following a community reckoning with Sim’s legacy of violence and violation. “Victory” will replace it.
The new statue is an inspiring example of how to acknowledge past reproductive harms and their legacies today. It also invites us to examine an ideology and related set of practices that have driven historic and contemporary reproductive injustices: population control. For decades, funders and policymakers have utilized the concept of “unsustainable” population growth in Black and Brown communities to justify population control policy and programming. Foundations in particular have a complicated legacy of supporting family planning programs focused on reducing fertility. This legacy continues today in debates about the use of numeric targets to incentivize contraceptive uptake, as well as the worrying contemporary push for “family planning for the planet,” which falsely equates fertility with biodiversity loss, increased greenhouse gas emissions, and environmental collapse.
Following the Supreme Court’s recent Dobbs decision, the US, the largest funder of reproductive health programming globally, stands to adopt some of the most restrictive reproductive health policies in the world. While restrictions on abortion access may seem to fly in the face of population control, they are related drivers of reproductive injustices. In this context, funders have good reason to champion an examination of the history of population control and support a reimagining that centers reproductive justice and enables cross-movement advocacy.
Toward More Just Funding Models
Decades of international activism, which resists population control as an issue of a gender, race, and class injustice, demonstrate how this reckoning can take place. In particular, feminist activists offer us a framework for fighting structural injustices that perpetuate inequality, environmental degradation and violence—while upholding reproductive health. For instance, the International Campaign on Abortion, Sterilization and Contraception (ICASC), founded in 1978, described reproductive rights as a “women’s right to decide whether, when and how to have children—regardless of nationality, class, race, age, religion, disability, sexuality or marital status—in the social, economic, and political conditions that make such decisions possible.”
Other groups—like the Global South-based Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN) and the US-based Committee on Women, Population, and the Environment (CWPE)—have offered feminist understandings of the relationship between population and the environment, rejecting the idea that fertility is to blame for environmental ills. The reproductive justice framework, originally theorized by 12 Black women and expanded by multi-racial activists and scholars, grounds today’s resistance to population control ideology and practices in Black feminist thought, which highlights the intersectionality of systems of oppression and calls on activists to center those most impacted by reproductive injustice.
For funders to fully embrace and support the reproductive justice movement, they must address past harms caused by promoting population control, and their grantmaking practices and priorities must center those communities most impacted by reproductive oppression—the very communities targeted as the supposed “over” in “overpopulation.”
Part 1: The Past and Present of Population Control
Naming the past harms of population control and their presence in today’s programming and policies requires us to:
- Acknowledge the harm caused by eugenics and population control. Eugenics is a political ideology, upheld by patriarchal, white supremacist science, which claims that selective procreation will produce a more evolved human race. One of its principal tools, involuntary sterilization, was practiced throughout much of the 20th century. Beginning in the 1940s, sterilization also became a primary tool with which to stem supposedly out-of-control population growth. Many family planning approaches were rooted in neo-Malthusian ideology, according to which rapid population growth impedes economic development and depletes the environment. Neo-Malthusians, like eugenicists, embraced racist, classist, and ableist assumptions about who was fit to reproduce. In turn, they sought to decrease the global population and targeted the fertility of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities, and people with disabilities. Population control, like eugenics, was weighted with assumptions about who was fit to reproduce and whose reproduction was a threat to the social order.
Recent reckonings with eugenics provide a roadmap for how to start naming and repairing a harmful past. The 2021 Dismantling Eugenics convening brought together philanthropists, artists, scholar activists, and grassroots organizers in an event that “reckons with the history of eugenics; lifts up the grassroots movements working to counteract the oppressive legal and social structures that still further eugenicist ideals today; and offers space to envision and work towards an anti-eugenics future.” Foundations including Ford, MacArthur, and Rockefeller have initiated conversations about how to address their foundations’ past investments in eugenics and inform today’s giving.
Another powerful example, driven by social justice activism, is California’s 2022 Forced Sterilization Compensation Program, which makes women who were sterilized under the state’s 1909-1979 eugenics law eligible for compensation, along with women sterilized in prisons and correctional facilities after 1979.
- Acknowledge the realities of present-day population control and eugenics. The 1994 International Conference on Population and Development conference, an official United Nations gathering of governmental policy-makers and others, marked a significant move forward for reproductive health programs and policy by recognizing sexual and reproductive health and rights and women’s empowerment as goals, but it did not dispel or uproot ideas about population control.
Engaging with feminist thinking could help us collectively grapple with population control today. For instance, “populationism” examines how, among other things, population control manifests in restrictive migration policies. Feminist thinking has also interrogated international family planning efforts that prioritize long-acting reversible contraception dissemination over comprehensive services from a reproductive justice perspective. The US nonprofit, Project South, with a multi-racial collaboration of feminist scholars, grassroots organizers, healers, and health practitioners, drafted a statement against the forced sterilization of women held in the Irwin County Detention Center, a corporate-run ICE prison in Georgia. The statement links such violence to other systematic oppressions, including medical racism and incarceration.
Groups like Sama: Resource Group for Women and Health in India, Decolonising Contraception in the UK, the Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights (WGNRR), based in the Philippines, and Challenging Population Control in the US, work with a number of individuals to research, track, and challenge population control programs and messaging today. Enabling the work of these entities is key to understanding the current impact of population control ideology and envisioning futures beyond population control.
- Acknowledge the political frameworks and “problem-solving” justifications that sustain population control ideology. In recent years, “win-win” approaches articulated in donor, development, conservation, and climate change spaces position Black and Brown women as stewards of progress, who when empowered with access to modern contraceptives have the potential to improve environments and economies alike. Despite their popularity, such “win-win” approaches run the risk of instrumentalizing fertility.
There is significant harm in disproportionately placing the ills of the world on the bodies and fertility of Black and Brown women. Feminist researchers have long argued against the risk of “…framing birth control as a cost-reducing and problem-solving measure.” Overstated claims that contraception uptake drives poverty reduction too often echo the eugenic warnings of the costs of burdensome human reproduction on taxpayers, yet such claims have appeared in op-eds and policy rationales and are repeated by some in philanthropy and by the contraception advocates they support. Similarly, public health experts promote long-acting reversible contraceptives as a tool with which to reduce medical and social service costs associated with adolescent pregnancy. Singling out economically disadvantaged young people for contraceptives can perpetuate stigma and discrimination in reproductive health policy and services.
We must reject overly simplistic and often damaging ideas about the relationship between environments, economies, and population. For example, the Union of Concerned Scientists, a US nonprofit organization, once issued a warning to humanity about the dire consequences of population growth. It now offers evidence-based commentary debunking the idea that population drives climate change and causes food insecurity.
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Part 2: Futures Beyond Population Control
As we envision reproductive justice beyond population control, we should look to and uplift Global South and BIPOC leaders who work at the intersections of social justice issues in the following ways:
- Fund reproductive justice and the radical visions of feminists of color. Globally, feminist leaders have long been at the forefront of challenging population control. In addition to naming harmful practices and policies, these feminists have framed and articulated antidotes to pressing reproductive health issues, working at the intersections of prison abolition and reproductive health, nuancing the dialogue between climate and population, and challenging market-driven approaches to contraceptive distribution in the Global South.
Yet, despite their oversized contributions, BIPOC organizers and their organizations remain significantly underfunded. In the US, only eight percent of foundation dollars go to organizations run by people of color. Globally, those at the frontlines of reproductive justice, mainly women’s rights organizations, receive one percent of all gender equity funding. All the while, the very groups that have historically obscured the intersectionality of the reproductive justice movement are appropriating the language that BIPOC and Global South feminists created to give voice to the ways intersecting systems restrict reproductive freedoms.
Rethinking which ideas, approaches, organizations, and leaders get funded requires challenging long-standing ideas of progress, empowerment, and development—in the process reimagining whose visions of change we trust.
- Break down siloed funding. Reckoning with population control creates an opportunity to explore how reproductive health funding has been historically conceptualized and delivered—mainly as an issue in and of itself, ignoring the broader racialized and gendered political contexts within which people navigate access to care. What’s more, reproductive health funding has historically been short term and restricted, with few opportunities for organizers and organizations to name, prioritize, and resource the approaches, systems, and structures necessary to their work. Although the need to prioritize reproductive health funding is undeniable, reproductive health cannot be understood or effectively addressed in isolation of the systems that contribute to inequality, including entrenched racism and patriarchy and Western-driven economic development politics.
Reimagining grantmaking calls for community informed, long-term, and trust-based funding. It requires rethinking funding practices that fragment resources across issue areas. It asks of funders to co-create long horizons and match the long-term visions for systems change that reproductive, climate, economic, and disability justice movements hold. The root causes that communities are working to solve are systemic, complex, and deeply integrated. Funding should therefore be systems focused and adaptive and promote integration across funder-created silos.
- Do not cede social justice language and values. The language of social justice is consistently misused to uphold population control ideology. For instance, population control proponents have appropriated the language of social justice to break from the “dark past” of population control while continuing their campaigns for population reduction as a planetary imperative.
Meanwhile, the Far Right utilizes eugenics language to restrict bodily autonomy. The Dobbs decision evokes anti-abortion conspiracy about abortion as Black genocide, an idea that has historically found voice in both Black communities and Far Right rhetoric. This is in line with conservative propaganda that claims that abortion, and sometimes birth control, are modern day eugenics, despite evidence to the contrary. This strategy—claiming to preserve bodily autonomy while restricting it—is an old one. Funders can play a role in ensuring that such messaging campaigns do not gain traction by supporting the work of reproductive justice leaders.
- Reimagine the measurements of success. We also must look at how power plays out in reproductive health research and evaluation: What constitutes evidence? How is success defined and measured? Who sets research agendas and defines research questions? Who determines approaches and methodologies?
Since the 19th century, largely Western researchers and demographers have conceptualized “new methods of data collection, measurement, and evaluation, as well as analyses to offer evidence to shape and influence population policies and priorities globally.” Many of these measures are rooted in eugenics and population control.
We need to interrogate how we measure and understand population dynamics and success in family planning, including key metrics, such as “unmet need,” a measure used by governments and donors alike to track the need for modern contraception. As public health experts Leigh Senderowicz and Nicole Maloney argue, “by assigning an unmet need to women who report no such need themselves, the family planning community discounts their agency and perpetuates colonialist narratives of disempowered women, primarily in the Global South.” As such, concepts like “unmet need” deserve reconsideration, particularly when evoked in support of long-acting reversible contraception uptake by people living in poverty.
As funders and reproductive health advocates move toward more justice-centered frameworks, there is value in aligning metrics with objectives. For decades, BIPOC feminist researchers have led efforts to center liberatory research methodologies that “inherently challenge mainstream constructions of knowledge, ideologies, and interpretations of the world.” Funders can invest in those voices that are critically evaluating status quo metrics.
Part 3: Alternative Pathways
Imagining a future beyond population control requires supporting community-named solutions that decenter fertility reduction from global problem solving. We offer the table below as an important starting place, a tool to weigh standard practice against more transformative approaches, and an opportunity to rethink program, policy, and funding priorities.
|Dominant Approaches||Transformative Feminist Approaches|
|Moves forward from eugenics and population control as a thing of the past with little bearing on today’s grantmaking practices.||Acknowledges the history and current harms of eugenics and population control. Works to identify collective solutions.|
|Promotes contraception use as a win-win-win for women’s empowerment, economic growth, and environmental sustainability.||Works to decouple fertility from ideas about progress and development and understands the dangers of instrumentalizing BIPOC fertility to achieve other aims.|
|Privileges top-down, technocratic solutions to family planning delivery, resourcing largely US and European institutions.||Finds new pathways for resourcing community-centered reproductive healthcare. Moves resources to BIPOC- and women-led organizations that are at the frontlines of reproductive justice work.|
|Funds in siloes. Resources are often issue specific, short term, and restricted.||Advances long-term partnerships, cross-movement collaboration, and opportunities to co-create with the communities most impacted by reproductive oppression.|
|Appropriates the language, frameworks, and ideas seeded by BIPOC and Global South feminists to uphold population control practice.||Acknowledges, integrates, and resources the language, frameworks, and ideas articulated by BIPOC and Global South feminists.|
|Prioritizes positivist approaches to research that advantage Western metrics, data collection, demographic theory, and evaluation approaches. Elevates an elite group of researchers as experts who are often white and from the Global North.||Reimagines knowledge production to integrate race- and gender-conscious methodologies. Centers the contributions of past and current feminist thinkers and reproductive justice activists.|
Raising “Victory Beyond Sims” is a compelling allegory for restorative reproductive justice. The public art reframes a story of reproductive oppression around survivors. It reminds us to let histories of injustice and resistance inform our present and futures. It teaches us not just to dismantle injustice, but to build visions for justice.
As we face today’s hazardous reproductive politics, we need Victory at our backs. A reckoning with population control will not only begin to address past harms but help us to promote transformative feminist approaches that counter today’s legacies of population control. It will aid us in building meaningful alliances to address the challenges of climate change and authoritarianism while collectively uprooting population control and upholding reproductive justice.
The authors would like to acknowledge Betsy Hartmann, Solome Lemma, and Cara Page for their thoughtful revisions of this paper.