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Misplaced Concerns: The Union of Concerned Scientists advise on population

The Union of Concerned Scientists, (UCS) ( exists, in its own eyes at least, to advance “responsible public policies in areas where science and technology play a critical role,” By itself this seems a worthy and applaudable goal. Properly prepared, such advice might be very good indeed. If based on poor or deficient data, however — as the Union’s population policies are — the results can be truly horrid.

The UCS website is an interesting mix of the entertaining and the “lightly” scholarly. Bright colors, an attractive design and thumbnail-icon graphics make it a place one feels invited to enter. They also serve to distract the visitor from noticing the absence of footnotes for any assertions. The Union approaches population issues from an almost exclusively environmental perspective, which becomes obvious when one notices population is grouped under the broad field of “Global Resources,” sharing slots with topics like ‘biodiversity,” “climate change,” and “ozone depletion.”

From the very beginning, UCS eschews specifics about population problems and issues — not at all surprising since there are so few of them1 — in favor of banal generalities and outdated nostrums which pass for environmental gospel in many parts of the “concerned” world. For example, visitors to the UCS site are told that the Union’s Global Resource Program “seeks ways to help humans live within the limits of the earth’s natural resources while ensuring an adequate standard of living for all people.” But nowhere within the site can a visitor discern where the limits of the earth’s resources might lie or what an “adequate” standard of living might be. Indeed, the term “adequate” is offered without an explanation or further comment. Adequate where, and by whose judgment? Surely UCS must realize how differently a Manhattan socialite, Native American grandmother and Polish factory worker might understand the question of “adequate” standard of living.

Partially Correct

But the UCS does not always address the issue quite so badly. Under the heading of “Understanding the Population/Environment Connection,” for example, UCS correctly notes that the relationships between population growth and environmental change are “complex,” but then in the very next sentence declares that population growth “clearly plays an important role in a wide variety of environmental problems.”

Complexity and clarity do not share usually the same table — except in discussions of population questions when common-sense understanding of words and data tends to disappear.

Similar simplistic thinking can be detected in the bald statements about the need to “empower women” in order to make sure fertility rates decline “rapidly.” Here, the Union assumes that large numbers of “empowered” women will surely choose to have fewer children. Why should this necessarily be so?

Then there is the following statement, so inaccurate it almost leaps from the computer screen: “Eighty percent of all funds used for family planning in developing countries come from developing country governments and consumers; donor countries provide the remaining 20 percent.”

However, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFP) reports that global contributions to population control programs totaled $800 million dollars in 1992.2 For the UCS statement to be accurate at face value, developing countries would have to provide $3.2 billion worth of population control money — a figure which far exceeds impoverished nations’ ability to pay.

Even the most ardent population control apologists will admit that contraceptives are often priced outside the ability of many in the world to pay. Rudolfo Bulatao, senior demographer with the Population and Human Resources Department of the World Bank, a population control enthusiast, estimates that the cost of contraception in many countries runs to more than 5% of the average person’s yearly income.3 The assertion that developing countries provide 80% of the means of denying their own fertility is simply wrong. The money and materials come from outside these nations, from the coffers of the dying First World.

To be fair, this is about the worst of UCS’s sins of commission. The site seems to share in science’s axiomatic reluctance to leap to unfounded conclusions. Where the UCS really sins against providing sound information is in what it chooses not to say.

These errors of omission fall into three categories:

  1. a complete silence on the growing issue of violent and abusive human rights violations endemic to population control efforts;

  2. an apparent ignorance about the role of economic imperialism in formulating allegedly humanitarian population control policies;

  3. a failure to mention the role specific human actions — unrelated to population — have played in creating conditions so often blamed on “overpopulation.”

Human rights abuses

The systematic and violent abuse of human rights in the name of “population control” is one of the world community’s greatest scandals. Abuses cataloged in the People’s Republic of China alone fill books numbering in the hundreds of pages,4 and thousands of refugees have fled abroad to avoid coerced abortion and sterilization.5 Similar abuses, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale, are happening in many other countries as well.

The list of abuses is long: sex selective abortions, infanticide, forced IUD insertions, forced sterilizations, fertility “round-ups” at gunpoint, sterilizations of both husbands and wives to till quotas, abortions of all children over a certain number, limiting of rights of parents who have more than two children, forced sterilization of parents who adopt abandoned babies, widespread abandonment and starvation of little girls, forced participation in contraceptive programs, government licensing requirements for pregnancy, imprisonment and fines for those who become pregnant without permission, abortion at all stages of pregnancy and under the most unsanitary of conditions and, as a result, maternal death.6

If UCS had this data — and it is readily available to those who seek it — would it still believe such programs “empower women?”

To put it another way: Is a woman who is forced against her will to undergo sterilization “empowered” or is she violated?

Are parents “empowered” when the coercive power of the state prevents them from having the number of children they desire?

Indeed, one lesson from our experience of population control should be obvious; widespread programs to promote infertility empower bureaucrats — not women. But a visitor who relied primarily upon UCS for information on this issue would never learn of any of this because it is simply not mentioned.

Economic imperialism

A similar, though more complex, ignorance about the roles of developed and developing nations also characterizes the UCS approach to the economic roots of population control. At one point, the Union asserts, correctly, that though developed nations have lower rates of population growth — indeed at least 13 in Europe are in population decline7 — they consume a greater per-capita percentage of the world’s resources. But UCS fails to mention that maintaining easy and affordable access to those resources is precisely why the United States embarked on many of its population control efforts in the first place.

On 10 December 1974 the National Security Council, during the first days of the Ford Administration, finalized a National Security Study Memorandum (NSSM 200) which advised adopting at policy of worldwide population control. U.S. officials were concerned that people in Third World nations might be a threat to U.S. access to important resources. Among the tactics the paper discusses are the use of food aid to coerce population control efforts and the possible development of “mandatory programs” if the more voluntary ones did not work.8

“The U.S. economy will require large and increasing amounts of minerals from abroad, especially from less developed countries. That fact gives the U.S. enhanced interest in the political, economic, and social stability of the supplying countries. Wherever a lessening of the population pressures through reduced birth rates can increase the prospects of such stability, population policy becomes relevant to resource supplies and to the economic interests of the United States.”9

Of course there was always the chance that some of the developing countries might figure out why things like food aid and other economic assistance were always tied to population control, so diplomatic strategists had to formulate a story to cover their tracks:

“The U.S. can help to minimize charges of an imperialist movement behind its support of population activities by repeatedly asserting that such support derives from a concern with a) the right of the individual to determine freely and responsibly their number and spacing of children… and b) the fundamental social and economic development of poor countries.” 10

So, essentially, one reason the people of China, Mexico, India, Bangladesh, and other countries worldwide have been brutalized by a war on their own fertility is so that the United States can be sure of having affordable access to the very resources whose heavy use the UCS decries, The Union of Concerned Scientists seems unaware of the neo-colonial motives driving U.S. population policy.

Hunger and population

The last UCS omission comes in the discussion of hunger and of the role of human failure creating or alleviating human hunger and famine. Here, as in other places, UCS starts out on a strong foot with the observation that hunger is not specifically tied to population growth, but then tilts off target in stating that population growth will be a “more critical determinant” in future famine and hunger problems. The Union fails to take into account the use of famine to gain an advantage over one’s enemy, a tactic which has been employed in a great proportion of this century’s armed conflicts. Indeed, international aid organizations like the International Red Cross understand: “Most famines, especially those which kill, occur during armed conflicts. There is a very simple explanation: apart from those climatic and environmental factors which generally give rise to famines, the loss of access to food resources is generally the result of intentional acts.”11


The “truths” most often called upon to justify widespread, intrusive and increasingly abusive population control programs are rarely challenged. The most inane ideas, if preached at length, to enough people, and with sufficient vigor will eventually take root and spread. The notion that there is something called “overpopulation” is one of these.

No matter how widespread an incorrect idea might be, an organization of scientists — people whose job it to test hypothesis, taking nothing at face value — should provide more than just “conventional wisdom.” The Union of Concerned Scientists could better express its concern in this area by researching population and development more fully before presuming to offer policy suggestions. —PRI—


1 Steve Mosher “The cat that refused to die,” Population Research institute Review; November/December 1995.

2 Global Population Assistant Report 1982-1991, United Nations Population Fund, 1992.

3 The Nine Lives of Population Control, Ethics and Public Policy Center, p. 89-90.

4 Death By Default, Human Rights Watch Asia 1995.

5 David Morrison, “Over two years later, Chinese venture is anything but golden,” Population Research Institute Review, November/December 1995.

6 Individual citations are too numerous to list here and can be found widely in issues of Population Research Institute Review, as A Mother’s Ordeal and Broken Earth, both by Steve Mosher. Similar reports are available from Human Rights Watch

7 James A. Miller, “Europe is Dying Out” Population Research institute Review; September/October 1995, p. 11

8 National Security Study Memorandum 200 (NSSM 200), National Security Council, p. 119- 120.

9 Ibid., p. 43.

10 Ibid., p. 115.

11 “Famine and War” International Journal of the Red Cross, no. 285, September 1991.

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