Fatal Misconception

by Matthew Connelly

Belknap Press, 544 pages, $35

Unlike most young academics, who imagine that they spring full-grown from the brows of their faculty advisors, Matthew Connelly dedicates his book, “To my parents, for having so many children.” This is followed by the further revelation, in the first paragraph of his preface, that he is the youngest of eight children born to Catholic parents.

Reading all that, I imagined Fatal Misconception would be a no-holds-barred historical account of how the West imperialistically imposed population control, written by one who was at least a potential victim of its excesses. Connelly, however, eschews this approach. He dismisses as simplistic the notion that population control should be presented as a “global conspiracy” perpetrated by “white, wealthy elites . . . on the rest of the world.” Instead, he attempts to impose on the past a complex narrative, feminist in conception, that leads him to a fundamentally wrongheaded conclusion.

Certain radical feminist groups”the International Women’s Health Coalition, for example”have long argued that the Catholic Church, in opposing contraception, sterilization, and abortion, has been and remains an equally egregious violator of reproductive freedom. This is the view Connelly adopts, which is to say that he condemns both the state-enforced anti-natal efforts of the population controllers and the pro-natal, pro-family exhortations of the Catholic Church. Indeed, he glosses all efforts to influence human fertility, however violent or benign, as “population control projects,” sharing “the premise that societies should consciously reproduce themselves by design, even if that meant controlling how people disposed of their own bodies.”

Thus, one typical passage begins by chastising states that force contraceptives and abortions on their populations”and then asserts: “No less manipulative were those who denied hundreds of millions more people access to contraceptives and abortion because they wanted them to have more babies.”

It is easy to find examples of countries whose governments have resorted to heavy-handed sanctions to drive down the birthrate. Encouraged by the Population Council and the International Planned Parenthood Federation, funded by the U.N. Population Fund and the World Bank, and ultimately underwritten by the West, dozens of countries have run roughshod over the fundamental right of couples to decide for themselves the number and spacing of their children. China’s one-child policy is only the best known”and most vicious”of such programs.

But what in the world does Connelly mean when he repeats radical feminist claims that the Catholic Church “makes people breed”? By preaching from the pulpit and in the public square for the goods of marriage and children and (less frequently) against the practices of contraception, sterilization, and abortion, the Church does not deprive those listening of their reproductive freedom. The congregants are there presumably because they have freely chosen to submit themselves to such exhortations, not because they are involuntary participants in some kind of Maoist thought-control assembly. As for those outside the Church, they are outside the Church, free to ignore her teachings.

Even so, it is the pro-natal influence that the Church wields among her adherents that Connelly finds objectionable. Latin America has proved resistant to the legalization of abortion and state-driven sterilization campaigns because, he claims, “of transnational cooperation among clerical and lay Catholic elites. Because they were so effective in limiting access to birth control and abortion, this region continues to have some of the highest rates of unsafe abortion in the world.”

Abortion remains illegal in most of Latin America, however, not because of some dark Catholic conspiracy but because the majority of Catholics in these majority-Catholic countries desire legal protection for the unborn. What Connelly and other “abortion advocates” (as he thus identifies himself) are really objecting to, in other words, is democracy. The recent legalization of abortion in Colombia amply illustrates their disdain for majority opinion. It was accomplished not by the popular will but through the means of a lawsuit brought before that country’s Constitutional Court by a Colombian radical feminist working with an American abortion organization.

What about the claim that countries that protect the unborn have high abortion rates anyway? Parroted by Connelly, this has long been a staple of abortion activists. But it is no more true in Latin America today than it was when it was first advanced in the United States forty years ago. In the run-up to the Colombian abortion decision, activists stridently claimed that there were as many as 500,000 illegal abortions each year. But when I interviewed the Colombian vice minister of health six months later, when abortions were no longer illegal, she told me that only fifty had been reported. A movement that multiplies the numbers by a thousand does not lack chutzpah. One would expect a responsible historian to have a healthy suspicion of such highly charged and ideologically motivated claims.

Connelly is not far from the mark when he writes, “Those who wanted to control world population . . . were opposed by an even more formidable apparatus, the Roman Catholic Church, which rallied Christian and Muslim conservatives and answers only to God.” But he strays badly in asserting that there is any kind of moral or practical equivalence in efforts to influence fertility. How can one honestly equate the abortion machines and sterilization scalpels used by the state on its subjects with the moral suasion exercised by the Church over its voluntary adherents?

Unless, of course, one is ill-disposed toward the Church to begin with. I am reminded of those who, during the Cold War, saw no difference between the United States and the Soviet Union”that is, between tyranny and freedom; such was their hatred of their own country.

Connelly’s uncritical adoption of the radical feminist point of view leads him into other errors. Take the idea”central to the worldview of academic feminism”that ordinary housewives around the world are just as desperate for access to contraception, sterilization, and abortion as their swinging sisters in Manhattan and Hollywood. If true, this would suggest that, stripped of their coercive elements, fertility-reduction programs would not be a Western imposition but a welcome form of foreign aid.

This, in fact, is Connelly’s position. The reality, however, is that the “unmet need for contraception” in the developing world is a statistical fabrication drawn from skewed survey questions. If you ask women directly about their health needs, they speak of clean drinking water, antibiotics, malaria tablets”anything but “reproductive health” or “family planning.” In other words, they want treatment for the real diseases that plague their lives. And, unlike radical feminists, they do not consider pregnancy to be a disease.

Infected by these fevers of radical feminism, Connelly is no longer writing conventional history by the end of his book. Instead, he is deliriously recounting the glorious victory of the feminists at the 1994 Cairo conference on population and development, where they supposedly won a decisive victory over both the (male) population controllers and the (patriarchal) Catholic Church”and thereby ushered in a golden age of gentle and beneficent reproductive-health programs where everyone contracepts happily ever after. Let me quote his own words:

All over the world, the Cairo program came to represent a new era, both reflecting and reinforcing efforts to end population control once and for all. That same year a high-level advisory committee in India called for the abolition of all acceptor targets and a new focus on the quality of care. In China as well, new government plans and white papers emphasized increasing girls’ access to education, respecting the rule of law, and elevating individual rights. And in Bangladesh a new and comprehensive reproductive-health strategy based on the Cairo program helped reduce maternal mortality by almost 20 percent by 2000, saving thousands of women’s lives every year.

Women had finally won international recognition of the most basic fact of life: They had always been held responsible for reproducing society”by their families, by their governments, and even by a “world community” anxious about overpopulation. It was only right that they should be able to choose freely”free of manipulation and coercion, free of ignorance and prejudice, free of hunger and preventable disease . . . . Population control as a global movement was no more. The Cairo program constituted the instrument of surrender.


Was 1994 really the end for the population-control movement? Tell that to the women of Peru, who in the late 1990s saw 300,000 of their number sterilized in a nationwide campaign that was organized by the U.N. Population Fund, encouraged by USAID, and supported by China.

The women of India might have opinions as well, given that India’s population-control program has a long history of coercion. The states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, and Madhya Pradesh have in recent years barred those with more than two children from antipoverty programs, subsidies, and government jobs.

And do we really have to mention the women of China, large numbers of whom continue to be forcibly aborted and sterilized each year? If there is no “global movement,” why do the IPPF and the UNFPA continue to assist the Chinese government’s efforts, all the while loudly applauding the “progress” that country has made in controlling its population?

A more accurate view of what happened at Cairo was offered by James Grant of the U.N. Children’s Fund, who said simply, “Women and children are to be the Trojan Horse for dramatically slowing population growth.”

All this is not to say that Connelly’s Fatal Misconception is devoid of interest. For example, his research reveals the bogus statistics on the economic value of children that were used to convince President Lyndon Johnson to support the population project. This dismal calculus purported to show that the birth of each child in the developing world lowered a country’s gross national product by several hundred dollars.

Such nuggets, however, are spoiled by his relentless determination to demonize the Catholic Church and to concoct a neat and altogether premature conclusion to what is in fact a widespread and ongoing assault on human rights. This is all unfortunate, for Connelly is obviously no fan of the population-control movement. At the outset of the book, he sharply criticizes those who “diagnosed political problems as pathologies that had a biological basis. At its most extreme, this logic has led to sterilization of the ‘unfit’ or ethnic cleansing. But even family planning could be a form of population control when proponents aimed to plan other people’s families, demeaning those ‘targeted’ as ‘acceptors,’ including tens of millions of poor people who were paid money to agree to sterilization.”

If Connelly had simply followed this line of investigation, Fatal Misconception would have been a book worth reading. As it is, it suffers from the defect that its title suggests.


Steven W. Mosher is president of the Population Research Institute and author of Population Control: Real Costs and Illusory Benefits.