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10 Reasons to Rethink Overpopulation

by the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College


A central requirement for reproductive justice is not only for women to have the right not to have children, but to also exercise the right to have children. Women have been denied this right through population control programs that care more about reducing birth rates than empowering women to have control over their reproductive health and rights. The ideology that informed the programs has not gone away, and below are ten reasons why rethinking overpopulation is vital to creating the global understanding and solidarity needed to advance women's reproductive and sexual rights.


1. The population 'explosion' is over. Although world population is still growing and is expected to reach 9 billion by the year 2050, the era of rapid growth is over. With increasing education, urbanization, and women's work outside the home, birth rates have fallen in almost every part of the world and now average 2.7 births per woman.

2. The focus on population masks the complex causes of poverty and inequality. A narrow focus on human numbers obscures the way different economic and political systems operate to perpetuate poverty and inequality. It places the blame on the people with the least amount of resources and power rather than on corrupt governments and rich elites.

3. Hunger is not the result of 'too many mouths' to feed. Global food production has consistently outpaced population growth. People go hungry because they do not have the land on which to grow food or the money with which to buy it.

4. Population growth is not the driving force behind environmental degradation. Blaming environmental degradation on overpopulation lets the real culprits off the hook. The richest fifth of the world's people consume 66 times as many resources as the poorest fifth. The U.S., with a low fertility rate, is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases responsible for global warming.

5. Population pressure is not a root cause of political insecurity and conflict.Especially since 9/11, conflict in the Middle East has been linked to a 'youth bulge' of too many young men whose numbers supposedly make them prone to violence. Blaming population pressure for instability takes the onus off powerful actors and political choices.

6. Population control targets women's fertility and restricts reproductive rights. All women should have access to high quality, voluntary reproductive health services, including safe birth control and abortion. In contrast, population control programs try to drive down birth rates through coercive social policies and the aggressive promotion of sterilization or long-acting contraceptives that can threaten women's health.

7. Population control programs have a negative effect on basic health care. Under pressure from international population agencies, many poor countries made population control a higher priority than primary health care from the 1970s on. Reducing fertility was considered more important than preventing and treating debilitating diseases like malaria, improving maternal and child health, and addressing malnutrition.

8. Population alarmism encourages apocalyptic thinking that legitimizes human rights abuses. Dire predictions of population-induced mass famine and environmental collapse have long been popular in the U.S. Population funding appeals still play on such fears even though they have not been borne out in reality. This sense of emergency leads to an elitist moral relativism, in which 'we' know best and 'our' rights are more worthy than 'theirs.'


9. Threatening images of overpopulation reinforce racial and ethnic stereotypes and scapegoat immigrants and other vulnerable communities. Negative media images of starving African babies, poor, pregnant women of color, and hordes of dangerous Third World men drive home the message that 'those people' outnumber 'us.' Fear of overpopulation in the Third World often translates into fear of increasing immigration to the West, and thereby people of color becoming the majority.


10. Conventional views of overpopulation stand in the way of greater global understanding and solidarity. Fears of overpopulation are deeply divisive and harmful. In order to protect and advance reproductive rights in a hostile climate, we urgently need to work together across borders of gender, race, class and nationality. Rethinking population helps open the way.


For more information:


The Committee on Women, Population and the Environment -

Population in Perspective: A Curriculum Resource -

Babies, Burdens and Threats: Current Faces of Population Control -

The Corner House -

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