How Birth Control Begot Abortion
Last fall, we were inundated with warnings as the 6 billionth person was born — and reminded again and again that the gospel of family planning needs to be spread now more than ever. By the end of the year, both the United Nations and the U.S. Census Bureau had issued reports on population growth during the past century, suggesting that the warning had been mostly hype. Indeed, the Census Bureau predicts a serious population decline in the coming few decades, the result of falling birthrates — in large part courtesy of a well-funded, organized family-planning movement. As St. Louis University history professor Donald Critchlow documents in Intended Consequences, apocalyptic warnings about the menace of a booming population are old hat; in fact, it's been a full-time business since the end of World War II.
Critchlow's narrative history tells the story of “a small group of men and women, numbering only a few hundred, [who] set the context of the debate.” Some of the early players are familiar: the Population Council, under the watchful eye of John D. Rockefeller III; the Ford Foundation; Hugh Moore, founder of Dixie Cup Corp. and author of the 1954 Population Explosion; and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, under Alan Guttmacher and, of course, Margaret Sanger. But the family-planning movement of 1946 wore a much different face than it does today — the Patricia Irelands of the world might only faintly recognize their roots.
Critchlow shatters the myth that the modern family-planning revolution was a feminist baby. As he explains, all brought their own concerns to the table: birth-controllers, eugenicists and population controllers came together to sell their common message. In the movement's infancy, many were even indifferent to women's rights. As he points out, “the primary impetus for federal family-planning policy came initially from those who believed that overpopulation threatened political, economic, and social stability in the United States and the world.” This new ideology, Critchlow reminds us, was to be a solution to all of our social ills: poverty, welfare dependency, and outof-wedlock births.
It didn't hurt that the movement players knew Washington. President Dwight Eisenhower became the first president to openly endorse a federally funded family-planning measure, supporting financial assistance for family-planning programs in underdeveloped nations through military-assistance programs. The U.S. Catholic bishops, however, kept it from happening during his administration. President John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, avoided becoming the first, although he entertained family-planning advocacy throughout his administration. A National Institutes of Health report issued in 1962 called for more research on “the physiology and control of human reproduction” and warned the Catholic Church that its opposition to birth control was a losing battle.
Fewer babies were supposed to cure poverty, welfare dependency and single-parent homes.
The real political manna, however, came with the Great Society. But Critchlow won't let the reader walk away thinking President Lyndon B. Johnson deserves the bulk of the blame. As he documents, Congress was a willing accomplice. In fact, in 1967 Rep. George Bush of Texas helped clear the path for federal funding of family-planning programs through state agencies and private organizations like Planned Parenthood with an amendment to the Social Security Act.
And so, Intended Consequences reminds the reader that this was never a specifically liberal or Democratic project. Elected on a GOP platform that stated, “the worldwide population explosion in particular with its attendant grave problems looms as a menace to all mankind and will have our priority attention,” Republican President Richard Nixon, it might be said, sealed the deal. The 1970 Family Planning Services and Population Research Act further institutionalized federal population control, increasing funding and creating two new agencies. By the time Nixon distanced himself from the issue in 1973, as part of a “Catholic Strategy,” enough damage had been done — policywise, in the courts and culturally. And Roe v. Wade promised another legal form of birth control for a long time to come.
Critchlow's point, as the title suggests, is that the family-planning revolution was intentional and successful; its leaders and adherents got just what they intended. “As more Americans began to use artificial contraception as a means of limiting family size and spacing children, it became easier to persuade them that the poor deserved the same right to control the size of their families,” he writes. The movement wanted widespread use of artificial contraception. Done. By 1990, 50% of couples worldwide used contraceptives. In the United States, artificial contraception and sterilization are the methods of choice for 80% of couples. Abortion wasn't a goal for most of the early planners, but, as state legislatures liberalized their abortion laws, the issue became a plank of the movement. Although all their policies were cemented in, none of them did what they were supposed to do — “reduce the number of people living in poverty or the number of out-of-wedlock births.”
Critchlow's history is valuable and useful to those on the front lines of the pro-life movement today, though it's far from flawless, as revealed in a libel suit filed by Pro-Life Action League founder Joseph Scheidler. According to Critchlow, Scheidler “has advocated violence as a political strategy”; Intended Consequences counts him among a “dissident minority of anti-abortion extremists [who] turned to violence” in the 1980s. The opposite is true. Scheidler, who has reportedly praised the book otherwise, filed the suit against Oxford University Press in January.
While his coverage of the pro-life movement may leave something to be desired, his study, made possible by exclusive access to papers of population-control pioneers — the Population Council, John D. Rockefeller III's papers and other previously untouched archives — makes Intended Consequences an unprecedented reference work, providing the important function of documenting just how we got to be where we are today.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is associate editor of National Review.
- March 19-25, 2000