Population Control

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Population Control


Concern over uncontrolled population growth already existed in ancient times when scholarly discussion of population issues and evidence of efforts to control family size were recorded in Greece, China, and some other areas (Potts 2003; Zhao 2006). The advocacy for population control has grown notably since the eighteenth century, when population growth began accelerating in many parts of the world.

Population control has been promoted mainly because of the following considerations: To prevent a fall in living standards and the consequences of such a fall, population growth should not outstrip the growth of subsistence. The growth of the population needs to be contained within the biophysical carrying capacity of the earth, otherwise it will lead to overexploitation of natural resources, greatly damaging the ecosystem. In addition to such economic and environmental concerns, promotion of population control also reflects peoples varying views of social reform and is regarded as an important step toward enhancing the health of women and their families, protecting peoples reproductive choices, and improving sexual expression for both sexes through freedom from fear of pregnancy. In the early stages of its development, population control was also closely connected to the spread of social Darwinist ideas and the eugenics movement.

Population control can be achieved through various means, including those labeled by Thomas Malthus (17661834) as positive checks, such as war, famine, disease, and infanticide, that increase death rates (Malthus [1803] 1989). The most significant development in recent human history, however, has been the family-planning or birth-control movement, which is the focus of the remainder of this entry.

The family-planning movement began in Europe. Increasing use of contraception (mainly coitus interruptus and the sponge) was first observed in France in the eighteenth century. Ideas and knowledge of birth control spread in Europe (in Britain in particular) and the United States in the nineteenth century when a number of publications about family planning were widely circulated. The first family-planning clinic was established in the Netherlands in the 1880s. During the next few decades, the number of family-planning clinics and organizations promoting birth control grew markedly in Europe and North America. Because of widespread family planning, fertility had already fallen to a very low level in some populations by the early twentieth century.

Significant political and socioeconomic changes took place in many countries after World War II (19391945). The baby boom and rapid mortality decline together led to unprecedented population growth, which further stimulated the development of the family-planning movement. Between the 1950s and 1970s, an increasing number of countries began offering family-planning services. The financial and technical assistance provided by developed countries and international organizations greatly helped family planning in less-developed countries. Modern and easy-to-use contraceptives, such as the intrauterine contraceptive device and the birth control pill, became widely available and provided women with greater choice. By the mid-1980s, family-planning programs flourished worldwide. Forty percent of national governments regarded fertility in their countries as too high, 32 percent had official policies to reduce fertility, and 86 percent directly or indirectly supported access to contraception (Tsui 2001). In the first decade of the twenty-first century, world contraceptive prevalence rates exceeded 60 percent among women of reproductive age (United Nations 2006).

It is nonetheless noteworthy that different views toward family planning and population control could be found throughout the twentieth century. For example, concern over low fertility and depopulation already existed in France and some other Western countries in the 1920s, and this concern had grown by the end of the century. In less-developed countriesespecially those with relatively low population densitiesenvironmental degradation, poverty, and many other social problems are regarded by some as the result of inequality in the distribution of power and wealth, rather than the outcome of uncontrolled population growth (Hodgson 2003). It is also argued that increasing population density could stimulate economic growth, rather than constrain it (Boserup 1965; Simon 1996).

Although family-planning programs exist in both developed and less-developed countries, there are noticeable differences between them. In most developed countries, family planning started in the nineteenth century or early twentieth century. It was largely a private and philanthropic enterprise and primarily for the purpose of granting individuals, especially women, control over their own reproduction. Programs were organized and executed mostly by voluntary family-planning associations, and governments played no part in this great social-demographic change. The early reduction of fertility was achieved largely through the use of traditional contraceptive methods. In less-developed countries, by contrast, family planning began mainly in the second half of the twentieth century. Rapid population growth in these countries was often seen as a constraint upon socioeconomic development. Family planning was adopted as an official policy to release such pressure, and was directly organized and financed by the government. In some countries, incentive and disincentive (sometimes coercive) measures were employed to induce people to regulate their reproduction. The role of modern contraceptive methods in controlling fertility was crucial in these programs.

Chinas family-planning program is one such example. Although family planning was promoted in some Chinese cities in the first half of the twentieth century and then again in the 1950s, Chinas nationwide family-planning program did not start until the early 1970s when its population reached more than 800 million. Facing this pressure, the later-longer-fewer policies (which encouraged people to postpone marriage and childbirth to older ages, to prolong birth intervals, and to reduce family size to one or two children) were formed and implemented through a nationwide family-planning network. Even though a great reduction in fertility was achieved between 1970 and 1978, the Chinese government further tightened its birth-control policies in 1979. In cities and advanced rural areas, couples were asked to have only one child; in other rural areas, a family could have no more than two children, although there were exceptions. These radical policies remain in effect, with minor modifications, through the use of both incentive and punitive measures, in addition to the vigorous promotion of family planning. By 2007 Chinas family-planning program had met its demographic goals, and the countrys total fertility rate had been below replacement level for more than a decade. Despite this achievement, Chinas family-planning program has been accompanied by some negative developments, such as rising sex ratios at birth and an increasing number of induced abortions (similar trends have also been observed in other countries). These developments, which are related to Chinas long cultural tradition of son preference and the implementation of strict birth-control policies, have made the program very controversial.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, largely due to the family-planning movement, high fertility or uncontrolled population growth was no longer an issue in many parts of the world. Many developed and some less-developed countries had experienced below-replacement fertility rates for more than a generation, and a few had even experienced a population decline. Indeed, some countries are now taking action to reverse these trends. However, fertility is still high in some countries (mainly in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East), where further improving family-planning services remains a major concern.

SEE ALSO Birth Control; Demographic Transition; Demography; Family Planning; Fertility, Human; Overpopulation


Boserup, Ester. 1965. The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure. Chicago: Aldine.

Hodgson, Dennis. 2003. Contemporary Population Thought. In Encyclopedia of Population, ed. Paul Demeny and Geoffrey McNicoll, 765772. New York: Thomson Gale.

Malthus, Thomas Robert. [1803] 1989. An Essay on the Principle of Population, ed. Patricia James. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Potts, David Malcolm. 2003. History of Birth Control. In Encyclopedia of Population, ed. Paul Demeny and Geoffrey McNicoll, 9398. New York: Thomson Gale.

Simon, Julian. 1996. The Ultimate Resource. Rev. ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Tsui, Amy Ong. 2001. Population Politics, Family Planning Program, and Fertility: The Record. In Global Fertility Transition, ed. Rodolfo A. Bulatao and John B. Casterline, 184204. New York: Population Council.

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. 2006. World Contraceptive Use 2005. New York: Author.

Zhao, Zhongwei. 2006. Towards a Better Understanding of Past Fertility Regimes: Ideas and Practice of Controlling Family Size in Chinese History. Continuity and Change 21: 935.

Zhongwei Zhao

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Population Control

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Population Control