Social Implications of Population Control

By: Ward H. Goodenough

Originally Published in 1972

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The cost of modern technology and of a high material standard of living confronts us with increasing insistence. Jean Mayer has rightly observed that it is the affluent, far more than the poor, who pollute and destroy our environment. We are discovering that we cannot maintain our present standard of living for middle and upper-income Americans, let alone improve it for lower-income Americans, if our population continues to expand. Increasingly we are having to think of how to limit population growth and how to achieve a steady state in which population size is kept in balance with the condition of our environment, our resources, and an acceptable standard of living.

Until very recently, public discussion of pop­ulation control has concentrated largely on contraception and on the religious issues we have chosen to attach to it. We have recognized that even if contraceptive devices are made readily available, people will use them only if they feel a need to do so. But we have paid relatively little attention to the conditions that promote the nec­essary sense of need. For long, concern was more with economically under-developed countries than with our own, and we tended to assume that in those countries increasing dependence on a money economy will somehow make having many children less an asset and more a liability. Serious discussion concentrated on monetary and other economic incentives in a context of community development. The problem remains as to what kinds of incentives will lead people in affluent, industrial societies to limit the number of their children.

Many societies in the past have faced the need to curtail population growth. They have met this need not only with economic incentives but with customs and values that have provided other incentives as well. Examining these societies can be rewarding, not because they are models to be imitated, but because they reveal the kinds of customs that tend to develop naturally, in the absence of rational planning, and the human costs that go with them. These societies have been essentially agrarian, with subsistence-oriented economies. For them the problem of overpopula­tion was tied closely to availability of subsistence resources, especially land.

In rural England in the thirteenth century, for example, a man without farm land was ineligible to marry, for he had no way to support children. As long as he remained single, he had a place in the home of his older brother, who had inherited the family farm and for whom he worked as an extra hand. But he lost a claim to livelihood from the family farm if he married. His only alternative was to emigrate to the growing towns or to the colonies or to take service on the estate of a local lord. Monogamy was coupled with the idea that only a married woman was eligible to bear children. Many women were unable to find hus­bands from among the limited ranks of men with farm land. They too remained on the family farm as unmarried dependents or sought their fortunes in the town or in domestic service on the estates of the nobility. Legitimacy laws rendered the children of unmarried women without legal rights to a livelihood at all. Indeed, a punitive stance against illegitimate children and their mothers provided incentives for single and hence ineligible women not to have children.

The people of Onotoa in the Pacific Ocean’s Gilbert Islands developed customs along similar lines, according to information I obtained there in 1951. There, a family holding consists of a num­ber of small plots of land. The eldest son gets a plot set aside for him, and the remaining plots are divided equally among all the sons, except that if there are daughters, one plot is given to the eldest as her dowry, if at all possible. Younger daughters get a plot only if there is a good deal of land available or if there are no sons. A man with very little land is not looked on with favor as a potential son-in-law. Because land is divided among the sons, married couples must calculate how many sons they can adequately provide for from their holdings, and the wife is encouraged to abort subsequent pregnancies after the quota has been reached. Most younger sisters fall in the category of women who have no land. These women are ordinarily ineligible to be a man’s wife, though they may be his concubine. Girls with land are chaperoned. They are expected to be virgins at marriage, to bear their husband’s children, and to become the matrons of the community. Land­less girls are unchaperoned and allowed sexual freedom. In former times, when their older sisters married, they joined the households of their brothers-in-law, where they assisted their older sisters in return for a livelihood. A brother-in-law controlled sexual access to his wife’s landless younger sisters and, in return for land, could give them as concubines to his father’s brothers and cousins. The Church has succeeded in modifying this practice, so that landless women are now freer to establish liaisons with men of their own choosing. But without the consent of these men, they cannot bear children. They resort to abortion as the only means of birth control available to them. If such a woman bears a child, it is legit­imized if the father publicly acknowledges it. It then has the same claims on the father’s estate as any other son or daughter by him. Otherwise, the child is illegitimate and without rights in society.

Both the English and the Onotoan examples illustrate emphasis on eligibility to marry, eligi­bility to bear children, and exclusion of illegitimate children from society (however legitimacy is locally defined). In each case, the responsibility not to have a child is borne directly by women. Onotoans accord dowerless women sexual free­dom and, more importantly, a social freedom to come and go as they wish as a kind of compen­sation. If they refer to them by the unflattering designation “leavings of a generation,” they do not otherwise discriminate against them, welcom­ing them as their daughters, sisters and aunts and according them active participation in com­munity life. But the burden is still theirs. It is all too likely to be so in a society that stresses eligibility to bear children and legitimacy of birth as its approach to motivating people to practice birth control (whatever the mechanical means of birth control may be).

Some areas of rural Ireland offer something of a contrast. Eligibility to marry must wait until the elders are willing to turn over the family farm. Until they marry and take over property, men are regarded as “boys,” and not yet fully responsible adults. Late marriage helps to guarantee having few children in wedlock. Having them out of wedlock is inhibited by emphasis on sexual con­tinence. Reinforcing this emphasis is a social attitude, encouraged by the Church, that makes sex fraught with anxiety for men as well as for women. Drink is a compensatory outlet for men, and fighting provides an alternative to sex for demonstrating manly prowess. In the absence of other means of birth control, wives have been reported to encourage their husbands to frequent the pub evenings. If they have had too much to drink, they won’t be able to perform sexually and their wives can avoid unwanted pregnancies. Here the responsibility for population control is not so directly on women, though it still rests there ultimately. The human costs are borne more heavily by men.

Like the Irish, the people of Yap in the West­ern Pacific delay having children; but they do not delay marriage, they do not encourage celibacy, and they do not stress eligibility or legitimacy. They provide rewards that motivate women to put off having children, so strongly indeed that women resort secretly without the knowledge of men to self-induced abortions in order to avoid childbirth.

The affairs of Yap society are effectively controlled by men who are over forty years old. Below this age men have little responsibility other than to provide food for their wives and children, something that is not very onerous or time-con­suming. They are expected to spend their time largely in social games and lovemaking. The same is expected of young women, until they have their first child. After menarche, a teen-age girl is set up in a special house outside the village for about a year, where her friends visit her and she begins to have lovers. She is not supposed to play favor­ites at this time, even if she is already married, but is expected to distribute her favors widely. Subsequently, she may move in with a lover and even undergo the very simple ceremony of mar­riage with him. But she and her lover or husband continue to take active part in the social activities of young people, including having affairs on the side. Marriages without children are readily dis­solved, so it is easy at this time for a woman to leave her husband for another man. As soon as she has a child, a woman’s life is completely altered. Care of the child is primarily her responsi­bility. She must abandon the games of sociability and lovemaking and take on motherhood as a full-time job. The ten to fifteen years before she is thirty years old are when a woman is most attrac­tive sexually to men. Very few women have children until their late twenties. It is then, as competition from younger women in the courtship game increases, that women begin to turn to motherhood as a source of gratification of another kind. In the meantime, self-induced abortion has served to prevent unwanted births. The method employed—use of a cervical plug coupled with laceration of the cervix—inevitably results in a high rate of infection and subsequent sterility. A study in 1947-48 revealed that “34 per cent of Yap women between the ages of twenty-six and fifty had never given birth to a child.”

By deliberately delaying having children and thereby significantly shortening the number of bearing years in a woman’s life, and by uninten­tionally giving themselves in the process a high rate of sterility, Yap’s women effectively main­tained a low birth rate so effectively that Yap’s population failed to build up again after it was drastically reduced by epidemics of smallpox and measles following contact with Europeans. The extent to which infections of gonorrheal type may also have contributed to infertility remains unknown. What interests us here is the way social institutions and values provided other than eco­nomic incentives that so effectively led women to delay motherhood for so long a period in their lives.

By accomplishing this without direct reference to resources for livelihood or emphasis on legit­imacy and punitive sanctions against illegitimate children, Yap is more immediately relevant to our own situation in the United States. I do not imply that we should seek to emulate Yap; rather, I find Yap helps to put some things that are happen­ing in the United States today into interesting perspective.

Our own double standard of morality has stressed sexual continence for women, except in marriage, and our system of social rewards has rewarded women primarily in their role as mothers. Such emphasis has provided incentives for women to want to get married as early as possible and to start having children as early as possible. It effectively promotes population growth, badly needed in an era dedicated to industrial development and economic growth. Now, significantly, we see this morality and this system of rewards changing. Increasingly there is a shift toward premarital sexual freedom and a later age of marriage for women. Of even greater potential importance is the Women’s Liberation Movement, whose objectives include things that can serve to inhibit population growth. In calling for more equal job opportunities for women and equal pay for equal work, it calls for the develop­ment of rewards for women in other than the mother role. As other roles become more impor­tant sources of reward for women, they will be less eager to cut themselves off from them by having children. They will be more concerned to limit the children they have and to time the births of their children so as to be able to enjoy these other rewards. In calling for liberal abortion laws, the Women’s Liberation Movement is also stress­ing the right of women not to have children. Thus, there are indications that we are beginning to move toward the development of institutional arrangements that will lead women to want to have fewer children and that will make it easy for them to avoid having children they don’t want.

Such movement in the direction of empha­sizing rewards that compete with the rewards of motherhood, rather than emphasizing eligibility and legitimacy, befits our humanitarian and egal­itarian values. But we must also recognize the presence of traditions and values in our society that, under increasing pressure for population control, would work toward the institution of cri­teria of eligibility. Ownership of land is not a ready basis for determining eligibility to marry and to have children in our industrial and urban­ized society, but having an acceptable source of livelihood is a possible basis of such eligibility. If we should find ourselves with a serious shortage of jobs, for example, there may be increased emphasis on a man’s being suitably employed before he is eligible to marry and with this, an increased tendency to penalize women who have children out of wedlock and to treat illegitimate children as social outcasts.

How everything will work out remains to be seen. If, as I believe, we shall become increasingly concerned with genuine population control as necessary to our future survival, we shall perforce have to move in one or the other of the two gen­eral directions I have indicated: either one that emphasizes rewarding roles for women that are incompatible with the demands of motherhood or one that emphasizes eligibility to bear children and that provides strong incentives to honor the eligibility rules. Whichever direction we take will require considerable adjustment of our present values and of our present mode of life.

By implication, I have already suggested what some of these adjustments will be. They reveal that there are costs to population control regard­less of the institutional means by which it is accomplished. These costs involve economic and societal adjustments as well as adjustments in ideology and values.

I am not competent to project what these adjustments might involve. But questions occur to me that I feel deserve our attention.

For one thing, our national economy and its supporting institutions and values are largely predicated on the idea of growth. This idea has begun to be called into question here and there in the past few years; but I think it is safe to say that most of us have yet to think seriously of an alternative to the idea of progress—the idea, which members of my generation took as gospel, that somehow everything was going to go on getting more and better for everyone. That this might not lead to Utopia after all was left largely to science fiction writers, whose projections of the future, except as they portrayed our own hopes for it, could be dismissed as fantasy. Most of us, as we confront the problems of national economy today, are concerned with how we can “get it moving again,” that is, with how we can get it growing once more. But we must seriously ask to what extent economic growth is dependent on population growth. Does an expanding economy need an expanding market? Have the industrial nations not been concerned with colonialism in the recent past as a means of finding expanded markets? And have they not been concerned with the economic development of underdeveloped nations more recently for precisely the same reason? Does not an expanding market mean either an increasingly affluent body of consumers or a numerically increasing number of consum­ers? In either case, do not our resources and technology impose a ceiling on our numbers, a ceiling that gets lower as our level of affluence grows? Is not this ceiling precisely why we are increasingly concerned today with population control?

Presumably there will be no greatly expand­ing market in a demographic steady state, at least not for very long. It seems to me that a steady-state population implies a steady-state economy.

It seems to me that thinking in steady-state terms about our economy requires a tremendous shift in our present habits of thought about our eco­nomic future and about what we shall regard as meaningful goals for our society and for ourselves as individuals.

In economically stratified societies like ours, an expanding economy creates increasing num­bers of job opportunities at the higher levels of the salary and prestige ladder. It also needs an expanding supply of people willing to fill the increasing number of jobs at whatever levels of skills are needed at the bottom of the ladder. Whether by internal population growth or by open-door immigration policies, an expanding economy needs an expanding population, for which it keeps creating expanding economic opportunities. When an economy ceases to expand, job oppor­tunities and job mobility are reduced. The report of a longitudinal study in Serbia is significant in this regard. There, during periods of economic growth, when the supply of labor was short, recruitment into jobs crept down the social hier­archy, and many people moved upward into higher level jobs than their parents had held. In times of economic stagnation or retrenchment, recruitment from below decreased markedly. Sons tended to have the same kinds of jobs as their fathers, and under periods of severe retrench­ment, the sons of people higher in the social hierarchy bumped people lower down from less prestigious jobs. The report traced this process through alternating periods of stagnation, growth, depression, and subsequent growth in the first half of this century. finding a significant correla­tion between occupational mobility and indices of economic growth.

Ours, too. is a class-ordered society, whose Horatio Alger myth of economic and social mobil­ity has been given some substance in an era of economic growth. In an economically steady state, we can expect a stronger tendency for people to recruit their own children and the children of their kinsmen and friends to succeed them in their jobs or to join them in their professions and trades. Some craft unions already recruit largely in this manner, and the medical profession has exhibited a tendency in the same direction. The end of the line of such tendencies is exemplified by the caste structure of traditional Hindu India and by the system of hereditary social estates in medieval Europe. Indeed, historic caste and caste-like systems in India, the Middle East, and Europe appear to have emerged after periods of growth had produced complex economic and political systems, with many occupational and governmental roles and specialties, and had then been followed by periods when growth largely stopped.

It should be clear, then, that if we find it nec­essary in the future to achieve a balance between environment, population size and standard of living—a balance that allows for adjustment and change but that essentially precludes radical population or economic growth—such balance will entail economic, social and cultural adjust­ments on a large scale. So profound, indeed, are the implications of population control that they are likely to generate strong counter pressures against efforts at such control and against the institutional adjustments it would set in motion. How everything will work out is much more likely to be determined by the way competing interests within our society decide matters in the arena of power politics than by any rational process.

We like to think of ourselves, of course, as dealing with social problems rationally; but the rational procedures that achieve desired social ends at minimum cost are rarely palatable. To see what a rational population policy can involve, consider the Polynesian island of Tikopia.

On Tikopia, every household had its place through its male head in a hierarchy of hereditary social ranks. The eldest sons of the eldest sons of the eldest sons, going back to the founding ancestors, were the high chiefs; while the young­est sons of the youngest sons were the lowest in rank, Raymond Firth (1959) tells what he found there in 1950 shortly after a devastating typhoon had destroyed much of the island’s food supply. The chiefs were performing their traditional role of taking inventory of the remaining food supply and estimating how long it would be before new crops could be brought to harvest. They would then, in accordance with their traditional right, determine the number of people that available food would support for the determined period of time. Having done so, they would then start with the highest ranking households and count down through the next highest ranking households and so on until they had reached the designated number. All households of lower rank than that would then be required to go to sea, never to return. Few of them could hope to survive to find a landfall elsewhere. Colonial government relief from the Solomon Islands made such measures unnecessary, as it turned out; but Firth found the low ranking families in dread of what might be required of them. Yet they accepted that all would starve if some did not leave, and they did not challenge the right of the chiefs to order them into exile. We find such customs horrible to con­template, but we must think seriously of the even more horrible alternatives.

We in the United States do not have to face the population control problems confronting the people of Tikopia on their tiny, isolated island—at least in nothing approaching so acute a form. The moral remains, however, that rational control procedures involve the deliberate making of decisions that affect human life and opportunity in life. They require curtailing in some way pre­cisely what our social and political ethic says every man should be free to enjoy: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. All signs indicate that we are going to feel increasing pressure to control our population size. However we manage it, if we manage it at all, a steady state will not be easily achieved and will be gained only at the cost of some of the things we now hold very dear.

Cite This Article

Goodenough, Ward H.. "Social Implications of Population Control." Expedition Magazine 14, no. 3 (March, 1972): -. Accessed February 29, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/social-implications-of-population-control/


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