Matthew Connelly: Says backers of family planning made terrible mistakes

The first large-scale scientific test of family planning took place in Khanna, India, beginning in the early 1950s. Backed by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health, researchers asked 8,000 villagers how often they had sex, whether they wanted to conceive and the details of the women’s menstrual cycles. The researchers met the villagers monthly and provided contraceptives, while closely monitoring another group that was given no contraceptives. After five years, the women given contraceptives had a higher birth rate than those who hadn’t received any assistance.

That initiative was an early warning that population policy can be very difficult to get right. In “Fatal Misconception,” Matthew Connelly, an associate professor of history at Columbia University, carefully assembles a century’s worth of mistakes, arrogance, racism, sexism and incompetence in what the jacket copy calls a “withering critique” of “a humanitarian movement gone terribly awry.”

Efforts to control population have long been ferociously controversial, and the United States under George W. Bush refuses to provide a penny of funding for the United Nations Population Fund because of its supposed (but in fact nonexistent) links to forced abortion in China. Critics of family planning programs will seize gleefully upon this book, and that’s unfortunate, because two propositions are both correct: first, population planners have made grievous mistakes and were inexcusably quiet for too long about forced sterilization in countries like India and China; and second, those same planners have learned from past mistakes and today are fighting poverty and saving vast numbers of lives in developing countries.

“Fatal Misconception” is to population policy what William Easterly’s “White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good” (2006) was to foreign aid: a useful, important but ultimately unbalanced corrective to smug self-satisfaction among humanitarians. Connelly scrupulously displays a hundred years of family planners’ dirty laundry, but without adequately emphasizing that we are far better off for their efforts. One could write a withering history of medicine, focusing on doctors’ infecting patients when they weren’t bleeding them, but doctors are pretty handy people to have around today. And so are family planners....

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