Dominic Lawson: The hypocrisy of the population zealots

The control freaks have been skilful in adopting the political concerns of the day to their cause
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How could you have forgotten, once again? Didn't you mark it in your diary? Yes, last Friday was World Population Day. The slogan for 2008, as provided by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), is: "Family Planning: It's a right. Let's make it real!"

Some people have been paying attention, however. To mark the great day, the British-based Optimum Population Trust (OPT) has published a paper questioning "the procreative right" – the right of a family (in Britain, or anywhere else) to have the number of children it chooses, whatever that number happens to be.

The OPT's proposals are based on a paper by Carter Dillard, the former legal adviser to the United States Department of Homeland Security. Mr Dillard argues that one reason why we shouldn't regard an absolute procreative right as valid is that a number of other countries do not: "Because China and other states traditionally have perceived women's reproductive function as a legitimate matter of state control, the broad formulation of the procreative right can not be considered a norm of customary international law ... In the mid 1970s, India pursued an anti-natalist policy that promoted the widespread forcible sterilisation of Indian citizens in mass camps."

This was why Indira Gandhi's Congress Party was wiped out in the Indian general election of 1977: democracy and state-enforced population reduction are incompatible. The people behind the Optimum Population Trust, however, supported these brutal measures in the Sub-continent – as indeed did the US government. They weren't the ones whose tubes were being snipped.

Mr Dillard also attempts a new, "humane", argument for a one-child policy. He argues: "If the intrinsic value of procreating is the self-fulfilment of the procreator ... then we can presume this experiential value, this fulfilment, is achieved after the first birth – and merely replicated thereafter." I suppose the same argument could be used at the other end of the process. Wife to husband, after consummation of marriage: "That's the last time we're doing that." Husband: "Why?" Wife: "This experiential value, this fulfilment, has now been achieved. To do it again would be mere replication."

Why is it that Mr Dillard and the OPT are so concerned to exercise state control over the "unlimited procreative right?" Because otherwise there will be a decline in wildernesses. No, really, that's what they say.

The conclusion of their paper declares: "Our moral and legal rights to access wilderness and natural biological diversity (including other species), enjoy its benefits, and perhaps even see it restored, are at odds with, and arguably outweigh, the private right to have an unlimited number of children."

Perhaps Mr Dillard should consult his colleagues at the US Department of the Environment, to learn how the preservation and even the restoration of wildernesses are entirely compatible with rapid population growth. In 1964, when the US had a population of 219 million, 9.1 million acres of the country were designated as protected wilderness. Now, with a population of about 332 million, more than 107 million acres are protected under the US Wilderness Preservation System.

This has happened, moreover, over a period of unprecedented economic growth.

It must all have come as a bit of a surprise to one of the Optimum Population Trust's most long-standing patrons, the American doomsayer Paul Ehrlich. His undeservedly influential 1968 book, The Population Bomb, predicted that population growth in the United States would lead to "huge famines" in the 1970s and 1980s and forecast that America's population would have been reduced by starvation to just 22 million by 1999.

One of the characteristics of these people is that they have constantly shifted their reasons for demanding restrictions on the freedom to procreate. First, in true Malthusian style, it was that the world – and especially the teeming billions of the Subcontinent – would die a horrible death through starvation, otherwise. More recently, confounded by the facts, they have adopted an entirely opposite argument: that the developing world is actually becoming too rich and successful, and that this will cause the climate to become too hot for them to survive, because of their surging carbon emissions.

The population control freaks have also been skilful in adopting the fashionable political concerns of the day to their cause. As Frank Furedi, the author of Population and Development, has pointed out: "In the 1970s Paul Ehrlich argued that population growth in the South inexorably led to the triumph of Communism. Today he has recycled this simple diagnosis to argue that population growth has led to the rise of international terrorism."

Perhaps Carter Dillard, he of the Department of Homeland Security, has been whispering in Paul Ehrlich's ear – or vice versa. Whichever is the case, it's clear that what we have seen from these people over the years is simply an idea in search of an argument.

On World Population day itself I had the pleasure of discussing these issues on the Today programme with one of the most faithful old-time OPT hands: John Guillebaud, the emeritus professor of family planning at University College London. Professor Guillebaud dates his passion from an undergraduate lecture he attended in 1959 on the population "explosion". Over the succeeding years, Professor Guillebaud has travelled the world, preaching the virtues of family planning across several continents.

I share his proclaimed commitment to giving individuals the ability, through contraception, to determine the size of their family. This is entirely compatible with the "procreative right": indeed, it enhances it. What I fail to understand is why Guillebaud can't see that a state's intervention in the family's right to choose the number of children it produces – as in China's one-child policy – is not just an intolerable breach of privacy and individual freedom: it is also the opposite of the right of individual procreative self-determination that the UNFPA claims to support.

The Optimum Population Trust now argues that the greatest argument for smaller families is that it is the best way that we could reduce carbon emissions – yet another illustration of the way these people mould their agenda to whatever is the most fashionable political concern of the day.

Thus Professor Guillebaud declared recently that couples should produce no more than two children because "the greatest thing anyone in Britain could do to help the future of the planet would be to have one less child".

So how many children has Professor Guillebaud produced? An environmentally excellent zero? An example-setting singleton? A bog-standard two? No, the Prof and Mrs Guillebaud have the joy of three children.

Given that he has been a campaigner for small families for almost half a century, this strikes me as an extraordinary fit of absent-mindedness on his part. Or perhaps he's just a hypocrite.