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by Agnes R. Howard

Other People's Children

We know what's best.

In Fatal Misconception, his impressive chronicle of global population control, Matthew Connelly gives brief mention to demographers conducting surveys in remote locales in the mid-1960s, fishing for uniform data on sexual habits and family life, and showing little sensitivity to culture or privacy. "Did such questions," Connelly wonders, "including the responses they elicited, mean the same thing to all concerned—including the children who overheard their mother asked whether she preferred that they had never been born?" Population control carries the implication that it would be preferable for some people not to be. Whether these undesirables are defined as a Yellow Peril threatening to sink the West, hordes of the hungry ready to kill each other or you, or even just slovenly neighbors bullying your babies or absorbing welfare checks, fear of other people's children has been a powerful engine of public policy. "Population control presented itself as a charity like any other," Connelly observes, "helping less fortunate people. But it was the only one that promised to make them go away."

Who has authority to tell another whether to have children, or how many to have? What grew into the population control movement was actually a range of separate ones, replete with strong personalities and colorful characters: shifting coalitions of birth controllers, eugenicists, neo-Malthusians, the occasional natalist, and other reformers aiming to bring economic or social development along with birth-rate reduction. Showing admirable historical empathy, Connelly makes comprehensible the views of those who endorsed radical solutions for what they saw as an emergency. Reformers worried about population and immigration in the late 19th century, and world conferences were held on the topic in the 1920s. By the early 1950s, what Connelly names a "Population establishment" coalesced in the United States with support from the Rockefeller and Ford foundations, Planned Parenthood, and international groups, with a UN department founded to focus on population issues. Governments had to be nudged into action on population issues by these groups. Cold War tension and upheavals in the developing world helped make reduction in birth rates a priority for American foreign aid.

Many population controllers assumed that the world's masses would avoid having children if they could, so reformers simply needed provide the means to disconnect sex from fertility. Research toward cheap, effective contraception brought some strange proposals (foaming powder and a "salt rice jelly" among them), with the Pill and the IUD signaling breakthroughs in the 1960s. Distributing birth control became a major focus of population campaigns and funding: usaid's population program budget grew from $50 million in 1969 to $100 million in 1971. Planned Parenthood's Alan Guttmacher, seeking to make people "immune" to pregnancy, touted the IUD through the 1960s, even as many women in trials were suffering complications, all too typical of the ways in which individual reproductive health was sacrificed—or disregarded—in favor of large-scale birth reductions. Sterilization, of course, offered the ultimate in birth control. In India, mobile sterilization camps were set up in the mid-1960s, performing thousands of procedures in a few weeks' time. During the drought year 1967-8, with incentives paid for submitting to the procedure, 1.8 million Indians were sterilized. At Sanjay Gandhi's initiative, India in 1975-6 saw over 8 million sterilized, with hundreds dying from botched surgeries.

China launched its one-child policy in 1979. After initial hesitation, international population groups lent support. The policy required tamper-resistant IUDs for mothers of one child, sterilization of those with two or more, and abortion for "unauthorized" pregnancies. The UN granted a Population Award and a gold medal for Xinzhong Qian, who oversaw the program's most coercive phase.

Gradually the excesses and abuses of the population-control movement helped turn international opinion against such approaches. (Roman Catholics had long raised objections, though Connelly generally reads Vatican perspectives as patriarchal and naïve.) The abuses appear even more egregious against the movement's lack of success. Connelly argues that "even according to the most favorable contemporary studies, family planning efforts explained less than 5 percent of fertility levels in developing countries." The campaigns did not raise Asia out of poverty or guarantee a habitable planet. And birth rates were declining anyway in many countries, in part because of economic development and social changes, not least in the status and education of women.

And yet, Amy Laura Hall suggests in Conceiving Parenthood, the dramatic social changes that transformed the lives of American women and children over the last century are as much a cause for dismay as for hope. American parenting fashions draw her withering critique, though the parts of her indictment sit awkwardly together. Chapters track first "holy hygiene," then corporate advocacy of "scientific" motherhood, then eugenics, and finally blast through the atomic age to expose the dark side of genome mapping. Hall finds the middle-class nuclear family hopelessly compromised by dependence on racially charged deprecation of the Other. Corporations and advertisers earn blame for distorting our ideas about the family and encouraging us to equate cleanliness and consumption with human flourishing: "selling the clean family depends on shaming the dirty family." And infatuation with science helped us believe that better living comes through chemistry. Mapping how American opinion-makers sold and consumers bought these ideas, Hall also upbraids Protestants—especially the Methodist denomination to which she belongs—for failing to provide a counterweight to a white-bread, white-collar model of normalcy that stultifies and excludes.

What does Hall so dislike about middle-class normalcy? The book assembles fascinating images, many of them advertisements for 20th-century benchmarks of family progress: ads recommending 7-Up as an infant beverage, pushing Lysol for doorknob-disinfection and feminine freshness, showing slim mothers in their Playtex girdles feeling free while frozen, half clothed, in pink ice. How do all these images fit together? Is it the problem that has no name? Much could be chalked up to the period's intoxication with progress and modernity, and now-rejected notions of femininity. In her own life Hall wonders what is wrong with the domestic ideals she deplores. Shouldn't her children wash hands between bathroom and table? Isn't it good to sweep the floor? Fault lies not with these practices but with a "didactic of shame" that stereotypes those who fall below a commercially dictated standard of clean, whose slovenly, disorderly character often marks a racial distinction.

This conclusion troubles on several counts. Since Hall does "target for moral interrogation women like myself for our complicity in the narrations that render other women's wombs as prodigal," I first look to my own household. Wanting my kids' hands or clothes or rooms to be clean does not, practically, involve demonizing women or children whose hands or houses might be dirty. Many other observers have noticed that 19th- and 20th-century women were targeted for scientific child rearing, for parenting by the book, where strategies changed with each generation of experts, standards were impossibly hard to meet, and anxiety (status and other strains) was a significant motivator. Short on ancestral expectations and a bank of communal wisdom in childrearing, women may find a judgmental edge practically built in to the job description of motherhood. What Hall regrets as the "vicious comparison" of family life is not just a one-way street. In fact she defines her own mothering in part by contrast to what other women do: she doesn't put her kids in élite schools, doesn't dress them in frilly dresses that need ironing, or let them buy double-helix decorated clothing and jewelry.

White Protestant women could have set their goods against someone else's lack, but it doesn't follow that they did so primarily or consistently, or that these contrasts were always racial. That whites defined themselves against blacks, from the colonial period through 19th-century immigration and beyond, is a recurring theme in U.S. history rather than a distinctive strategy of 20th-century housewives. Further, many of the contrasts Hall views turn on progress as well as race. Things new, scientific, efficient, and modern were 20th-century preferences over things dusty, antiquated, outdated, hidebound. We have hardly outgrown this: a young bride today might be just as determined as her grandmother was not to do things like her grandmother did.

Hall especially wishes to recall Methodists to higher standards, reminding them that they should have known better. She regrets that, "[b]elieving themselves to be living in a good-housekeeping panopticon, many Methodist women were sufficiently preoccupied with their own families' appearance to stave off a call by Jesus to live outside the suburban box." This critique echoes the declension narratives long fashionable for limning New England Puritans, who—so the story goes—had hearts on fire and community spirit until they became too comfortable and prosperous. Or, as Cotton Mather put it, religion begat prosperity and the daughter devoured the mother. This may be too harsh a judgment for the Methodist families featured here, who, in their boating, barbecuing, and Christmas decorating, gave up what Hall praises as "boundary-crossing discipleship" for that mess of pottage.

Hall's indictments hit home in mainline Protestants' endorsement of eugenics, a sell-out more to science than to the market. Sadly, Protestant clergy served as indispensable popularizers of eugenic theories. Pastors should have known better than to wield Scripture against the vulnerable, divide God's children into groups of fit and unfit, and ring the call that the "dross must be purged out." And contrary to received opinion, eugenics did not wither in the 1940s, fatally tainted by Nazi associations; it persisted, especially in "soft" or voluntary strains. There are discernible links between the "better baby" goals of the American Eugenics Society in the 1920s and the tolerate-no-defects atmosphere of prenatal genetic screening in our own day.

Still, Hall's link between middle-class hygiene and eugenics seems forced. Her argument for continuity between the spic-and-span house and an insistence on genetic perfection might have been more persuasive had she given greater treatment to childbearing along with childrearing. Scientific motherhood coincided with the boom in obstetrics and definitive shift of birth from home to hospital. The ideology of family planning also contributed to the quality-control mindset Hall deplores. Proclaimed by some of the figures Connelly reviews, the slogan "Every Child a Wanted Child" carries the suggestion that parental intent is what confers worth, that children are to be acquired for the pleasure they might bring, rather than being awaited as integral to the parental relationship, and that those not wanted may be viewed primarily as drags on the race or the planet.

Population control in its harshest idiom implies that many of us should never have been born, while Hall's boundary-crossing discipleship withholds blessing until we treat all God's children as we treat our own. A good middle way of thinking about other people's children should at least mean affirming, to borrow Josef Pieper's definition of love, that it's good that they exist, it's good that they are in this world. It is right and good to love one's own children in a special, primary way. The incarnate union of parents in the child and the child's life as gift help shape this love, not only pernicious forces of market and technology. Right ordering of loves can include a primary place for one's own offspring alongside a deep commitment to serve neighbors near and far.

Agnes R. Howard is assistant professor of English and history at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.

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