A French media outlet has captured an otherwise unnoticed comment from French President Emmanuel Macron that Africa is overpopulated. When asked about a possible “Marshall Plan for Africa,” Macron listed among the continent’s current problems the need for “demographic transition,” lamenting the fact that some African “countries still have seven to eight children per woman.” His concerns seem particularly worth examining today on World Population Day.
During a July 8 press conference about the G20 summit, Macron began by naming truly concerning problems such as “failed states, complex democratic transitions,” corruption, and the need for the rule of law. These, with private property rights, are the pillars of a free society. But he continued, “When countries still have seven to eight children per woman, you can decide to spend billions of euros, [but] you will not stabilize anything.”
Of course, the average African has between five and six children, not seven or eight babies, according to the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. But the theoretical case cited by the newly elected president of France rings familiar for two reasons.
Population: A blessing, not a curse
First, his concern about overpopulation has been a perennial scarecrow among European intelligentsia for centuries, the all-purpose and ever-present threat that never seems to materialize. It is the impetus behind World Population Day, which was established by the United Nations Development Programme and observed every July 11.
Perhaps its best-known expositor, Thomas Malthus, wrote in 1798 that, unless the West wanted to face mass malnutrition, people should actively “court the return of the plague” – especially among the poor. For centuries, “experts” have continued to assert that a rising tide of humanity would swamp the earth’s fixed pool of resources. In 1970, Paul Ehrlich predicted that “at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next 10 years.” Ehrlich’s disciple, John Holdren, defended his own dire forecasts while being confirmed as Barack Obama’s science czar.
Yet these forecasts never come to pass. Resources are but one part of the equation; the other, which the prognosticators overlook, is human innovation. Population growth has been facilitated by man-made technology, from the internal combustion engine, to irrigation, to genetically modified food. As Chelsea German wrote at Human Progress:
Humanity found ways to produce more food per unit of land through innovations like synthetic fertilizers and increasingly advanced genetic modification techniques. As production increased, prices fell, calorie consumption increased, and undernourishment fell even as the world’s population grew.
While economics recognizes finite resources, it must also recognize the capacity of human ingenuity multiply those resources in unforeseen ways to the benefit of all. Populations are deprived of the ability to help themselves only when the other structures, such as rule of law and access to capital, are missing.
In fact, declining populations are associated with economic contraction – and Macron need not look far to find an example. In a new report on the coming German population contraction, the Cologne Institute for Economic Research found that “the demographic trend will worsen the growth prospects of the national economy. The increase in gross domestic product (GDP) will more than halve by 2035.” The harm visited upon Germany, the engine of the European economy, would be magnified in less prosperous nations facing similar population issues.
French concern over “eight children” led to forced abortion
Second, the specific wording that Macron used – concerns over tropical women having eight children – has an unfortunate precedent in French history.
Political scientist Françoise Vergès, who chairs Global South studies at the House of Human Sciences in Paris, wrote about incidents of forced abortion and sterilization in the French colony of Réunion in her book Le Ventre des Femmes (The Belly of Women), which was released earlier this year. On her native island located in the Indian Ocean, 30 women filed a complaint that doctors at Saint-Benoît clinic had performed sterilizations and abortions without their knowledge. The practice likely occurred hundreds or thousands of times by the 1971 trial, according to Vergès.
This is where Macron’s phrase rings a bell. Vergès explained that in Réunion there were “huge posters beside the roads depicting women followed by eight children, with writing in large letters: ‘Enough!’”
Vergès can hardly be considered a pro-life fanatic. Her father, Paul Vergès, founded the island’s chapter of the Communist Party, and her book’s subtitle is “Capitalism, Racialization, Feminism.”
It takes a certain intellectual dexterity to blame what Vergès describes as “mass campaigns for birth control and contraception … organized by the public authorities” on capitalism. Only in the rarest of cases, such as modern day Venezuela, is mass sterilization voluntary (and that, too, stems from the failures of socialism). It may be more profitable to ask whether paternalistic leaders – of either sex – have any legitimate authority to declare when women have had “enough” children.
Citizens, though, must tell government when it has “enough” power. Only after the State has centralized money, resources, and medical services into its own hands can it exercise an all-encompassing power of life and death – something the Judeo-Christian West sees as a divine prerogative. It is no coincidence that the world’s leading practitioners of forced abortion are China and North Korea.
World Population Day should be an opportunity for people of faith to celebrate each life “fearfully and wonderfully made” in the image of God and to promote those structures and systems that will allow them, and their posterity, to thrive.
(Photo credit: Zambian children. Simon Berry. This photo has been cropped. CC BY-SA 2.0.)