Major Nuances in Population Control


       Most experts have agreed for a decade or so that the present world population cannot live in reasonable comfort without serious environmental deterioration rather soon—in a generation or so.  I began to think about such questions while living in Afghanistan from 1968-70.  The Chinese one child policy was another source of questioning.


       At about that same time there was much ferment here about abortion, and several states had decriminalized it.  The Supreme Court decision, Roe v Wade in 1973, made abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy legal in all the states.  This upset me—how could a criminal activity suddenly become totally legal (if not acceptable)?  Of course I was aware of the problems of unnecessary complications caused by botched (illegal) abortions. Some upper class women had legal abortions sponsored by psychiatrists who documented danger to their mental health.  It did bother me that lower class women scarcely had access to this option—it seemed to be unfair discrimination against them.  This same thought bothered the Supreme Court justices as I found from reading the entire Roe v Wade decision—all current Supreme Court decisions are published in The New York Times.  The following are pertinent excerpts from the 30 page majority opinion.  (1)


   “The common law. It is undisputed that, at common law, abortion performed before "quickening" -- the first recognizable movement of the fetus in utero, appearing usually from the 16th to the 18th week of pregnancy was not an indictable offense. . . *

    “Three reasons have been advanced to explain historically the enactment of criminal abortion laws in the 19th century and to justify their continued existence.

    “It has been argued occasionally that these laws were the product of a Victorian social concern to discourage illicit sexual conduct. . .. . .it appears that no court or commentator has taken the argument seriously. . . . .

    “A second reason is concerned with abortion as a medical procedure.  When most criminal abortion laws were first enacted, the procedure was a hazardous one for the woman.  This was particularly true prior to the development of antisepsis. . . Abortion mortality was high.  . . Thus, it has been argued that a state’s real concern in enacting a criminal abortion law was to protect the pregnant woman, that is, to restrain her from submitting to a procedure that placed her life in serious jeopardy.

   “Modern medical techniques have altered this situation. . . . Mortality rates for women undergoing early abortions, where the procedure is legal, appear to be as low as or lower than the rates for normal childbirth. . . .

   “The third reason is the state’s interest. . . . . With respect to the State's important and legitimate interest in the health of the mother, the "compelling" point, in the light of present medical knowledge, is at approximately the end of the first trimester. . . .

    To summarize and repeat:

    “A state criminal abortion statute of the current Texas type, that excepts from criminality only a lifesaving procedure on behalf of the mother, without regard to pregnancy stage and without recognition of the other interests involved, is violative of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. . . . .”


*  Here is an interesting comment in the Court’s opinion but scarcely relevant to this discussion (except perhaps to a feminist).

……..Although Christian theology and the common law came to fix the point of animation at 40 days for a male and 80 days for a female, a view that persisted until the nineteenth century, there was otherwise little agreement about the precise time of formation or animation.



   After reading the opinion in 1973, I was impressed with its depth of historical and scientific analysis.  The  justices really  helped  me  to revise  a  firmly  held opinion.   Not  much  later  I read  in  Alan  Morehead’s book “Darwin  and  the  Beagle”  that  Captain  Fitzroy   recruited  Darwin for the voyage in hopes that he would discover  some geological evidence for Noah’s flood.  Darwin, who was educated in theology and geology enthusiastically agreed, but began to change his mind on finding fossilized coral at 12,000 feet in the Andes Mountains. The Supreme Court opinion was my “fossils in the Andes”.   


       I have more recently wondered if greater access to abortion services for women temporarily incapable of taking on child rearing might not reduce the crime rate when the unborn cohort of children would have come of age.  These children, whose upbringing would have been especially handicapped by economic and social problems, might well become more likely to enter criminal ranks.  See below.  Meanwhile, as a result of Roe v Wade, contraception became more widely accepted.  It was obvious to everyone, especially those who had opposed abortion, that contraception could greatly reduce the number of abortions, which is a very problematic method of population control (but overpopulation is the ultimate environmental problem).  However, as mentioned by the Court, modern medicine results in abortion being less risky to the mother than delivery of a full term infant—even more true today with emergency (morning after) contraception and first trimester non-surgical abortions with medications such as RU486.


      To get back to crime rates: there was about a 10% decrease in serious crimes in the entire US in the 1990s—minor crimes were less affected.  For example, homicide rates in our 25 cities of over 500,000 population fell by 18 to 74% from peak (1991-93) to  2001.  Smaller cities and rural areas had smaller reductions, but none had an increase in any violent crime during that period. This decrease in crime occurred 3 years sooner in all five of the states that had legalized abortion in 1970—Roe v Wade was decided in 1973.  Expert opinion is that about 50% of this reduction in crime rate was from Roe v Wade (2)—the remainder of the reduction was from other factors, especially more police and increasing jail populations—fewer criminals at large.  Also of interest: Romania prohibited abortion in 1966 and experienced an increase in crime a generation later.


       The drop in birth rates after Roe v Wade was about 5% over all, but a 10% drop is estimated in teenage and nonwhite mothers.  Other consequences probably related to Roe v Wade include declines in infanticide, fewer children living in poverty, reduced infant mortality, fewer one-parent families, and less use of illicit drugs.


        Incidentally, when we consider a particular law to be unjust, nonviolent civil disobedience is an effective countermeasure (you can see that my thinking has evolved). Henry David Thoreau, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. have amply explained and documented  this  fact.  See “E. Stewart Taylor” on  Dr. Taylor actually did technically illegal abortions for fetal indications (mothers with rubella in early pregnancy, for example) as a professor at the University of Colorado Medical School.  Consider also conscientious objectors to war—very few are primarily draft dodgers.  I am sure that, when abortions were illegal, occasional physicians have performed them at risk of jail as a matter of conscience and not for the money (a juvenile pregnant as a result of incest comes to mind).  My closest professional encounter with abortion was as E. Stewart Taylor’s colleague during my residency in internal medicine.


       My thinking has gotten off of dead center: perhaps it would be best to define the beginning of human life to be when an infant makes connection, usually early in pregnancy, with competent and enthusiastic caregivers who can transmit the uniquely social and cultural components that make human life human and not merely biological.  A great deal more contraception and an occasional abortion would eliminate some of the unnecessary  despair  of  the parents  who struggle  and fail.  CHILDREN  NEED  AND DESERVE PARENTS WHO DESIRE THEM or at least surrogate parents with commitment and enthusiasm for family life—in plain English, with love.


           However, it is clear that well brought up children alone will not protect the planet from overpopulation.  When we criticize the Chinese one child policy, fair mindedness requires that we suggest some other  valid alternative.  Mammals invest heavily  in few offspring  instead  of going  for  mere  quantity.    Nature  cooperates  by   inhibiting  ovulation  during  lactation  but encourages weaning when the young are eating adequate amounts of food with more taste than milk (3).  Nature has even gone to some biochemical inconvenience to create in milk the least sweet of all known sugars so that milk can avoid sweetness thus enhancing weaning.  Mammalian mothers abandon young when adversity is threatening the mother’s future.  We are beginning to recognize this in ourselves by permitting unwanted infants to be left at hospitals without threat of prosecution for neglect.


          The education of women has controlled population in several western European countries, but there is no evidence that this would work fast enough elsewhere.  In America most of us have accepted abortion as a necessary evil, but we do not even permit our foreign aid agencies to mention it in the context of population control.  Compare with our situation prior to Roe v Wade when elective abortions were not available to poor women because they did not have access to psychiatrists to testify that their mental health was at risk.  Here is the evidence that the rest of us are facing what the Chinese realize already.  The underdeveloped world will have to get old age pensions to control the compulsion to have sons—their current old age security.


          The Chinese conclusion that overpopulation is already a problem is confirmed by many expert estimates.  A summary of twelve estimates of sustainable total world population from 2002 varied from 2.1 to 5.0 billion when the world population was already 6.1 billion (4). How can there be more of us than the sustainable population?  We are living on borrowed time.  We urgently need to correct depleted soils, fisheries and the like, not to mention pollution of our atmosphere with excess carbon dioxide.  The UN population fund in 1994 had proposed to stabilize world population at 7.8 billion in 2050 by quadrupling their family planning budget to $4.4 billion by the year 2000 (5).


                We need help from high places. When Jonathan Swift sent Gulliver to the land of the Houyhnhnms, Swift demonstrated that he was ahead of his time about overpopulation.­ The intelligent horses controlled their numbers by a rather rigid social protocol which wouldn't work for us.­ Bonobos, chimpanzees, and humans all utilize sex for social cement beyond its reproductive function (6,7).­ At the AAAS meeting in February, 2000, a Jesuit ethicist (8) discussed our obligation to exercise stewardship in maintaining our planet and the fact that overpopulation was in conflict with this goal.­ He went on to say that the Catholic hierarchy was about to consider some adjustments in the doctrine of original sin to further this end.­ I was reminded of a conversation with the Dean of the Missouri Bible College in 1955 in which he stated that he had it on good authority that the College of Cardinals had recently had a split vote about contraception.­ So some of the needed reforms may come from the top down, which will be a great relief for activists.­

       Finally, some possible incidental beneficial side effects from successful population control: our experience with reduced crime reliably attributed to Roe v Wade will occur elsewhere (but no doubt be more difficult to document).  Terrorism comes to mind as the crime of our times.  When fewer people  perceive their future as severely limited, there will be fewer terrorists.  We will be less tempted to declare that we need war on terrorism and treat it one crime at a time with the nations cooperating to bring the perpetrators to justice retail and with much less “collateral damage” than  wholesale war.

        Wider acceptance of abortion will reduce opposition to contraception with the demonstrated benefit of sex as one of the “glues” of society.

        Stem cells will be regarded like postmortem  organ  donation  by doomed  embryos that become excess  by successful  implantation  of one of  their  cohorts  (permission  for

donation provided by the next  of kin).  Incidentally,  as a matter of public policy  in vitro

fertilization may no longer be covered by insurance—too great a cost en route to aggravating the population problem.


        New questions will arise.  (For example, will lesbian couples be entitled to one child per couple or one child per mother?  Odds are the Chinese have not yet encountered this question.)  While I was writing this, I stumbled on information, new to me, from China. (9)  Homosexuality was decriminalized there in 1997 and is no longer a psychiatric diagnosis since 2001.  Currently the main opposition to homosexuality in China comes from potentially unrequited grandparents.  Ads in the personals columns there have appeared seeking partners for fake marriages.  The Guardian quotes a Chinese gay man who was dating a lesbian as saying that discussions about the house and finances are very complicated. Marriage ceases to be a public health measure (because of the committed relationship) when it is, in fact, a spurious façade. Gay marriage or civil unions, if that is what we end up calling all non-ecclesiastically sanctioned relationships that we have previously called marriage, tend to have the health benefits of a committed relationship.

     Much later Chinese lesbians will start specifying nonbelligerent temperament in their sperm donors, and they will begin to achieve a modern Lysistrata—the ancient Greek play in which the women abolished war by withholding sex from the men who fought.  In a few centuries, politicians from these lineages may have a “leg up” on conventionally sired opponents because of public perception that these candidates might be more successful in avoiding warfare as violence becomes more totally unacceptable (because of weapons of mass destruction).  *


*  Here is an example of inheritance of personality traits in Labrador retrievers from Japan.  The Japanese formerly spent the equivalent of $23,000 per dog for training guide dogs for the blind.  Part of the high cost was that only 30% of the dogs successfully completed the training.  Using gene sequencing to help select new trainee dogs genetically similar to the most successful animals, the pass rate for the first dogs so selected was 80%.  Here is proof of principle that benign temperament can be enhanced by selective breeding at least in Labradors.  Suzuki, the geneticist in charge of the      selective breeding, thinks that his method could easily be applied to humans.  (Lesbians take note).  From Nature 446, 8 Mar ’07, page 119  


         Overpopulation is the ultimate environmental problem.. In all probability we have already exceeded the human population of the world that is sustainable in the lifestyle of North America and Europe.  Education of women has been demonstrated to control population without explicit emphasis on abortion and contraception.  However, one more generation of uneducated women and it will be too late to solve the population problem in time to avoid serious environmental disruption.  This fact almost surely justifies the draconian “one child policy” of China because of too large an illiterate population when the policy was initiated.  During my lifetime contraception has become almost universal in America fostered by the legal availability of abortion.  People are alive today who remember when contraception was illegal in Connecticut. There is no disagreement that contraception is much to be preferred to abortion even though maternal mortality from abortion is a small fraction of maternal mortality from normal childbirth.  Legal abortion has spared us from much agitation to prohibit contraception.


         Summary: easy access to elective abortion will be necessary to avoid  severe environmental degradation from overpopulation.  There will be many incidental effects.  Fortunately, many of these effects, if not (almost) all, will be surprisingly beneficial.  These are indeed major nuances.


John Frantz MD (1946), NASW (2006), August 5, 2007




1) For the entire Supreme Court opinion  see:  .  

2) Levitt Steven D. “Understanding Why Crime Fell in the 1990s”, Journal of Economic    Perspectives, 18, (1), 2004.  For comments on this article see:                           

3) Frantz, John  Biology’s Integrating Insights for Medical Science”, (6th paragraph)”,

    <  > under Other Science and Technology

4) Richard, Gigi.  “Human Carrying Capacity of the Earth,”  ILEA Leaf.  Winter  2002 issue

5) Brown, Richard, Kane, Hall.  FULL HOUSE: Reassessing the Earth’s Population Carrying  Capacity. 1994.  Worldwatch Institute. page 28.                                              

6) Jolly, Allison. 1999. Lucy’s Legacy, Sex and Intelligence in Human Evolution         

7) Potts, Malcolm & Short, Roger. Ever Since Adam and Eve, The Evolution of Human Sexuality                 

8) Global Climate Change and Human Values, a Symposium at the Annual Meeting of the            .    AAAS, 2000         

9) “Gays in China Burdened by Pressure to Conform”, The Guardian Weekly, 176, (11),

     March 2, 2007 page 20.


Addendum, September 10, 2007

Tackling Climate Change is Now a Crusade, so What’s Stopping the Simplest Solution?  The following is a précis of an article with this subtitle from the Guardian, a British newspaper, for August 24, 2007, by David Nicholson-Lord.

   “…so why isn’t the green movement talking about population any more?”  The reporter interviewed the front offices of organizations such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, World Wildlife Fund, and Oxfam.  The bottom line: mentioning population as an environmental problem frightens away donors.  An organization named Population Countdown became Population Concern in the 80s and Interact Worldwide in 2003 because consultants told it the former names would spook funders.  Greenpeace declared, “Population is not an issue for us…..[just a] factor in, but not one of, the drivers of environmental problems.”  Great Britain’s chief scientist, Sir David King, stated at an official inquiry last year, “It is self-evident that massive growth in human population through the 20th century has had more impact on biodiversity than any other single factor.” …    

           “It was Mark Twain who observed that those who refused to share vital information with others were guilty of a’silent lie’.  The green movement needs to start telling the truth.”  (Amen JAF)