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Fatal Misconception [Paperback]

Matthew Connelly
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Book Description

6 Jan 0010
Listen to a short interview with Matthew Connelly. Host: Chris Gondek. Producer: Heron & Crane. "Fatal Misconception" is the disturbing story of our quest to remake humanity by policing national borders and breeding better people. As the population of the world doubled once, and then again, well-meaning people concluded that only population control could preserve the 'quality of life'. This movement eventually spanned the globe and carried out a series of astonishing experiments, from banning Asian immigration to paying poor people to be sterilized. Supported by affluent countries, foundations, and non-governmental organizations, the population control movement experimented with ways to limit population growth. But it had to contend with the Catholic Church's ban on contraception and nationalist leaders who warned of 'race suicide'. The ensuing struggle caused untold suffering for those caught in the middle - particularly women and children. It culminated in the horrors of sterilization camps in India and the one-child policy in China. Matthew Connelly offers the first global history of a movement that changed how people regard their children and ultimately the face of humankind. It was the most ambitious social engineering project of the twentieth century, one that continues to alarm the global community. Though promoted as a way to lift people out of poverty - perhaps even to save the earth - family planning became a means to plan other people's families. With its transnational scope and exhaustive research into such archives as Planned Parenthood and the newly opened Vatican Secret Archives, Connelly's withering critique uncovers the cost inflicted by a humanitarian movement gone terribly awry and urges renewed commitment to the reproductive rights of all people.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (6 Jan 0010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674034600
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674034600
  • Product Dimensions: 3.6 x 14.4 x 22.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 625,996 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Passionate and troubling...Connelly tells the story of the 20th-century international movement to control population, which he sees as an oppressive movement that failed to deliver the promised economic and environmental results...Ambitious, exhaustively researched and clearly written, this is a highly important book. Publishers Weekly (starred review) 20080114 [A] disturbing and compelling global history of population control programs...Drawing from records in more than 50 archives in seven countries, including those from Planned Parenthood and the more recently opened Vatican Secret Archives, Connelly provides extensive examples of movements to adjust populations...The world population growth is slowing and the age of population control appears to be over for the moment, but Connelly writes that his book is not just about history: It is a cautionary tale about the future. -- Lori Valigra Christian Science Monitor 20080325 [A] voluminous history of global population policy. -- Elizabeth Pisani New Statesman 20080505 Highlight[s] the importance of knowing who speaks for whom...Fatal Misconception describes a historic clash of opposed interest groups wrestling to impose their own population policies on the developing world. -- Michael Sargent Nature 20080515 Connelly's book is an excellent work of reference on the history of the population-control movement...It gives important insights into the emergence and the workings of the population-control lobby. -- Frank Furedi Spiked Review of Books 20080530 The shocking theme of Connelly's book is how Western governments--and most especially successive U.S. administrations--supported a policy which would have appalled them if it had been imposed on their own families. -- Dominic Lawson The Independent 20080520 A devastating account of the population-control movement; he demonstrates, detail by shocking detail, how a movement that believed it was acting from the highest humanitarian ideals became responsible for callous abuses of human rights on a global scale, ruining millions of lives in a grotesque eugenic experiment. -- Dominic Lawson Sunday Times 20080518 Connelly decisively confronts the historical baggage of reproductive rights by detailing the confluence of social Darwinists, Malthusians, racist eugenicists, public health advocates and feminists who coalesced around the century-long effort to control world population. -- James J. Hughes Times Higher Education Supplement 20080529 Mr. Connelly's story is a global one, partly because so many of the groups seeking to influence the reproduction of others were transnational, but also because often it was those in one country who wished those in another to have fewer children...Mr. Connelly's most devastating critique of population control is not that it destroyed lives, or was based on imperialist or eugenic ideas, but that it did not work. The Economist 20080524 Though painful to read, [Fatal Misconception] contain[s] many valuable lessons for anyone who cares about making development programs work, both technically and politically. -- Helen Epstein The New York Review of Books 20080814 This book provides the best historical record yet of how our culture was shaped by the acceptance of birth control. -- Patrick Carroll Catholic Herald 20081017 The subject of population control--perhaps the most ambitious social engineering project of the 20th century--has been somewhat neglected by historians...Fatal Misconception is a welcome contribution to the field, original and thought-provoking. -- Clive Cookson Financial Times 20080602 [This] brilliant new history of the population control movement is useful not simply on its theme but for the light it sheds on the political corruption that inevitably accompanies these world-saving enthusiasms...As Connelly lays out in painstaking detail, population control programs, aimed chiefly at developing nations, proliferated despite clear human rights abuses and, more importantly, new data and information that called into question many of the fundamental assumptions of the crisis mongers. -- Steven F. Hayward Claremont Review of Books 20081201


This book provides the best historical record yet of how our culture was shaped by the acceptance of birth control.
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, scholarly work. 13 Oct 2010
I find "simon's" review (next to this one) frankly unfathomable. He states that Connelly's book is well researched and scholarly, but then refuses to acquiesce with Connelly's unexceptional conclusion on the grounds that there are too many people and we are causing environmental damage - this is what Connelly spent a good part of the book arguing against!

Connelly notes how a group of intellectuals, eugenicists and so-called "environmentalists" became terrified by the difference in population growth between the west and the other, 'darker' nations. Though this was to be expected as part of the demographic transition, and would level out eventually, they pushed, proselytized and published, inveighing for the idea that there were too many of "us" (read "them") and that "we" (read "us") needed to do something about it. Connelly shows this time and time again. The code-words that referred to poor, coloured people without actually specifically mentioning them, the latent racism that assumed that they were helplessly fecund and about to overrun "us". It's all here, and copiously referenced with unassailable primary sources from private papers and contemporary accounts.

Connelly realises that the argument that there are too many people is, essentially, a racist argument - after all, it's never *really* us who are at fault for over-breeding is it? Always some other group. This timely and scholarly work shows the dangers of thinking that it is an acceptable position - the MILLIONS of Indians forced into sterilisation, the women in China dragged off to abortion centres at up 7 months pregnant. Did you know that China's one child policy was a direct result of the early 1970's book "The Limits to Growth"? Connelly draws our attention to this disturbing fact, among others.

An interesting work and an important one. Highly recommended.
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6 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating history though arguable conclusions 24 May 2008
By simon r
Matthew Connolly has written a fascinating history of the population control movement during the 20th century. He illustrates the differing origins of the movement, from eugenics to the desire for racial dominance or national strength. He shows that limiting population growth became the priority as the world population doubled from 2bn in the mid 20's to 4bn just fifty years later. The fragmented movement achieved initial successes but lost its authority to the financial strength of the US government and the diktat of the Indian and Chinese governments. The population movement clearly shares some of the blame for the resulting paternalistic, over rapid and even coercive approaches to family planning. Connolly concedes that today's female focused family planning charities are very different but sums up the historical movement as both ineffective and unnecessary. This is a somewhat surprising conclusion given the generally accepted impact of humanity on the environment as the global population increases to 6bn today and a projected 9bn by 2050.
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Amazon.com: 3.5 out of 5 stars  11 reviews
17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Lots of detai; not enough context 15 Dec 2009
By Michael Billig - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is a fine work of historical scholarship, but I have three problems with it. The first one is that it is too ideological, or, to put it another way, insufficiently dispassionate for a work of history. The second is that he is way too hard on the scholarly discipline of demography, the association of which with population control he overstates. Demography in the 20th-century achieved enormous triumphs in formal/mathematical theory, statistical methods, data collection, and (still incompletely developed) social science understanding of population processes. Connelly seems to suggest that any study or analysis at the population level denigrates individual liberty. I think that is an unreasonable assessment.
The third (and most important) problem is that it gets overly bogged down in the details of who said what to whom, bureaucratic squabbles, power struggles, etc. What gets lost in all these details are the grander historical contexts. For example, in the few decades after World War II, we entered the age of what I like to call "high modernism." The manifestations of this age ramified in music, art, architecture, and social/political theory. In the latter sphere we saw "modernization theory," "development economics," welfare state mixed economies, structuralism, and a general predilection toward management, planning, systems approaches, global governance, the sanctity of science, utopianism, and what would later be referred to as "metanarratives." Population control was one manifestation of this intellectual, political, and artistic movement, but the extent to which this context matters seems to escape Connelly's account. Is it a coincidence that the hey-day of population control was also the hey-day of Robert Moses and Le Corbusier?
The post-modernism of the 80s and 90s was characterized by skepticism about modernist metanarratives, and many of the grand theories of the previous decades began to be viewed as dangerously naive. The 1994 World Population Conference may have been a "Waterloo" of population control (a point that Connelly overstates), but the demise of population control had a far broader intellectual context that, again, Connelly does not sufficiently develop.
Is population control dead? Perhaps for now. But fatal misconceptions about human social life come and go. We may not see this one again, but our children and grandchildren very well might.
30 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thorough and Fair 13 April 2008
By R. Ladouceur - Published on Amazon.com
Though science is a progressive activity, social policies defended as "scientific," when examined in hindsight, often reveal themselves to be based on little more than ephemeral cultural beliefs. Historical analyses of social policies 50 years on almost always uncover strong, sometimes fatal, nationalist, class, race, or gender-biases. Yet, our faith in progress drives us to believe that the mistakes of the past were due simply to inadequate data or poor modeling, not a general and unavoidable gulf between what is knowable scientifically and what is necessary to function communally and politically.

Nicolas D. Kristof, in his review of Matthew Connelly's "Fatal Misconception," (NYT: March 23, 2008) expresses this faith (and error) when he asserts, "The family planning movement has corrected itself, and today it saves the lives of women in poor countries and is central to efforts to reduce poverty worldwide."

Connelly does not dispute that the ability to control fertility is a welcome and empowering development. However, he makes a strong case that it has been "the emancipation of women, not population control, that has remade humanity." Connelly ably defends his central thesis - "the great tragedy of population control, the fatal misconception, was to think one could know people's interests better than they knew it themselves" - and alerts us to the continued universality and threat of this misconception. International population control efforts of the 1960s and 70s are often characterized today, particularly by feminist scholars, as extensions of imperialist policies. But Connelly's warning that "the spirit of empire lives on when people are unaccountable to those they claim to serve" is something I think we would all do well to contemplate.

Connelly's book is thoroughly researched and extremely well written. Highly recommended.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A strong rebuttal to the flawed logic of population control 10 Jun 2011
By Charles Lewis Sizemore, CFA - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Matthew Connelly, an Associate Professor of History at Columbia University, has written the first global history of population control by both governments and non-governmental organizations. He includes the histories of both pro-natal and anti-natal positions, and even touches on related issues such as eugenics and immigration. The book is largely critique of the neo-Malthusian "Population Bomb" mentality and the flawed (albeit well-intentioned) efforts of Westerners to limit population growth in their own countries and in the developing world.

As Connelly writes, "The idea of population control is at least as ancient as Plato's Republic, which described how a 'Guardian class' could be bred to rule, the unfit left to die, and everyone sold the same myth that political inequality reflected the natural order of things."

This harsh sentiment is reflected in policies ranging from today's One Child policy in China to the eugenics movements in the United States and Western Europe in the 1930s that attempted to limit the reproduction of the 'unfit.'

Of course, today many of the countries that attempted to limit population growth in the past are now desperately trying to foster it. Pro-natal policies abound in North America and Europe, with former president Vladimir Putin's offer to pay Russian women $10,000 for each baby being the most extreme example. In words that echo Phillip Longman (see THE EMPTY CRADLE: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity And What to Do About It), Connelly writes,

"Some have now declared a new population crisis...and we are told that we should fear too many elderly rather than too many children. Now most pronounced in Europe and Japan, the 'aging' of populations may proceed much and more rapidly in countries where fertility fell the fastest, such as China and Mexico, this time without the benefit of a societal safety net."

The world is now facing a slow-motion demographic crisis unlike any before in history. Past crises--be they plagues, wars, famines, etc.--tended to affect the population across the age spectrum equally, or perhaps hit the older and weaker harder. In the unfolding crisis, the elderly are the survivors. We are truly entering a brave new world.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Thoughtful history of population policy: great big idea, with some misgivings 2 Feb 2013
By Nathaniel Lane - Published on Amazon.com
A remarkable history of global population politics and policies, Fatal Misconception details the emergence of a vast policy institution that sought to avert global population catastrophe, though guided by eugenic sympathies and pseudo-science hubris. This history challenges the efficacy of state control of reproductive health decisions and the impact of (questionable) policy impulses to steer demographic change. While interesting and humane, this history can get bogged down in details, but is nonetheless useful for students of public health, reproductive policy, and demography.

Connelly shines in constructing a story with many moving parts, making a constellation of agency acronyms and obscure foreign figures legible. For Connelly, the evolution of population control movements was situated in a subtle historical intersection, particularly the strange dovetail between women's health advocates and eugenicists social movements. Both benevolent and racist urges merged at a crucial historical juncture: when the modern state found itself concerned with population movements and the preservation of national identity.

Beyond realizing nativist desires, the emergence of a population control institution paralleled international politics. The family planning ideal intersected with anxieties of a multiplying, threatening Third World. Meanwhile, the rise of demography as a field of inquiry, replete with catastrophic population predictions, fed large-scale Cold War development policy. Connelly is keenly aware of the tragic costs of these programs. The sterilization campaigns of Indira Ghandi's Congress Party illustrate the cruelty of well-funded, top-down demographic campaigns...and their mishaps.

I have two main criticisms. First, a principal downfall of the book is the mountain of dry conference details--the four decade parade through international meetings and policy conferences gets quite heavy. Much of the work is dedicated to the minutiae of international organization elites and swanky activist meetups. While these details are important to some, the casual reader may find it heavy to sift through.

Second, little is actually revealed of the demographic and economic outcomes of these massive policies. While Connelly masterfully situates the intentions of these policies and their disregard for human life, we're left unaware of their broader demographic impacts. We know there were abject policy failures: warehouses of condoms in the South Asia went undelivered and under-trained minions exploited poor incentive schemes, echoing the perennial mishaps of aid-gone-wrong. However, the demographic history and results are left lurking.

Connelly tells a fascinating story of how a demographic control movement emerged and the policies it engendered. Fatal Misconception echoes a familiar pattern of historical public health intervention and hubris, where an imagined social optimum guided draconian policy at great cost--particularly for the most vulnerable. A great "big idea" historical text with some blemishes.
9 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars International Organizations = Interest Groups 6 July 2008
By Cincinnatus - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The author makes a compelling case that population control groups are accountable to no one. Driven by their own particular ideologies, they operate with little regard to either the welfare of individuals within nation states or the overall interest of the countries they seek to influence.
The larger point is that international organizations behave in similar fashion to interest groups: i.e., controlled by elites and driven by narrow ideologies.
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