Commentary Magazine


On Choosing Life

To the Editor:

As a Jew, as a member of that large and skeptical generation of postwar babies, and as an employee of Zero Population Growth, Inc., an organization of forty thousand people concerned with achieving population stability, I feel I must refute the “playful” arguments made by Milton Himmelfarb [“A Plague of Children,” April] and Norman Podhoretz [“Speak of the Devil,” Issues, April] about the ZPG movement, and more specifically, the implications of ZPG for the Jewish people.

Both articles refuse to come to grips with one fact: there is only so much of this country. Only so much land, water, and air to exploit for each expanded generation. . . .

If taken now, steps to achieve population stability in the United States need involve no coercion whatsoever, merely the elimination of unwanted pregnancies, taken together with certain additional steps like repealing pronatalist laws, and providing public education on the need for ZPG.

Whether or not the United States is currently overpopulated is a matter open to debate, but it is apparent that the U.S. is experiencing rapid population growth. In its attempts to feed its present population, the U.S. is destroying its ability to feed and support future generations; and the country is rapidly running out of the raw materials on which the economy is based.

The U.S. has grown by sixty-four million people since 1945, and the pace is accelerating. The number of Americans of peak childbearing ages (twenty to twenty-nine) was twenty million in 1960. It is now thirty million, and will be forty million by 1980. If couples were to agree from this moment on to have no more than an average of two children, the population would still receive an impetus from new parents and from immigration to enable it to grow to three hundred million by about 2030. According to the recent report of the U.S. Commission on Population and the American Future, if we keep delaying the date on which the first steps toward zero population growth are taken, and maintain, say, a three-child average per woman for the next hundred years, we can “look forward” to a population of almost a billion.

Of course, at that time we will not have sufficient resources to support these crowded generations. Chemicals and sewage will have eliminated any hopes that the sea might provide an unlimited counterpart to man’s procreativity, and all currently-known U.S.-mined supplies of oil, natural gas, copper, uranium, lead, and about a dozen other vital substances will have been used up or rendered vastly more scarce and expensive. . . .

Society, to achieve the goal of population stability, should do what it tries to do in most of its regulatory functions: use the least possible pressure to achieve a sufficient result. And in the United States population stability does not require anything like the involuntary sterilizations which Mr. Himmelfarb describes—although the methods he speaks of would certainly have a liberating effect on people’s sex lives.

Using census figures, demographers have estimated that women have an average of about 2.5 children each, and that the undesired fertility rate is 15 to 22 per cent. The elimination, through contraception and abortion, of those pregnancies which are not wanted, would probably reduce the birth rate right away to a level of fertility required for each generation to replace itself, and allow for some immigration. The government’s major intervention would be to eliminate the legal and economic restrictions which force thirty-two thousand unwanted children to be born every month. It might also eliminate the tax and welfare incentives for large families. . . .

The elimination of unwanted fertility would have the secondary effect of establishing two children as the norm. A recent Census Bureau study revealed that the number of children expected by young couples was virtually the same, about 2.9, regardless of race, region, or income. People tend to imitate their neighbors, and if more and more of their neighbors stop at two children, a not-so-mild taboo will develop against taking advantage of other people’s reticence by going on to four, or thirteen.

As for the parochial argument, ZPG, while tending to maintain ratios of ethnic groups in a population, does not freeze them or endanger any group—including the Jews.

In the United States, a cursory glance shows that Jews, who have generally kept their families small, and are only 3 per cent of the population, hold a disproportionately important position in science, politics, and the arts. Conversely, an examination of the experiences of Jews in Nazi-occupied countries refutes the idea that there is strength in the size of a minority. Poland, Latvia, and Czechoslovakia had relatively large Jewish populations before the war, but the Jews of these countries suffered far more than did the Jews of Belgium, Bulgaria, or France, where the Jewish population was less than one per cent.

Militarily, Israel in 1967, with two million Jews, defeated a coalition of fifty million Arabs. The Six-Day War demonstrated clearly that military power isn’t dependent on population. In fact, as a population rises and strains the resources of the land, the nation becomes weaker and less able economically to wage modern warfare. Is it unpatriotic to suggest that we in the U.S. avoid such a fate?

One thing is certain, an attempt to gain power simply by outbreeding the ethnic majority would gain many enemies and probably end in failure. For instance: in the U.S. non-white undesired fertility is estimated at between 20 per cent and 40 per cent of all non-white births. Let us suppose that a demagogic movement persuaded a large percentage of non-white women to abstain from using the more perfect contraceptives in order to outbreed the white majority and the result was a steady non-white average birth rate of 2.75 children per woman. Naturally, many whites would feel threatened and respond by maintaining a larger-than-replacement birth rate of, say, 2.45 children per woman. In twenty years (an entire generation, and four times longer than the phrase “black power” has been in popular existence) the non-whites could conceivably increase from a projected 15.9 per cent of the population in 1990 to 17.2 per cent—a 1.3 per cent difference.

The cost? Four million more children than if the overall average had been 2.45 children per woman (and most of the children unwanted) and seventeen million more people than if completed fertility had fallen to 2.11—enough to sustain a population and its ethnic balance forever without immigration. Seventeen million more people to compete for the awards supposedly being sought after, and to fuel and accelerate the population snowball. Will the pie still be there when the time comes to cut the pieces differently?

As for the hypothetical increases in the proportion of mentally-defective or socially-noncooperative persons in a voluntary ZPG system, the proportion would numerically be no greater than what we are experiencing at present, given our penchant for hiding contraceptives behind the pharmacist’s counter. And running counter to such a problem would be the tendency for children in one-and two-child families to be brighter and better adjusted. An additional factor would be increased maturity within the population, since the current median age of twenty-seven would reverse its fairly stable course, and with replacement-level birth rates, rise to age thirty-six by the year 2020.

The discomfort Mr. Himmelfarb and others feel about population control has led them to call the concept anti-life. But it is not anti-life to kill a cancer cell which is growing so fast that it will end by overwhelming the body. Nor is it anti-life to plant seeds with space between them so that each plant has sufficient root space and sunshine to insure proper growth. Nor was it anti-life to invent and use the medicines which brought about the population explosion in the first place. . . .

The hope for a fruitful future is to recognize the necessities of today and multiply ourselves by a factor of one, thereby choosing life, but not growth.

Peter Liederman
Zero Population Growth, Inc.
Los Altos, California

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To the Editor:

. . . I regard with real terror many of the theories and proposals espoused by ZPG and some of our environmental hawks. . . . The possibilities for violence in the neo-Malthusian philosophy are overwhelming. Yet many people who should know better seem to have forgotten that the Nazis were deeply influenced by Malthus, and that the German medical profession, on its own, initiated the abortion, sterilization, and euthanasia programs which disposed of over a quarter of a million Germans whose lives were considered “devoid of value” in order to improve the “quality of life” for Aryan survivors. And all this before the Nazi government officially embarked upon its own “Final Solution.” . . .

Mrs. Robert K. Nixon
Birmingham, Michigan

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Milton Himmelfarb writes:

Like most other movements, Zero Population Growth has its radicals and its moderates. Mr. Liederman is a moderate, or wants us to think he is. In my article I suggested that ZPG implies universal, compulsory, female sterilization. Not so, Mr. Liederman assures us: ZPG “need involve no coercion whatsoever”; it “does not require anything like the involuntary sterilizations Mr. Himmelfarb describes”; we need little more than a “taboo” against the anti-social begetting of “four, or thirteen” children, or actually maybe little more than doing away with “our penchant for hiding contraceptives behind the pharmacist’s counter.”

What could be more moderate? Mr. Liederman seems far removed from Professor Paul R. Ehrlich, whom I quoted in my article, or from Ehrlich’s colleague Garrett Hardin, whom the press has since reported as saying:

The government will have to step in and take control. That’s all there is to it. There will have to be laws against big families. . . .

Let’s call it X number. Now, when a woman goes in to have that X child, she should be advised that she has the alternative of sterilization, if she so desires. But after that X child, X plus one, she would no longer have an alternative. She would by law be required to have an abortion and sterilization.

. . . if we think of it in fact as helping the woman, the family, and the world, sterilization doesn’t seem so bad. . . .

I think such laws will be passed in the next generation. I see no other way out. Yes, it will be a tremendous abridgement of freedom. People have always had the right to have children. But what of the children’s right? Do they not have the right to survival? They won’t if our population gets too large.

But maybe the difference is not that Hardin is radical and Liederman is moderate. Detectives are said to practice a kind of division of roles, with one member of a team acting the tough guy and the other acting nice. Can it be that in ZPG the role of people like Mr. Liederman is to sound moderate? He seems a bit uncomfortable in the role. He lets his mask slip, as when he archly grants that “involuntary sterilizations . . . would certainly have a liberating effect on people’s sex lives.” The liberation effected by the Pill is not quite complete enough. Sterilization is not just useful, necessary, good for you. Sterilization is fun.

Mr. Liederman invokes the “thirty-two thousand unwanted children . . . born every month” in the United States. Now, “unwanted children” has a precise meaning. The unwanted child is not the infant the philosophers and kings don’t want, he is the infant born of a pregnancy his mother doesn’t want. As Mr. Liederman implies, the poorer the family, and the worse-educated, the greater the chance of unwanted children. There is also the ethnic-religious-cultural factor. At equal levels of education and income, American Jews have fewer children, whether wanted or unwanted, than others. (Marshall Sklare has spoken of the contraceptive virtuosity of American Jewry.)

From Mr. Liederman’s own argument, three things emerge clearly: 1) that unwanted children are borne mostly by the poor and ignorant, by those who do not know of or have access to contraception or abortion, which have long been known and accessible to the prosperous and educated; 2) that while most Americans want too many children, American Jews “have generally kept their families small”; and 3) therefore, that the contribution to limiting population, even in America, and a fortiori in the world, that can be made by educated and prosperous American men, who have themselves sterilized, among whom Jewish men are disproportionately numerous, is insignificant. Yet Mr. Liederman does not disapprove the self-sterilization of those men.

In my article I suggested that, remembering what the Nazis did, Jews might reasonably be expected not to be briskly matter-of-fact, let alone eager, about sterilization. Mr. Liederman is not even matter-of-fact. He cannot forgo his little quip about sterilization’s liberating effect on people’s sex lives.

He may be too close to it even to understand that the question of the Jewish enthusiasm for ZPG and sterilization is a question—after all, he identifies himself for us both as a Jew and as an employee of ZPG. Someone else would ask about the difference between ZPG and other movements of reform, regeneration, and salvation—temperance, for example. The temperance cause has had a wide appeal in the United States, England, Ireland, and the Scandinavian countries. The reason is clear. Drunkenness has been a serious problem in all those countries. On the American frontier, especially, drunkenness was a chief obstacle to the domestication of all those grown-up Huck Finns who had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into civilization. But temperance was an appealing cause only to that ethnic-religious-cultural group which was most threatened, or whose dreams of a right and fitting order were most threatened, by the drunkenness of its border-barbarian males: the English-stock and Scotch-Irish Protestants west of the Eastern seaboard. Anti-saloon and prohibitionary temperance was not an appealing cause to American Jews, mainly because their most serious problems did not include alcoholism. But neither is unbridled natality a serious Jewish problem. Why, then, the appeal of the ZPG cause to Jews, why all those self-sterilizing Jewish men?

Mr. Liederman is incapable not only of asking but even of understanding such questions.

In my article I expected prophetical-universalist Jews to refuse to grant the Jews, on our pleas of uniqueness in being so much fewer now than we were only a generation ago, and of our being too scarce to burden the earth, an exemption from ZPG duty. Mr. Liederman does not disappoint. He withholds the exemption. But he tempers his sternness with mildness. Less is more, the Bauhaus theorists used to teach; fewer is better, Mr. Liederman consoles the Jews. Luckily for the Israelis, he says, they were only two million in 1967, so they could defeat those many millions of Arabs. It would have been worse for the Israelis if they had been four million, and better if they had been one million—that must follow from his logic. Better still would it have been for the Israelis if they had been only a half million, or a quarter, or. . . . Then, no doubt, they would have won in six hours, not six days. Israeli Jews must be stupid to worry about the higher birth rate of Arabs than of Jews in Israel.

In Hitler’s Europe, Mr. Liederman as historian tells us, the small Jewish communities fared better than the large ones. Mr. Liederman’s history has no room for the small European Jewish communities which were not noticeably helped by their smallness. (The Nazis murdered 50 per cent of the Jews in Norway, 70 per cent in Holland, and 80 per cent in Greece. In Mr. Liederman’s happy Belgium and France, the Nazis murdered only 40 per cent and 30 per cent of the Jews.) But that is by the way. If the fewer Jews the better, then best of all is that there shall be no Jews. Jewish zeal for ZPG and sterilization are the appropriate means to that end.

Note: Norman Podhoretz is on vacation. His column, “Issues,” will be resumed upon his return.—ED.

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