At a climate-themed CNN ‘town hall’ event on Wednesday, Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders made comments that have sparked a flurry of outraged and amused criticism on some media platforms, as well as more thoughtful feedback from around the country and web.
According to multiple news platforms and social media voices, Sanders was promoting the ideas of ‘population control’ and eugenics, though he mentioned neither term. As BBC News reported, his comments came after attendee Martha Readyoff, a teacher, asked Sanders a question about a topic which she said was “poisonous for politicians” but “crucial to face.”
“Empowering women and educating everyone on the need to curb population growth seems a reasonable campaign to enact,” Readyoff said, and then asked, “Would you be courageous enough to discuss this issue and make it a key feature of a plan to address climate catastrophe?” Sen. Sanders responded,
Well, Martha, the answer is yes. The answer has everything to do with the fact that women in the United States of America, by the way, have a right to control their own bodies, and make reproductive decisions.
The Mexico City Agreement which denies American aid to those organisations around the world that allow women to have abortions or even get involved in birth control to me is totally absurd.
So I think, especially in poor countries around the world where women do not necessarily want to have large numbers of babies, and where they can have the opportunity through birth control to control the number of kids they have, is something I very, very strongly support.
As critics have pointed out (with or without references to the Marvel Universe), Sanders’ comments evoked some controversial topics in human history as well as very painful cultural memories, including quite recently, that have been caused by them.
For the past century, the practice of ‘population control’ has been repeatedly and physically forced onto millions of people—generally those who are ethnically, legally, and/or economically oppressed—by governments around the world, as in California, Puerto Rico, Australia, and (until at least 2017) in Canada, to name a few. It often comes in the form of forced and/or coerced sterilization; in North America, this type of violence has overwhelmingly been inflicted by white people onto people of color, including Indigenous, Latinx, and Black communities for the past few generations.
For many viewers, Sanders’ comments about providing birth control to women “in poor countries” seemed to brush up against (or smack into) this history and the ideas behind it, which famously enticed Nazi scientists as well as notable figures across the US and world: in short, a belief that humanity would best be served by letting those in power tailor our reproductive activities, and control our choices, in order to create a more manageable and biologically advanced (and typically whiter) population.
In light of all this, Sen. Sanders could have spoken more thoughtfully, to be sure. He could also have addressed this historical context directly, or acknowledged the key fact that, while populations may be growing much faster in some of the world’s poorest countries, residents of its richest nations have the worst carbon footprints and consumption habits by far. (For what it’s worth, members of Sanders’ Jewish family back in Poland died in WWII opposing Nazis, but Sanders doesn’t discuss it much; out of respect for groups that have continued facing acts of violence and genocide much more recently, one can understand why.)
But the point he was making—about the vital relationship between human reproduction and our environment—is entirely spot on.
In the US, which has (despite numerous remaining obstacles) some of the safest and most accessible family-planning options in the world, research has shown that unintended or indeed unwanted pregnancies can lead to loss of income or educational opportunities, health issues, high medical expenses, and other significant challenges for parents and their extant children.
For many US residents, it’s still difficult to access or afford simple family planning tools, from condoms and ‘morning after’ pills to long-term birth control, and increasingly difficult to find and afford abortion services, which the earlier tools are meant to preempt; the same is true around the world.
The numbers also show that, around the world, people will be denied these but also other forms of healthcare due specifically to our country’s stance on reproductive health, whether they personally want to receive birth control and/or abortion services, or not.
The simple fact and end result are this: in the US, and in every other nation, reproduction is only one of several major life areas which remain partially or completely outside of our control as individuals. And much to our detriment, survival-wise.
Practically speaking, not one of us can decide what goes into the air we breathe and water we drink, how our garbage gets generated and disposed of, what education and employment opportunities we have access to, or how much the things we need to survive will cost.
See Also: The Endless Cost Of Maligning Abortion
Broadly speaking, those decisions are being made by governments as led by elected officials or (increasingly, perhaps through relationships with government) by corporations and private capital. But across the US and the world, people have increasingly come to realize that our current method of managing and dividing the planet’s resources, as led by today’s governments and market big league-ers, just cannot last.
To prepare for tomorrow’s changes (and today’s) as quickly as possibly, we know that we need to make very smart decisions as a country and a society about how and where we live, where our energy and food come from, and how we relate to each other; as a group, we also need to create and adopt a wide range of systemic changes, many of which will be difficult.
While no one person can divert climate catastrophes or plastics pollution or, for that matter, make them noticeably worse (world leaders arguably aside), we all have plenty of work and difficult decision-making ahead, and need to trust that others will handle their share, in the meantime and for years to come. In short, it’s a historical ‘all hands on deck.’
Yet for just over half of the people on Earth, as well as their families, the ability to make some of life’s most important decisions toward our role in this future is partially or wholly withheld—often with vastly different rules, rights, and consequences depending on where they live—long before the potential for new life within their bodies would be capable of entering this world.
And today, more than ever, absolutely everybody deserves the right to genuinely try to make this world as habitable as possible in the coming years (especially if we plan to stick around a long while), and the tools to plan accordingly.