Friday, July 8, 2011

The Orwellian Logic Behind Abortion and Population Control

A recent Associated Press story on the work of the ASPCA had this to say:
It took years of campaigning to change thinking about sterilizing pets, but it has paid off. This year fewer than 4 million unwanted dogs and cats will be euthanized, down from as many as 20 million before 1970.

There are several reasons: Aggressive adopt-a-pet campaigns are carried out every day in cities all over the country and breed rescues save many dogs. But animal experts believe spaying and neutering has played the biggest role in saving so many lives.
James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal correctly calls this out as eerily Orwellian:
Did you catch that "saving so many lives"? True, fewer animals were put to death, but that's because they weren't born in the first place. By this logic, hunting a species to extinction "saves lives" because it prevents any more of the species from being killed.

This sort of deceptive language is commonly deployed on behalf of totalitarian regimes to conceal their brutality to human beings. It's fascinating to see it used in this context, where the moral stakes are so much lower.
Exactly.  It's a classic case of a warped "destroy the town to save it" mentality.  The ASPCA is saving the animals lives by preventing them from being alive. What's far more disturbing is that the ASPCA's Orwellian language of animal control is often used against unborn humans, in two inter-related debates: population control (which even has an ominous name), and abortion.


Pro-Choice Action Network crows about "the tremendous benefit to society of ensuring that every child is a wanted child."  But abortion doesn't magically make children suddenly become wanted.  What they're really saying is that they'll prevent "unwanted" children from being born.  Unlike ASPCA, they don't stop reproduction before conception, so their real message is that if all the unwanted children would die, children would be happier.  You might as well suggest raising the per capita income by killing the poor.

Of course, these pro-choice mantras about wanted and unwanted children are false: many women abort children they want but feel they can't keep, due to pressures from their finances, families, or the fathers of the baby; and of course, an untold number of children who reach childbirth are abused or treated as if they're unwanted by their families.  Two things should be noted about this.  First, many of those children grow up into happy and well-adjusted adults - a lousy childhood is a terrible shame, but it's generally not the final chapter.  Second, abortion actually makes this problem dramatically worse, not better.

We can see this most acutely in the realm of children with disabilities.  Right now, the statistics for the unborn disabled are disturbing: over 90% of those children who are identified as having Down's Syndrome while they're still in the womb will be aborted, and the statistics aren't much better for a number of other mental or physical disabilities.  What message, exactly, does this send (on behalf of both parents and society) to those children who are born with Down's Syndrome, or to those physically- and emotionally-healthy children who suffer some sort of childhood accident, and become disabled?  If you're aware that your sibling was killed by abortion for being disabled, and then you become disabled, who wouldn't feel like an "unwanted child"?

The fact is, abortion perpetuates a mentality which treats children like commodities.  If you don't like the hand you've been dealt, get an abortion and try again.  It's this mentality which creates a culture increasingly hostile to children, and it's no mystery why, even as society has become more economically enriched and technologically advanced, we've become increasingly barbaric towards the vulnerable.  If we could just eliminate the undesirable members of our society, every citizen would be a wanted citizen, right?

Population Control

On the population control front, the parallel is obvious.  Not only do the two groups use identical language about controlling population sizes, but many of the more famous would-be population controllers have backgrounds in biology (Population Bomb author Paul Ehrlich) or environmental sciences (Club of Rome's founder Alexander King, Limits to Growth author Donella Meadows, etc.), and have approached the idea of controlling humans as if we're simply another animal.

Here's how Paul Ehrlich begins Population Bomb:
I have understood the population explosion intellectually for a long time. I came to understand it emotionally one stinking hot night in Delhi a few years ago.  My wife and daughter and I were returning to our hotel in an ancient taxi. The seats were hopping with fleas.  The only functional gear was third.  As we crawled through the city, we entered a crowded slum area. The temperature was well over 100, and the air was a haze of dust and smoke.  The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals.  People, people, people, people. As we moved slowly through the mob, hand horn squawking, the dust, noise, heat, and cooking fires gave the scene a hellish aspect.  Would we ever get to our hotel?  All three of us were, frankly, frightened. It seemed that anything could happen - but, of course, nothing did.
If you didn't already know that this book was about population control, you could hardly be criticized for expecting that the author was some sort of racist or xenophobe, talking about how disgusting and scary he finds the people of the Third World.  And frankly, you wouldn't really be wrong.

Ehrlich didn't think that the problem with the world was that there were too many Ehrlichs -- that his wife or his daughter simply put too much strain on the Earth to be allowed to live -- but that there were too many beggars, paupers, and Indians. Of course, the absurdity is that the natural resources being used by the Ehrlichs (for example, in flying a family of three from the United States to India, and staying at a hotel) dwarf what the average Indian was using, and natural resources, after all, were what Ehrlich claimed to be worried about.

Like the other examples discussed above, Ehrlich was quick to employ the Orwellian claim that he was wanting this for India.  It was our moral responsibility to make sure that fewer Indians were poor. Earlier, I remarked that you "might as well suggest raising the per capita income by killing the poor."  Ehrlich drains that claim of any irony -- that's his actual proposal.  Widespread abortions, along with birth control and sterilization of the poor, were all part of his plan (and still are).  Here's how he presents this as a sort of charity:
Old India hands will laugh at our reaction. We were just some overprivileged tourists, unaccustomed to the sights and sounds of India. Perhaps, but the problems of Delhi and Calcutta are our problems too.  Americans have helped to create them; we help to prevent their solution. We must asll learn to identify with the plight of our less fortunate fellows on Spaceship Earth if we are to help both them and ourselves to survive.
So we should prevent poor children from being poor ... by preventing poor children from being, period.  By this logic, bringing humanity to extinction helps "both them and ourselves to survive" because it prevents any more of the humans from being killed (or worse, poor).


  1. There is no doubt you used the right adjective here. In fact, Taranto's comments are eerily similar to:

    " Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness."

    Which, of course, was written by the man himself

  2. BRILLIANT closing paragraph. Sitting in a lecture on the overpopulation myth right now and your blog came up in my Google search- love it. I will definitely be sharing this with my classmates.


  3. Sarah, thanks!

    And Robert, well said.

  4. I have several problems with this post.

    The first is that using birth control as a way to reduce population is not "destroying the town to save it". That's completely disingenuous.

    First of all, inhibiting the reproductive capability of an animal prior to conception is not comparable to aborting an existing fetus. Spaying and neutering is largely a preemptive measure. The "preemption is evil" argument is logically I have several problems with this post.

    The first is that using birth control as a way to reduce population is not "destroying the town to save it". That's completely disingenuous.

    First of all, inhibiting the reproductive capability of an animal prior to conception is not comparable to aborting an existing fetus. Spaying and neutering is largely a preemptive measure. The "preemption is evil" argument is logically equivalent to the argument "you decided to be celibate and didn't have that baby you were going to have, therefore you're an evil person because you didn't bring a child into the world". It doesn't make sense. Abortion, on the other hand, is a reactive measure. So right off the bat, your first analogy is flawed and irrelevant to the issue.

    Second, the argument "but abortion doesn't magically make children suddenly become wanted" is a complete reversal of the logic used by pro-choice organizations. It's a straw man which attempts to support the asinine viewpoint that pro-choice individuals are heartless/illogical people who just want to kill babies.

    The actual logic is more like "large numbers of unwanted children will not be cared for in a society which doesn't allocate much to foster services, therefore aborting an unaware fetus is preferable to the misery of a self-aware being". That's a far cry from the typical "oh, they just think killing children will make them happier" straw man.

    There are a bunch of fallacious straw men and appeals to emotion among the pro-life crowd. The first, as already pointed out, is also inherent in the name. The implication is that anybody opposing pro-life measures is automatically "anti-life". Every single anti-life person I know abhors abortion, but doesn't think there's any more human way to deal with unwanted children in a society that increasing frowns on the idea of a Welfare State (and for the record, that's an economic term which doesn't just mean cash payouts- it refers to social support systems in general).

    The second issue is the manner in which pro-life arguments such as this one equate born children with unborn children in an attempt to elicit emotion against those evil baby murderers. The fact that a fetus has a heart beat doesn't mean that the fetus is all of a sudden "a real boy". It's still an unaware mass of flesh at that point, with only the potential to be a human being. The chain emails which state that fetuses feel pain after only a few weeks are utterly incorrect. That argument comes from the mistaken assumption that since nerves start to form after only a few weeks, pain can be felt. In reality, the capacity to feel pain only comes after the central nervous system nears completeness in the third trimester.

  5. Then, of course, there are the chain emails which use specific instances of partial birth abortion
    to make an argument against abortion in general. That's an inductive fallacy- it's like saying that because Republican Larry Craig played footsie in the bathroom with dudes, all Republicans are gay. Partial Birth Abortion is an abhorrent measure which is even opposed by many pro-choice proponents. To demonstrate this point, Gallup polls show that a majority of Americans do not embrace the legality of the practice- only 25% of Americans think Partial Birth Abortion should be legal. Contrast this with the long-term Gallup polls which state that 49% of people are outright pro-choice (with 77% of people thinking it should be sometimes legal) while 45% of people are listed as pro-life. The conclusion? A great many pro-choicers hate partial birth abortion too.

    The paragraph starting with "Of course, these pro-choice mantras about wanted and unwanted children are false" is a list of conclusions utterly without support. In fact, two or three of those look close to impossible to even prove objectively. You just made them up.

  6. And Ehrlich...ah yes, the classic Ehrlich BS. The stuff of chain email-propagating idiots.

    Population Bomb was written in 1968. It was predicated upon the notion that the (pre-globalized) world economy wouldn't keep up with an addition of 2-3 Billion people. His argument for population control assumed pandemics and famine of apocalyptic proportions. In the absence of these problems, Ehrlich has publicly stated that such drastic responses are not needed or desired. He has also publicly acknowledged that his alarmist population predictions were not correct in the time frame he had assumed.

    "Ehrlich didn't think that the problem with the world was that there were too many Ehrlichs -- that his wife or his daughter simply put too much strain on the Earth to be allowed to live -- but that there were too many beggars, paupers, and Indians."

    Wait....are you actually accusing someone of racism because you disagree with them? Perhaps you didn't know that Delhi has the 7th highest population density in the world? It isn't because they're "Indian", it's because Ehrlich assumed that the entire world would eventually end up like that. And abortion wasn't his only mentioned method of population control. Then again, that's what you get for critiquing a book you read in order to pick out attack quotes instead of reading for comprehension.

    Although I would like to think that we can all be educated into only having 2 or fewer children. But as the population rises to 7 Billion this year and will hit 10 Billion by 2050, we may have to consider solutions grounded in civil law. I don't really view a 2 child limit as any sort of extreme tyranny.

    The alternative is, as it always has been, allowing millions of individuals to reproduce in an exponential population hike. It is physically impossible to sustain such growth. The results will not be as fast as Ehrlich wrongly predicted, but they will be just as dire if steps are not taken to either arrest the growth or leave. Of course, you don't address this, instead preferring to continue your fallacious "preventing individuals from existing is no better than killing them" argument. Your "extinction" point, in particular, makes absolutely no sense. The only way it could make sense is if you're equating the unregulated, uncontrolled birth of individuals with the survival of the entire race. Of course, the latter is obviously more important than the former unless you're supremely egoistic, and so your pithy straw man logic falls flat.

    And again...the fact that you're using specific criticism of Ehrlich as an argument against population control is a Fallacy of Faulty Generalization. My Larry Craig example, if you recall.

    Next time, refute concepts instead of people, research facts instead of blindly parroting chain emails, and don't resort to pithy insinuations about personal motivations just to fulfill some pathetic need to demonize people you disagree with.

  7. Meditato,

    I'm a little surprised that you've missed the point so completely. This post was primarily about Orwellian logic and language, and what might be called the politics of doublespeak. Your comments seem to have missed that completely. Nevertheless, I've responded to them here, and I hope that they can be of some help.  God bless,