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Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population Paperback – November 2, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Passionate and troubling, this study by Columbia University historian Connelly (A Diplomatic Revolution) 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. According to Connelly, some proponents of the movement thought it was the key to women's health and well-being; others saw it as a way to eliminate the poor population; still others believed it would protect the environment. But Connelly also shows how larger economic and social contexts shaped the movement. For example, during the 1930s international Depression, ordinary people increasingly felt that couples planning families should focus on financial considerations; at the same time, as the state offered increased economic aid, it became acceptable to believe the state should also have a role in regulating reproduction. Far from disinterested, Connelly challenges many of the population control movement's claims: to those who argue that the slowed population growth in Asia has helped save the planet, Connelly notes tartly that if Asians have 2.1 children, but also air conditioning and automobiles, they will have a much greater impact on the global ecosystem than a billion more subsistence farmers. Ambitious, exhaustively researched and clearly written, this is a highly important book. 22 b&w illus. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


This is history written from the heart. The story it tells is of misplaced benevolence at best and biological totalitarianism at worst. Deeply researched and elegantly written, it is a disturbing, angry, combative, and important book, one which raises issues we ignore at our peril. (Jay Winter, Yale University)

Matthew Connelly bravely and eloquently explores the dark underside of world population policies. It is a clarion call to respect individuals' freedom to make their own reproductive choices. (William Easterly, author of The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good)

One of the most gifted historians of his generation has given us an exciting and thought-provoking new way to understand the making of the ever-globalizing world of today. (Akira Iriye, author of Global Community: The Role of International Organizations in the Making of the Contemporary World)

Connelly raises the most profound political, social, and moral questions. His history reveals that the difference between population control and birth control is indeed that between coercion and choice. (Mahmood Mamdani, author of Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror)

This is a superb global history. By focusing on NGOs and transnational networks, the United Nations and nation states, Connelly has given us an important new way of seeing world politics. (Emily Rosenberg, University of California, Irvine)

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) 2008-01-14)

[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 2008-03-25)

[A] voluminous history of global population policy. (Elizabeth Pisani New Statesman 2008-05-05)

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 2008-05-15)

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 2008-05-30)

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 2008-05-20)

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 2008-05-18)

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 2008-05-29)

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 2008-05-24)

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 2008-08-14)

This book provides the best historical record yet of how our culture was shaped by the acceptance of birth control. (Patrick Carroll Catholic Herald 2008-10-17)

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 2008-06-02)

[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 2008-12-01)

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press; 49696th edition (March 30, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674034600
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674034600
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.4 x 8.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,074,638 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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?
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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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.
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