Malthus and the Contraceptive Mandate
Religion & Liberty Online

Malthus and the Contraceptive Mandate

“The power of population,” wrote the Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus in 1798, “is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.” In other words, unless population growth is checked by moral restraint (refraining from having babies) or disaster (disease, famine, war) widespread poverty and degradation inevitably result. Or so thought Malthus and many other intellectuals of his era.

Unfortunately, methods of population control range from the unpleasant (disease, famine, war) to the downright horrifying (abstinence).

Malthus preferred the horrific route, believing that “self-control” was preferable to plagues, mass starvation, or even artificial birth control. He did allow, however, that abstinence was unlikely to be effective on a wide scale.

Despite Malthus’ disdain for artificial birth control, his work influence the English social reformer Francis Place (1771–1854), whose neo-Malthusian movement became the first to publicly advocate for the widespread use of contraception.

Place’s view became so dominant in Britain that by the late 1870s, the term “Malthusian” became associated with arguments made in favor of preventive birth control. For instance, the Malthusian League (1877-1920) was a secular anti-poverty organization which advocated for the abolition of all penalties against public discussion of contraception since over-population was, they argued, the chief cause of poverty.

In a 2007 Acton Commentary, Michael Matheson Miller made clear why this Malthusian (or neo-Malthusian) assumption is in error:

The idea that population growth causes poverty comes from the ubiquitous zero-sum-game fallacy: the idea that the economy is a pie with only so much to go around. But the economy is not a pie — economies can grow, and population growth can actually help development. A growing population means more labor, which along with land and capital are the main factors of production.

Most everyone recognizes now how increases in population can lead to economic growth. Unfortunately, some bad ideas never die. In 1798, Rev. Malthus thought that too many babies would lead to starvation. In 2012, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius thinks that too many babies increase the cost of health care.

Recently Sebelius gave testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee. As James Poulos explains,

It all could have been just another run through the controversy surrounding the provision of contraception, religious liberty, and freedom of conscience. But Rep. Murphy took a different tack. He wanted to know, under future rules, “who pays for” contraception provided by insurance companies to employees of religious organizations. “There’s no such thing as a free service,” he intoned.

Now, Sebelius could have answered in a variety of ways. What she said, however, was:

The reduction in the number of pregnancies compensates for cost of contraception.

Incredulous, Murphy asked: “So you are saying, by not having babies born, we are going to save money on health care?” Again, Sebelius could have responded in any number of ways, such as directly confronting Murphy’s point. Instead, she said:

Providing contraception is a critical preventive health benefit for women and for their children.

Predictably, the line has set off alarm bells for Catholics and others already embroiled in a nasty dispute — let’s not say ‘war’ — over the scope of contraception mandates and subsidies. And Sebelius has handed a knobby stick to conservatives, regardless of denomination, who have long been seeking to prove that Obamacare can only limit costs by limiting the number of human lives needing care.

Poulos does a superb job of explaining where this type of reasoning leads:

Conceptually, rhetorically, Sebelius’s position — which is, as yet, the administration’s position — can be readily cast as an outmoded form of ’70s-era pessimism about human growth and flourishing. For the administration, it appears, real healthcare reform means realizing that we’re better off with fewer of us — a lot fewer. Research from the Brookings Institution that backs up Sebelius’s claims shows that so-called “evidence-based pregnancy prevention interventions” save taxpayer money and reduce abortion rates. That sounds great, until you observe that the Brookings study pegs the number of “unwanted pregnancies” in America as about one in two. The administration is heading toward an unenviable moment: choose either to explain which unwanted fetuses are worse for America than others, or concede that we’d all be better off, fiscally as well as socially, if we cut the current birth rate in half.

I wonder which option they’ll go with?

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).