Coercive population control: from the mouth of Frank Notestein

Old-thinker news | Dec. 19, 2007

By Daniel Taylor

Frank Notestein (1902 – 1983) was one of the most influential population control activists and demographers of the 20th century. His work led to the establishment of demography as an academic discipline. He worked as the first director of the population division of the United Nations, was instrumental in the founding of John D. Rockefeller’s Population Council in 1952, and was a director of population research at Princeton University. [1]

In a paper written by Notestein in 1969 titled “The Problem of Population Control,” he outlines a strategy of quickening the pace of depopulation. Notestein admits that economic modernization would “…bring the birthrate down automatically.” However, he goes on to state that more drastic measures must be taken because in his opinion this method would not be fast enough. “coercion” and the “institution of a totalitarian regime” are Notestein’s solutions.

“…The need for an early reduction of the birthrate is acute. Birthrates in the past have fallen most rapidly in the context of modernization and social-economic change. But there is nothing in the European experience to suggest that we must rely solely on gradual and automatic changes in society. One often meets the glib generalization, particularly in the underdeveloped countries, that it is only necessary to concentrate on social and economic modernization since it is well known that we can rely on these processes to bring the birthrate down automatically. The argument neglects the time-span required for such an adjustment… Even if we could be assured of rapid social and economic development the lag in transition between reduction of death rates and the reduction of birth rates poses enormous problems of population growth.”

Notestein continues,

“…even if successful, voluntary family planning programs cannot be expected to resolve the world population dilemma. Even in the more developed countries, and notably in the United States, surveys show couples desiring more children than are necessary for replacement… Thus we cannot rely on the self-interested choices of individual couples to met society’s needs. The only acceptable goal is zero rate of growth because any rate of growth continued long enough leads to astronomical figures. Given existing preferences in family size, governments must go beyond voluntary family planning. To achieve zero rate of population growth governments will have to do more than cajole; they will have to coerce.”

“The logical target for legal and institutional pressures is the family: pressures to postpone marriages; economic pressures and inducements for married women to work outside the home; provision of free abortions for all women requesting them; downgrading of familial roles in comparison with extrafamilial roles; and restriction of housing and consumer goods… Such institutional changes supply motivation for family limitation and the provision of free abortions affords a means. The implications of such major institutional changes go far beyond population control. The family is the basic social unit of society and its major institution for the socialization of the children… to impose more drastic changes on a large scale implies many risks, not least to the regime that undertakes them. The price for this type of population control may well be the institution of a totalitarian regime.” [2]


[1] “Notestein, Frank W.” Encyclopedia of Population. Ed. Dennis Hodgson. Vol 2. p. 696-697. Available online at: <>

[2] Ed. Hauser, Philip Morris. The Population Dilemma. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 1969. pages 145 – 166

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