Internet reports are now circulating that Obama's Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, John Holdren, penned a 1977 book that approved of and recommended compulsory sterilization and even abortion in some cases, as part of a government population control regime.
Given the general unreliability of Internet quotations, I wanted to go straight to this now-rare text and make sure the reports were both accurate and kept Holdren's writings in context. Generally speaking, they are, and they do.
The Holdren book, titled Ecoscience and co-authored with Malthus enthusiasts Paul and Anne Ehrlich, weighs in at more than 1,000 pages. Of greatest importance to its discussion of how to limit the human population is its disregard for any ethical considerations.
Holdren (with the Ehrlichs) notes the existence of “moral objections to some proposals...especially to any kind of compulsion.” But his approach is completely amoral. He implies that compulsory population control is less preferable, because of some people's objections, but he argues repeatedly that it is sometimes necessary, and necessity trumps all ethical objections.
Several coercive proposals deserve discussion, mainly because some countries may ultimately have to resort to them unless current trends in birth rates are rapidly reversed by other means. Some involuntary measures could be less repressive or discriminatory, in fact, than some of the socioeconomic measures suggested.
Holdren refers approvingly, for example, to Indira Gandhi's government for its then-recent attempt at a compulsory sterilization program:
India in the mid-1970s not only entertained the idea of compulsory sterilization, but moved toward implementing it...This decision was greeted with dismay abroad, but Indira Gandhi's government felt it had little other choice. There is too little time left to experiment further with educational programs and hope that social change will generate a spontaneous fertility decline, and most of the Indian population is too poor for direct economic pressures (especially penalties) to be effective.
When necessary, then, compulsory sterilization is justified. This attitude suffuses the following passage, in which the possibility of putting a “sterilant” into a population's drinking water is seriously discussed. Holdren and his co-authors do not recommend this particular method, but their objections to it are merely practical and health-related, not moral or stemming from any concern for human freedom:
Adding a sterilant to drinking water or staple foods is a suggestion that seems to horrify people more than most proposals for involuntary fertility control. Indeed, this would pose some very difficult political, legal, and social questions, to say nothing of the technical problems. No such sterilant exists today, nor does one appear to be under development. To be acceptable, such a substance would have to meet some rather stiff requirements: it must be uniformly effective, despite widely varying doses received by individuals, and despite varying degrees of fertility and sensitivity among individuals; it must be free of dangerous or unpleasant side effects; and it must have no effect on members of the oposite sex, children, old people, pets, or livestock...Again, there is no sign of such an agent on the horizon. And the risk of serious, unforeseen side effects would, in our opinion, militate against the use of any such agent, even though this plan has the advantage of avoiding the need for socioeconomic pressures that might tend to discriminate against particular groups or penalize children.
Even though they do not recommend it, note that Holdren and his co-authors treat this as a serious policy proposal with serious drawbacks -- not as an insane idea unworthy of consideration.
They look with more favor on this “milder” form of coercive sterilization:
Of course, a government might require only implantation of the contraceptive capsule, leaving its removal to the individual's discretion but requiring reimplantation after childbirth. Since having a child would require positive action (removal of the capsule), many more births would be prevented than in the reverse situation.
Holdren and his co-authors also tackle the problem of illegitimacy, recognizing that it could be one consequence of a society which, in its effort to limit births, downgrades the value of intact nuclear families and encourages lifelong bachelorhood:
[R]esponsible parenthood ought to be encouraged and illegitimate childbearing could be strongly discouraged. One way to carry out this disapproval might be to insist that all illegitimate babies be put up for adoption -- especially those born to minors, who generally are not capable of caring properly for a child alone...It would even be possible to require pregnant single women to marry or have abortions, perhaps as an alternative to placement for adoption, depending on the society.
Holdren's suggestion here is presented perfectly in context. It stands alone in the text without any accompanying reservations.
President Obama has spoken repeatedly in favor of putting science before ideology. The real debate, however, has never been about whether ethics are needed in science, but rather over whose ethics should determine where science will or will not go.
Nowhere has Obama suggested that science should be completely ethics-free. But Holdren is his Science Czar all the same.