Sen and Sanger Debate on Family Planning

Reading Amartya Sen with Margret Sanger’s “Case for Birth Control” in mind, we can observe an interesting debate on the values of family planning.

Sanger argues for family planning in place of the risky alternative to curtailing families, such as abortion. She gives a list of nine reasons why people should not have children if they are being thoughtful at all. I find some of the things on this list to be rather arbitrary (like the specific ages that men and women should be before reproducing); however, most of the items on this list are just looking out for the health and well-being of both the mother and her offspring via family planning, which is extremely valuable. The problem that I have with this list comes from number seven, “Children should not be born to parents whose economic circumstances do not guarantee enough to provide the children with the necessities of life” (p132). Although poorer parents may not be able to provide their children with the best material things, that this does not necessarily suggest that these individuals are less qualified to be parents than a wealthy individual. As for the material, there are (in the US at least – forgive me, I’m not informed about policies in other countries when it comes to welfare) government programs that are in place to protect children from homelessness and hunger. While I agree with Sanger, insofar as we should not rely on these programs for rearing children, until we can solve the poverty problem in the US, these programs are the best solution to both protect children and protect women’s reproductive freedoms.

Sen, on the other hand, argues against family planning as the primary approach to accomplishing lower fertility rates among the impoverished. Sen advocates instead for the prioritization of economic and social development as primary ways to reduce the fertility rate. I really appreciate Sen’s approach to population problems through a broader lens than most individuals in looking at all, instead of just some, of the indicators attributing to high fertility.

Sen finds that development is the best way to decrease fertility rates (through a “collaborative approach” in which governments work with citizens to create social conditions – like increases in female education –  that lower the fertility rate) , and thus does not want resources taken away from social, economic, and healthcare developments to simply make family planning services more widely available. Sen claims that, “The appeal of such slogans as ‘family planning first’ rests partly on misconceptions about what is needed to reduce fertility rates, but also on mistaken beliefs about the excessive costs of social development…” (p194). Therefore, Sen does not want resources to be distributed away from what will ultimately help the well-being of the nation and aid in stabilization in the long run with methods of family planning which will only help in the short term.

Thinking of Sanger with Sen in mind, one of Sanger’s greatest faults is that she dissociates this problem of poor individuals having larger families than wealthy individuals from economic and other social woes in the nation. Children being born into impoverished families is symptomatic of the greater poverty problem in the US. In order to really fight this problem, we need to look into fixing its primary cause of poverty. Instead of distributing resources to family planning, we might want to instead distribute more resources into education (including sexual health and education), and economic programs to support those in impoverished situations.

I suppose my question after all of this is: what is the appropriate balance between distributing resources to family planning versus to economic and social development? In other words, I realize that family planning has its value, but how much should spend on it rather than on other developments?


3 thoughts on “Sen and Sanger Debate on Family Planning

  1. Something that I think is very important to keep in mind is that in wealthy families, although they have enough money often don’t have enough time. So in this way, although the children will be better off money-wise they may not be as better off emotionally, because they won’t get to spend as much time with their parents. In this way, I think the parents need enough money and time to raise a child, because often a child needs more time with their parents than they need more money from them.

  2. I agree that Sen’s approach to understanding the population problem is more comprehensive and possibly more accurate in that it covers social and economic forces that may be the cause of this phenomenon. And since population is very closely linked to labor and thus economics (whether domestic or international), it makes sense to see it in broader social and economic terms. And building on what Margeaux mentioned above, it seems that the emotional, the things that can’t be so tightly measures and numbered seem to be missing from the whole calculation. In that sense, Sen may be missing a lot of what’s really happening and thus what should really happen in terms of dealing with the “population problem.” How would be be able to think of a better “solution” (assuming that it’s a problem) if these important factors may have been underestimated?

  3. I agree with your point about Sanger dissociating poverty from other socioeconomic woes in the country. Though she may have not intended it, her guidelines for family planning implicitly call for a racial, or at least cultural, cleansing (reference used roughly: However, looking at Sen’s argument vastly complicates things because while Sanger seems to be focused on the domestic “population problem,” Sen is looking internationally. Fixing poverty problems in the U.S. is somewhat different than fixing those abroad: the income gap in the U.S. is so large and the wealthy hold so much economic power that it’s difficult to keep the gap from widening (much less trying to close it) even when the U.S. economy is doing well, whereas economic growth in another less wealthy country may be much more effective in increasing standard of living for all citizens. This may perhaps partly explain Sen and Sanger’s motivations for their different arguments, though it’s still difficult to come to a solid conclusion in the balance of funding between family planning and socioeconomic development, largely because the problem of poverty is so complex and so intertwined with the “population problem.”

    Re: time vs. money in child-rearing brought up in previous comments. I would actually argue that wealthier families (generally) spend more time with their families (or have more choice to do so) than poorer families do because they earn higher wages and thus (generally) have better benefits, more freedom with choosing when to work, etc. It may be that children of wealthier families have less time because they may be put into more extracurricular activities because their parents can afford them, but I think it’s hard to generalize the “emotional” aspect of child-rearing just based on wealth alone. It’s also a fairly large assumption to say families who spend more time with their children raise more “well-adjusted” children, whereas in reality, it seems as though children turn out somewhat poorly adjusted in both extremes (helicopter parents vs. absent parents).

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