It Was Never About Overpopulation

Reproductive justice and the climate crisis

Solutions to climate change don’t exist in a vacuum. Ideas have real world history, context and impact. Multiple speakers held a public talk at PSU to discuss how climate change intersects with issues of reproductive justice.


The first PSU Black History Month Lecture, hosted by the women, gender and sexuality studies department took place Feb. 5 at Smith Memorial Student Union. According to Lisa Weasel, chair of the WGSS department, “PSU has recently experienced the loss of a significant number of Black faculty and staff, which is detrimental to student success and erodes the educational mission of our university. This lecture honors the valuable work of Black scholars, especially Black feminist scholars, to our department and community.”


The guest speaker of the lecture was Dr. Jade Sasser. Sasser is an associate professor of gender and sexuality studies and a member of the core faculty of the sustainability studies major at the University of California at Riverside. The WGSS department hopes to make the Black History Month Lecture an annual event.


The lecture was titled, “Can we have Reproductive Justice in a Climate Crisis?” This was also the question Sasser asked at the beginning of her lecture. For a long time, the question of overpopulation contributing to climate change has been a very debated subject among scientists and reproductive justice advocates. 


Overpopulation is just one of the many intersections between reproductive justice and climate change. In her book On Infertile Ground: Population Control and Women’s Rights in the Era of Climate Change, Sasser explains how population control as a solution to environmental issues is not, and never was, the answer to solving the climate change crisis. 


According to Sasser, climate crisis narratives are based on changing reproductive rights. This is “reductive logic” to Sasser. Ever since the argument of overpopulation causing climate change has been made, the destruction of female bodies through “reproductive justice” has seen an astounding increase. Efforts to sterilize women especially among poor communities and women of color have been seen time and time again in medical histories—or as Sasser said, “herstories.”


Women of color with a low income have been targeted for sterilization because of their “inability to take care of their children” and reliance on welfare. Sasser brought up the example of John Labruzzo, former member of the Louisiana House of Representatives, who infamously suggested paying women on welfare to voluntarily sterilize in 2008. 


In addition to political efforts being made to sterilize women, many medical institutions have considered sterilization to be “academic training” and have encouraged the practice for many years. Most of these sterilization procedures were conducted without the consent of the patient.


The climate crisis has also been put into a framework of “a world war” against the people, contributing to the push for “population engineering.” The term “population engineering” was coined by bioethicists at Georgetown in 2016 in an article published in Social Theory and Practice. Sasser equates “population engineering” to eugenics, which is when reproduction of individuals is selectively limited to produce “better” humans. Eugenics is a concept deeply intertwined with histories of racism and oppression.


The example that Sasser mentioned in her lecture was giving tax breaks to people without children vs. having higher fees in hospitals for giving birth. Eugenics is seen even in institutions that are supposed to be advocating for reproductive rights. For example, Sasser mentions the organization of Planned Parenthood has contributed to eugenics, such as sterilization and past reports of pushing for the use of cheap birth control. 


Although reproductive justice advocacy has had a complicated past, there are some efforts being made to help regulate the misconceptions of overpopulation. For example, a collective by the name of “Sister Song” has made significant improvements for the reproductive rights of low-income women of color. Their aim is to advocate for the choice of the woman: either to have children or to not have children; and if there are children to raise, to make sure that the parents involved have enough support and resources to do so.


The main point of Sasser’s lecture was to critique the idea of overpopulation in relation to reproductive choices. The bottom line is the idea of overpopulation contributing to climate change is destructive to women’s bodies. Sasser emphasized that “climate change is a living phenomenon” and is centered around human bodies and how we are related to and have a direct impact on our surroundings. 


Sasser urged the audience to reject the notion of “overpopulation” and instead focus on our individual behaviors and choices as it relates to the environment. We can collectively make a difference in the climate change crisis, because after all, there is strength in numbers.