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Family Planning

Issues of family planning and concerns over population growth have long interested the Rockefeller family and their philanthropies. A variety of projects relating to these interests have received Rockefeller support over the past century.

Family planning and consultation in Taiwan: Explaining the small sperm, Tai-chung hsien (Taiwan) 1964

Family planning and consultation in Taiwan:
Explaining the small sperm, Tai-chung hsien (Taiwan) 1964

A Controversial Cause

Concern with family planning issues among the Rockefeller philanthropies began with John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who developed an interest through his involvement with the Bureau of Social Hygiene (BSH). JDR Jr. hoped that support for family planning initiatives would help solve pervasive social ills, including poverty and crime.

In addition to funding the BSH, JDR Jr. also contributed privately to causes that the BSH was unable or unwilling to support. Following a request by Margaret Sanger’s American Birth Control League for $10,000 to fund research into contraception methods, RF trustee, Raymond Fosdick, expressed his thoughts on the importance of the proposed research

Personally, I believe that the problem of population constitutes one of the great perils of the future and if something is not done along the lines that these people are suggesting, we shall hand down to our children a world in which the scramble for food and the means of subsistence will be far more bitter than anything we know at present.[1] 

Fosdick’s letter went on to acknowledge the delicate nature of the birth control issue. Days later JDR Jr. authorized an anonymous donation to Sanger’s cause.

Confronting Population Growth

Perhaps inspired by his father’s example, population growth was an issue of particular interest to John D. Rockefeller, 3rd (JDR 3rd). In the 1940s an increasing global population coincided with growing public awareness of limited global resources. Moreover, population growth was, in part, the result of the success of modern public health initiatives, many of which had been supported by the Rockefeller Foundation (RF).

JDR 3rd’s support for family planning was more public than his father’s. He made his interest in the issue clear to RF trustees, and he pressured them to act more definitively on population control issues. At his urging a demographic survey of the Far East was organized in 1948. The subsequent report, Public Health and Demography in the Far East, noted the high rates of population growth in the region as well as the need for efforts in fertility control, education and agricultural development.

In spite of JDR 3rd’s pressure, few RF resources were devoted to population control. Instead, the RF turned to agriculture, which provoked far less controversy. Population control proved contentious at home, and many foreign governments viewed the plans as culturally unsuitable or imperialistic.

The Population Council, Inc.

Unable to interest the RF in funding projects aimed at curbing population growth, JDR 3rd sought new outlets. In June 1952 he sponsored The Conference on Population Problems. Attendees discussed the problems associated with rapid growth and possible responses, including contraception, research and cultural change. Towards the end of the conference a resolution was also introduced to develop a permanent council devoted to population control.

John D. Rockefeller 3rd meeting with Lyndon B. Johnson, Washington (D.C.) 1968

John D. Rockefeller 3rd meeting with Lyndon B. Johnson, Washington (D.C.) 1968

In the months following the conference, JDR 3rd composed a memorandum, titled “Opportunities in the Broad Field of Population,” which listed possible activities to be undertaken by a proposed population council. By November of 1952, The Population Council, Inc., was incorporated “…to stimulate, encourage, promote, conduct and support significant activities in the broad field of population.”[2]

Much of the Council’s funding came from personal contributions of JDR 3rd, as well as from outside sources, including the Ford Foundation. The Council attempted to strike a balance between scientific research and activism, with much early funding supporting fellowships to individuals from developing nations interested in studying demography.

Population and the Rockefeller Foundation

Despite the RF’s desire not to get heavily involved in population issues, the Foundation did fund some projects. In 1953 the RF began supporting a Harvard School of Public Health study of population problems in rural India. The study sought to introduce contraception to the rural population and measure the program’s impact on family planning, as well as on the overall health and economy of the communities involved. As noted by John E. Gordon, the study’s director, “The aim of population control is more than mere control of numbers. Control of numbers will be successful only if it results in a better quality of human life.”[3]

Only after the success of several programs of JDR 3rd’s Population Council did the RF allocate significant funding for population projects. In 1963 the RF developed its own program to focus on population issues and by 1982 this had become the Population Sciences Program. Population sciences focused on three major areas: research in reproductive biology, research on contraceptive technology and policy studies.

While the RF no longer counts population sciences among its programmatic areas, the Population Council continues its work. The Council has sponsored successful family planning and health programs in numerous countries, while Council-funded research has led to the development of several hormonal contraceptives, including Norplant which has been widely used in the developing world.

[1] Letter from Raymond Fosdick to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., June 13, 1924, Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC), Rockefeller Family Boards, RG III 2 K, Box 1, Folder 1.

[2] Certificate of Incorporation of The Population Council, Inc., November 7, 1952, RAC, Family Records, Papers of John D. Rockefeller, 3rd, RG 5, Series 1.5, Box 82, Folder 682.

[3] Rockefeller Foundation resolution, December 1-2, 1953, RAC, RG 1.2, Series 200, Box 45, Folder 369.


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