Has the population bomb already exploded? Human survival: a drama in four acts?

By Donald A. Collins | 1 June 2017
Church and State

(Credit: WHO / Chris De Bode, CC)

Having reached an age when so many of my contemporaries are deceased, I realize that the extensive exposure I have had in my many world travels is no longer to be undertaken without concern for one’s safety. In fact so many other places we all assumed were safe now are clearly not safe.

Have the terrorists won? A good question, currently answered in Manchester with heads held high, that they have not. However, I am guessing no one casually takes a walk around in locations anywhere without some trepidation. That’s of course, exactly what the terrorists want, along with trying to get us to hate others, particularly Moslems to help ISIS recruitment.

One can see conditions on the ground are constantly changing—seemingly not for the better by the everyday news accounts from the 24/7 news cycle.

When I was born in 1931, the year the grand opera star Nellie Melba died (still remembered for bringing us luxurious desserts such as Melba toast and Peach Melba), the world had 2 billion humans. That number has since nearly quadrupled to 8 billion and the effects on the health of the planet have been ignored by some but cogently described in such articles as Chris Hedges’ piece on “Breeding Ourselves To Extinction”.

In fact it is my opinion that the Ehrlich and Club of Rome “Population Bomb” they forecasted years ago has already exploded in the form of smaller but accelerating detonations whose cumulative effect have already changed forever the future of life on Planet Earth.

A friend recently sent me a book about the early history of the family planning movement which was so interesting I spent the day of its receipt reading its entire 210 pages in one gulp.

I had started working the population beat in 1965. Sans any background in family planning, my wife and I only knew that after producing 3 healthy, wanted children, we had to find a way not to have anymore!

In retrospect, I now see my entry in family planning as like coming into an ongoing play at the start of the 2nd Act, so reading about some of the movements inspirational history of how major players got started in the first act was most illuminating.

Act One in the birth control movement in the USA might be seen as starting with Margaret Sanger, who was joined in her lifetime work by my wife’s father, Dr. Clarence Gamble, the founder of Pathfinder International, who perceived, along with a few others such as John Rockefeller III, the founder of the Population Council, that Fleming’s penicillin would cut the death rate and lead to rapid population growth. Both Gamble and Sanger died in 1966.

Happily, many prominent US leaders were alerted in the 1960’s to the problem by General William Draper, Sr who devoted the last years of his life to fostering awareness and action on family planning among many powerful elites, founding the Population Crisis Committee in the late 1960’s and persuading the previously unconvinced former President Dwight Eisenhower to acknowledge the need for public funding of family planning. By the mid 1960’s Bill had identified and recruited Reimert Ravenholt, a distinguished MD to head the Office of Population at USAID, whose record of actions would be muted by Bill’s death in 1974 and undermined by sustained anti birth control forces thereafter.

Certainly until the Roe v Wade decision of January 1973, there had emerged huge bipartisan agreement among powerful public figures who were sought to act on a problem that was articulated by Lawrence Lader in his landmark book “Breeding Ourselves To Death”.

Brave Bill Baird’s 3 Supreme Court cases were sadly barely acknowledged by many of those who headed family planning work. In the 1960’s, Bill was jailed 8 times in 5 states for lecturing on family planning and abortion. Now living in relative obscurity, he must have taken considerable satisfaction when his entire massive career archive was acquired last Fall by the Schlesinger Library on The History of Women at Harvard as a seminal part of the evolving history of gaining birth control and abortion access for women.

Even after years of sacrifice and brave confrontations about abortion rights, he and his wife live modestly. Donations to his Pro Choice League can be sent to Box 324, Huntington, NY 11743, which will enable him to continue speaking to many audiences about the attacks on abortion choice which are perhaps more dangerous than ever under the present Administration.

Another Supreme Court decision, Griswold vs Connecticut (1965), gave married women, but not unmarried women, legal access to contraceptives. However, it was Bill Baird’s bringing of the Eisenstadt vs Baird case (1972) before the Supreme Court that got contraceptives approved for all women. Others claimed credit for Eisenstadt but if Bill had not spent 5 years and thousands on legal fees which were never reimbursed, the case would never have been won.

In perhaps the most important contraceptive advance in history, Margaret Sanger’s pal, Katherine Dexter McCormick’s money made Gregory Pincus’ Pill possible by 1960. Turns out that the National Geographic is making a documentary film about this vital chapter in family planning history which could be released this year. Watch for it.

From 1965 until the early 1970’s, I worked for several large charitable trusts. One the trusts’ main interests was in family planning. One of its trustees had met Margaret Sanger early in life which apparently had helped motivate her interest in this emerging field.

Consequently, I got dispatched to find birth control projects. The Population Council (PC) was of course the most respected (and one of the few) players in this newly emerging field of population growth. As a result, these trusts directed large unrestricted grants to the Council, as much as $2 million a year starting in the late 1960’s. Remember it now takes about eight 2017 dollars to buy what one 1965 dollar could.

Through my contact with top officials at The Population Council, I met Phil Harvey, the founder of Population Services International (PSI), whose social marketing of condoms and other vital products has proved to be one of most successful contraceptive supply methods ever used to reach smaller, poorer, less accessible consumers. As a result, these trusts gave PSI one of its first large private foundation grants.

As I found my way in this emerging field, I was blessed by the generous assistance of knowing experts such as Frank Notestein and Barney Berelson, who served as PC Presidents and many others too numerous to name, who were most helpful and kind to this know nothing agent, something I have always recalled with appreciation.

Among a number of international trips I took to review family planning projects, I was taken on a 1968 trip to South America by Luis Leite of IPPF-WHR, where I observed the death toll caused by septic abortions. That issue was persuasive in my decision to fully commit to a career in expanding reproductive rights for women, especially their right to a safe abortion, as that human right is basic to all the other rights that have still too long been denied to too many women.

By 1967 I was then a member of the National Board of Planned Parenthood of America (PPFA) in NYC. There I met Alan Guttmacher and activists such as Malcolm Potts, Bob Gillespie, Fred Jaffe, George Denniston, David Poindexter, Bill Ryerson, Rodney Shaw, and Joe Beasley, who saw the urgent need for such services as legalized abortion. Several states including New York (1971) legalized abortion before the historic Roe v Wade decision in 1973.

Perhaps 1973’s Roe decision began what I am calling Act 3 in the crucial worldwide drama of getting family planning services to all who want them.

Dr. Rei Ravenholt, who headed USAID’s Population Program from 1966 until 1979 has recorded a history whose verity has come clearer since he left his critical post.

Getting abortion services started was difficult even after Roe and its legalization but Planned Parenthood Federation headquarters did take action, although some of its affiliates refused to set up services at the beginning. At any rate, I began looking for domestic projects and also internationally.

Turned out there were many brave providers out there and the trusts I was working for funded many abortion clinics around the country and set up a large revolving loan fund at PPFA which provided its affiliates financial help in initiating abortion services. As a result, I had the pleasure of working closely with Alfred Moran, President of PPNYC whose pioneering in getting abortion services there after the NY state law was enacted was legendary.

Internationally, the trusts were involved in founding IPAS, which provides early abortion training and services worldwide.

These trusts also initiated private funding for another important NGO now known as FHI360. Initially called International Fertility Research Programme (IFRP), its founder was Dr. Elton Kessel, whose pioneering work in India led to his appointment as the 2nd President of Pathfinder International and then to start, at the instigation of Dr. Ravenholt, IFRP, which became known in the 1980’s as Family Health International, then FHI360.

Dr. Kessel was succeeded in the early 1980’s by Dr. Malcolm Potts, who instigated the first USAID funding for the treatment of HIV/AIDS!

I served as Chair and President of IPAS and as a board member of FHI360 for many years. Both have enjoyed great growth and impact over many years.

Mentoring is so crucial for progress. I cannot fail to mention my major mentor, Dr. Leonard Laufe, a prominent Pittsburgh, Pa obstetrician whose service in Vietnam and in helping women raped in the Bangladesh war, led him to devote his life to women’s reproductive rights. Len was one of so many whose heroic accomplishments get far too little recognition.

Following the Roe decision in 1973 came a time which I have dubbed as the beginning of Act 3 in the human survival saga. One landmark event at its beginning was The World Population Conference held in 1974 in Bucharest, Romania. This major meeting produced a number of angry protests from developing countries expressing the view that birth control was aimed at reducing the world’s populations of poor people which rich countries didn’t want. This position of course neatly fit the wishes of the Vatican which wanted more priests, nuns and poor, less educated adherents to re-inhabit their shrinking numbers in the USA and Europe.

From this WPC and elsewhere among family planning leaders came the call for more development which some deemed the best contraceptive. I agree that international development is crucial, but in retrospect one should remember that the birth control pill had only been out for 14 years and dosages had not been reduced as they are now. The power of widely distributing economical, safe, easily administered birth control methods had hardly by then been tested or fully funded. Education about the value of contraception for women’s health faced strong male cultural resistance which remains a principal inhibitor to this day.

Ravenholt’s departure from USAID in 1979, fostered by growing attacks from ideological conservatives in government, might have marked the onset of Act 4 in my brief historical account of family planning. Many experts are much more optimistic about the many family planning successes worldwide, including Phil Harvey, PSI founder, who has long argued that, “the glass is half full”!!

However, allowing women to gain full power to determine when and under what circumstances they wish to have babies involves overcoming complex social, cultural and religious issues. This task which is far from accomplished today and the population growth issue remains low on the priority list of world leadership.

Some, including me, see great hope for the future in the rapid education which can be provided by the omniscient electronic revolution. Can such exposure enable enough changes in human behavior to allow the survival of human life on Planet Earth?

The jury is still out, but providing more options in family planning for women here and overseas surely can help and the knowledge about contraception options will shortly become universal despite all opposition!

Ironically, the amounts being spent on weapons grow, while the attacks on providing family planning services seems under increased pressure for reduction by the present Administration. The madness of that policy line has already been proven by our longest war in our history. We can’t kill our way to peace. At the very least, as I stated above, “the population bomb which Ehrlich and others forecasted decades ago has already exploded in the form of smaller but accelerating detonations whose cumulative effect have already changed forever the future of life on Planet Earth.” “Hang on”, as Bette Davis once said in the film “All About Eve”, “it’s going to be a bumpy night!”

Former US Navy officer, banker and venture capitalist, Donald A. Collins, a free lance writer living in Washington, DC., has spent over 40 years working for women’s reproductive health as a board member and/or officer of numerous family planning organizations including Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Guttmacher Institute, Family Health International and Ipas. Yale under graduate, NYU MBA. He is the author of From the Dissident Left: A Collection of Essays 2004-2013.

From the Dissident Left: A Collection of Essays 2004-2013

By Donald A. Collins
Publisher: Church and State Press (July 30, 2014)
Kindle Store

Back in 1991, the NGO Don Collins founded in 1976, International Services Assistance Fund (ISAF), co-produced a TV quality 22-minute film called “Whose Choice?” which Ted Turner arranged to broadcast on September 21, 1992 in prime time on his then independent Turner Broadcast System (TBS). Other outlets such as PBS and several of its affiliates Collins and his colleagues contacted then refused to run it because of its forthright treatment of the abortion issue, arguing for all women’s right to choose not to have a baby. ISAF has made a new edition of that DVD. The purpose for reissuing this 3rd version of “Whose Choice?” was simply to show the historical urgency that attended those times, still blocked and attacked over 40 years after the Roe v Wade decision in 1973. This video is available for public viewing for the first time.

Phil Harvey: Pioneer of Social Marketing (full version)

Vatican control of World Health Organization population policy: An interview with Milton P. Siegel

Professor Paul Ehrlich: Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?

Be sure to ‘like’ us on Facebook


  1. Population control involves men, too. Clinics readily provide abortions for women, shouldn’t they provide free vasectomies for men who don’t want children?
    They’ve talked abouy it for years, but where is the male birth control pill for men?

  2. I'd like to see new research initiated to attempt to discover whether a means might be determined to ensure that all human females might in future be rendered naturally incapable of childbirth UNLESS MADE RECEPTIVE UNDER A PROCESS DELIVERED AS PART OF SOCIAL POLICIES (a similar process for for males would not be useful, as it has been shown that one male can engender a gender explosion!). How about it, you scientists? Imagine the fun everyone could have, without consequences! I suppose transmission of diseases would need to be overcome too! And I hesitate to speculate on how religious sods might respond, however!


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here