[Note: This is the forty-eighth sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy. The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews. These samples are not freestanding pieces. They will be easier to understand if you start with sample 01, and follow the sequence listed HERE — if you happen to have some free time. If you prefer audiobooks, Michael Dowd is in the process of reading and recording my book HERE.
WILD FAMILY PLANNING
Colin Turnbull wrote about tribal life in Africa. Hunting people paid careful attention to the large game animals in their ecosystem, noting their migratory trends, and comparing these to historic patterns. There were periods of abundant game, and times of scarcity. While some species were rising, others declined. Through long experience, they roughly understood how many humans their territory could conservatively support — it’s carrying capacity. They clearly understood the difficult consequences of having too many mouths to feed when meat was scarce. It was important to avoid this.
The value of human life did not trump the value of maintaining a healthy relationship with their ecosystem. Newborns were not automatically accepted into the band. They might not be perceived as being fully born before they opened their eyes for the first time, or while their umbilical cord was still wet. When folks agreed that a child had “come to stay,” it was given a name, and only then became a proper person. If it died before naming, it was as if it had never been born. Deformed newborns were always promptly buried or smothered.
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas spent a lot of time with the San people of the Kalahari, and noted their methods of family planning. Most of the women had one to four offspring. In lean times, intercourse was avoided. When a child could not be kept, the woman gave birth alone, away from the camp, and buried the newborn before it drew breath. In their culture, a newborn did not immediately become alive, so disposing it was OK.
Because of low body fat and hard work, San women began menstruating later. Some did not have regular monthly periods. Nursing further drained their bodies. Children were usually nursed for about four years, which reduced mom’s fertility. In a drought year, underfed women lost their milk, and some babies died. Infant mortality was not uncommon. Wild carnivores also took their share. Nomads moved frequently, and belongings and infants had to be hauled to new sites. A woman could only carry one infant, so just one twin was kept.
Peter Freuchen wrote about the Inuit people of the Arctic. During long months of winter darkness, stashes of frozen meat got smaller with every passing week, like a fuel gauge getting closer to empty. Infanticide was common and normal. When hunting was bad, children were killed to spare the group from the misery of starvation. One woman survived a spell of bad hunting by eating her husband and three children.
Folks who could no longer keep up with the hunting party were abandoned. In lean times, those who were too old to contribute to the wellbeing of the community committed suicide (a one-way walk into the frozen darkness), or asked their children to hang them or stab them — and these requests were honored without hysteria or drama, often during a party when everyone was in high spirits.
CIVILIZED FAMILY PLANING
Infanticide and Abandonment
Like today, early civilizations were also hierarchical. The lucky few on top controlled and exploited the less than lucky masses. This game could work as long as the masses were not too numerous, and not too pissed at the elites. Working folks got pissed when they were unable to adequately feed their families. Unfortunately, the elites were often folks who did not enjoy a reputation for being generous and benevolent. The lower rungs of society were disposable.
The other problem here was that folks did not have easy access to effective contraceptives, or to clinically safe methods for ending unwelcome pregnancies. When families were struggling to feed the kids they already had, adding more would only worsen their crisis. So, many took a path that had an ancient tradition.
William Lecky wrote that the Greeks were devoted to the greatest happiness principle. “Regarding the community as a whole, they clearly saw that it is in the highest degree for the interests of society that the increase of population should be very jealously restricted.” Infanticide was considered to be perfectly normal in most ancient Greek civilizations. Keeping more than one daughter was rare.
Infanticide was also common in Rome, during its Empire phase. Lecky wrote that an ancient law required “the father to bring up all his male children, and at least his eldest female child, forbidding him to destroy any well-formed child till it had completed its third year, when the affections of the parent might be supposed to be developed, but permitting the exposition of deformed or maimed children with the consent of their five nearest relations.”
“Infanticide” means actively killing a child less than one year old, via burying, drowning, suffocating, refusal to nurse, etc. Killing older offspring was child murder. “Exposition” (abandonment) means setting the infant down somewhere, and then walking away. In Rome, exposition “was certainly not punished by law; it was practiced on a gigantic scale and with absolute impunity, noticed by writers with the most frigid indifference, and at least, in the case of destitute parents, considered a very venial offence.” Lecky added, that the abandoned infants were often taken in by speculators “who educated them as slaves, or very frequently as prostitutes.”
William Langer made one statement that I will never forget. He said, “In the seventeenth century, Jesuit missionaries to China were horrified to find that in Peking alone several thousand babes (almost exclusively female) were thrown on the streets like refuse, to be collected each morning by carriers who dumped them into a huge pit outside the city.” This practice remained common into the 1830s.
Langer also noted that in 1860s Britain, dead babies were frequently found under bridges, in parks, in culverts and ditches, and even in cesspools. He quoted Dr. Lankester, the coroner of Middlesex, England: “The police seemed to think no more of finding a dead child than of finding a dead dog or cat.”
Barbara Kellum pointed out that unbaptized children were beings of immense dark juju. They were evil, a “captive in the devil’s power.” A mother who died in childbirth had to have the unbaptized child removed from her corpse before she could be buried. Dead unbaptized children could not be buried in the churchyard. They were buried in a secret place, which was thereafter avoided. Sometimes a stake was driven through their heart when buried, to prevent spooky mischief.
Lecky added that killing an infant was terrible, but even worse was the fact that it died unbaptized, because its immortal soul was forever damned, and would suffer for all eternity in the burning flames of hell. Married mothers were often given penance for infanticide. Sometimes, unwed girls got off by pleading insanity. Others got a death sentence, “in the most diabolical imaginable manner” (especially for violent murder). They were buried alive, drowned, or decapitated. Hanging was rare.
He also mentioned a strange law passed in 1803 that declared infanticide to be murder — but only if the baby had passed entirely out of the mother. Thus, if the feet were still in the womb, and you smashed the baby’s head, or cut its throat, no crime occurred. Juries would not convict mothers, because there was no compelling proof of wrongdoing without the testimony of eyewitnesses. This enabled private family matters to remain private.
With the emergence of Christianity, the deliberate elimination of unwanted babies was strongly denounced, but abandonment remained a common practice among all social classes, especially the poor. In response to this preventable loss of life, some churches were inspired to engage in social charity. They often found babies laying on their front steps. Caring for foundlings was a painful, tedious, and never-ending challenge.
In the thirteenth century, the first foundling hospitals appeared. Their objective was to anonymously receive unwanted infants, care for them, discourage murder, and encourage the community to adopt them. Unfortunately, many mothers worried about being recognized at the hospitals, so they chose more discrete modes of disposal. Gradually, over the following centuries, more cities built hospitals, including London, Paris, and St. Petersburg. On the downside, according to Lecky, under their care 30 to 40 percent of the infants died in the first six weeks. Many were already sickly or half dead. Caretakers were often overwhelmed by large caseloads and emotional strain.
London built Christ’s Hospital in 1552, to help foundlings and legitimate orphans, but in 1676 they stopped caring for illegitimate children. In 1741, the London Foundling Hospital was opened. By 1760, it was buried in abandoned babies, far more than they could properly care for. Langer wrote that the hospitals were terrible at saving lives, but they were so popular that they became too expensive to operate, forcing many to shut down. New York City opened their hospital in 1869, and 123 infants arrived on the first day.
Lecky mentioned that in 1811, Napoleon created foundling hospitals in every department of France. These had “tours,” a rotating table that allowed mothers outside the building to put the baby on the table, ring the bell, disappear into the night, and remain anonymous. Nurses then spun the baby indoors, where its chances of survival were dubious. This reduced child murders, but the hospitals were quickly swamped. In 1883, 164,319 babies were left at the French hospitals. Tours were a mistake. They made it too easy to discard the unwanted, and were therefore accused of encouraging immorality.
Foundling hospitals were not located in every big city. In some places, they operated for many years, in other places they didn’t last long. The journal Pediatrics noted that foundling hospitals did not solve the problem of abandoned infants. “A majority of the children died within a few years of admission in most areas of Europe …in some times and places the mortality rate exceeded ninety percent.”
So, far fewer babies died illegally, but the mortality rates in foundling hospitals were extremely high. Some have called this “legalized infanticide,” because the hospitals were provided by religious organizations. Most infants perished from neglect, and many were mercifully put out of their misery by wet nurses.
Dorothy Haller noted that the English traditionally sneered at young bastards (illegitimate children). Baby farming, a cottage industry that provided illegal infanticide services, received a major boost when the Poor Law of Britain was reformed in 1834. It revised earlier legislation that required the fathers of bastards to be responsible for them. The new regulation shifted all responsibility to the mothers, whose low moral standards were at the root of the problem. They had to support themselves, and their kids, until they reached age 16. Good luck!
Infanticide, abandonment, and abortion were illegal. Communities did not provide effective social safety nets. Churches typically declared pregnancy out of wedlock to be a mortal sin, and said that the women were “fallen.” The offender was often ostracized by her neighbors and family, and forced to leave in disgrace. She had to relocate to a place where she was not known, where alone and friendless, she gave birth to an unwanted child. Mom and her infant might not be welcome back home.
She might find work in the new place, but would promptly be fired as soon as her condition became visible. Joni Johnson noted that it was often impossible for an unskilled unmarried woman to both have a job and take care of her child. A number of orphanages refused to accept illegitimate children, because they were the disgusting offspring of immoral people. The mother of a bastard was not at all appealing to gentlemen looking for a wholesome wife. For many, a baby farmer offered the possibility of a second chance. It was easy to find them, because they printed ads in newspapers. A journalist ran an ad in a paper seeking a nurse for an unwanted child. He promptly received 333 responses.
Baby farmers were women who offered to care for, or adopt, illegitimate children — for a price. Sometimes the mother made regular payments so the caretaker would serve as a foster parent. Other times, the mother paid a fee, allowing the caretaker to adopt the child, or find a family willing to adopt it. The mother would never see the child alive again. Mothers asked few questions, baby farmers kept no records, and doctors didn’t get nosey when infants died because their high mortality rate was the norm.
When a mother paid a fixed sum for the caretaker to adopt her child, the sooner the child died, the more profitable it was. Long-term care could not be expected when the fee paid was modest. Some infants died from opiate overdoses. For some reason, baby farmers had two nicknames, “killer nurses” and “angel makers.”
Haller mentioned Mrs. Winsor who, for a weekly fee, agreed to take in the four-month old son of Mary Jane Harris. When Mary couldn’t keep up the payments, she watched Winsor smother her son, and wrap his body in a newspaper. He was dumped on the side of a road. Winsor enjoyed a steady business.
Mrs. Martin boasted that, in a ten month period, she discarded 555 fetuses and infants. In Tottenham, Mrs. Jagger had taken in 40 to 60 infants over three years. Most perished from starvation. The “baby butcher” Amelia Dyer was suspected of murdering at least 400 infants over 20 years. Her career ended at the gallows.
It wasn’t until the 1860s that doctors began investigating baby farmers, and demanding reforms. Laws were eventually passed to regulate or prohibit baby farming (decades after animal protection laws were passed). The capital of baby farming was Britain, but it also occurred in Australia, New Zealand, the U.S., Scandinavia, and elsewhere.
For the first 69 years of the United States, there were no laws against surgical abortion. Massachusetts passed the first regulation in 1845. By 1900, just about every state banned most forms of abortion. As their options diminished, many women felt compelled to choose the risky option of do-it-yourself abortion. Many attempts succeeded, but more than a few died from the unintended consequences, back in the days before antibiotics and reproductive freedom.
Dayna Troisi wrote that the methods women attempted included swallowing gunpowder, drinking turpentine, spending a night in the snow, throwing themselves down the stairs, harshly punching their stomach, pennyroyal, opium, or using a scraping instrument, like the notorious metal coat hanger. In many locations, illegal abortions were provided by underground enterprises, sometimes by real doctors, sometimes by folks having varying levels of experience.
In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the Roe v. Wade case, and in a 7 to 2 decision decided that a woman could have an abortion without excessive government restriction. This struck down many state and federal laws. Since then, a number of states have worked to reduce the inherent freedom of female American citizens to make important life changing decisions about their own bodies. Oddly, a number of religious folks are obsessed with returning to the traditional situation of dead babies laying all over the place. No effort has been made to harshly punish what horny boys do with their frisky throbbing weenies. I am overwhelmed by the powerful stench of patriarchy and injustice.
As I write today, there are 7.8 billion humans on Earth, and growing. We’ve managed to temporarily send the planet’s carrying capacity into the stratosphere by becoming extremely innovative in food production and health care, a rocket ride enabled by a one-time-only binge on fantastic quantities of nonrenewable fossil hydrocarbons.
We live in ridiculous decadence, directly at the expense of our children, grandchildren, and the entire family of life. This seems rather daffy. Coming generations are not going to inherit cool stuff like healthy soils, forests, fisheries, wildlife, clean water, and a stable climate. They missed the riotous home wrecking party, and will inherit the toxic smoldering ruins.
In a subway system, you must never, ever step on the third rail, to avoid instant death by electrocution. In modern society, the notion of setting guidelines on reproduction is a third rail subject, and a 100% effective method of political suicide (except in totalitarian states). In the good old days, hungry carnivores, wars, famines, and pestilence helped to reduce the possibility of population outbursts, sparing folks from having to contemplate touchy issues.
Garrett Hardin was often criticized for ranting about overpopulation without also revealing some brilliant solutions. He confessed that he had been intimidated by the ostrich factor — never touch 800-volt issues that are surrounded by large piles of scorched skeletons. You can’t win, so bury your head in the sand, and have a nice day! The world was not interested in contemplating the foolishness of perpetual growth. Mass stupidity got the green light.
He lamented that the U.N. decreed two rights simultaneously. (1) Every man, woman, and child has the inalienable right to be free from hunger and malnutrition. (2) Every woman has the right — perhaps with the agreement of her mate(s) — to determine how many children she shall produce. He countered that, in a finite world, unrestricted freedom is intolerable, a loose cannon having great destructive potential. We cherish sacred rights, but have zero interest in <spit!> sacred responsibilities.
John Livingston lamented that human fetuses have a right to life, but nature does not. Rights are one half of a dynamic duo, and they are typically amputated from their sacred partner, wise responsibilities. Rights are human inventions. Limits are not, they are absolutely real. In theory, a woman may have the right to bear a thousand children, but limits trump rights. Limits matter, rights are dreams induced by hopium. In our culture, limits are demonic bastards.
William Langer, writing in 1974, celebrated the fact that, since the end of World War Two, the wonders of progress have provided humankind with the contraceptive pill, intrauterine device, and legalized abortion. At long last, in theory, there was no longer any excuse for unwanted pregnancy, infanticide, abandonment, or baby farmers. Oddly, now in the twenty-first century, there are still folks who oppose all forms of family planning except the heavenly pleasures of celibacy.
I shall now reveal both good news and an effective solution. The good news is that ecological sustainability is, by definition, inevitable. Unsustainable foolishness can only be a temporary deviation (industrial civilization for example). Whether or not bipedal primates will survive to see the restoration of sustainability is another matter. Time will tell.
I cannot imagine that civilized humans will ever mindfully summon their wisdom and foresight, and then proceed to intelligently resolve the issue of extreme overpopulation. Luckily, overpopulation is merely a problem, not a predicament. Problems have solutions, predicaments do not (i.e., climate change, ocean acidification, mass extinctions, etc.).
The one and only guaranteed solution to the problem of overpopulation is time. In the coming years, countless hordes of turbulent problems and predicaments will tirelessly work to reduce the planet’s carrying capacity for humans — from the stratosphere of furious decadence, to the humble ground floor of utter simplicity (and hopefully sustainability). When Big Mama Nature pulls the plug on the mega-mob, one way or another the population issue will be resolved, like magic! We won’t even have to do anything, like think, or get off the couch.