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Political science

Science | Obama science czar brings a potentially radical agenda to a ballooning science budget

Issue: "New faces of New Orleans," Aug. 15, 2009

WASHINGTON-Forced abortions and sterilization are generally practices eschewed by all but the most radical scientists-but President Obama's science czar, John Holdren, called them constitutional in a 1977 textbook he co-authored with Paul and Anne Ehrlich.

In Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment, they wrote, "[I]t has been concluded that compulsory population-control laws, even including laws requiring compulsory abortion, could be sustained under the existing Constitution if the population crisis became sufficiently severe to endanger the society," though adding that the current population didn't justify the practices.

The authors continued: "Neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution mentions a right to reproduce."

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Later they wrote, "The forced bearing of unwanted children has undesirable consequences not only for the children and their families, but for society as well, apart from the problems of overpopulation."

The Ehrlichs, in a statement, said media reports offered "a serious mischaracterization of our views and those of John Holdren." They argued that they were describing potential population control practices, not necessarily recommending them.

But the book portrays family size as a public concern: "Why should the law not be able to prevent a person from having more than two children?"

Some argue that one 30-year-old textbook should not be held against Holdren. But there's another: The 1973 Human Ecology, which Holdren co-authored also with the Ehrlichs, states that after birth, a baby must still develop into a human being.

"The fetus, given the opportunity to develop properly before birth, and given the essential early socializing experiences and sufficient nourishing food during the crucial early years after birth, will ultimately develop into a human being," the authors wrote.

The books' content was not discussed in Holdren's Senate confirmation process in March, which he breezed through on a unanimous vote to become head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Under Obama the office carries added significance: Not only will Holdren advise the president on science policy but through it the administration plans to double the budgets for three key basic-research agencies-from $10 billion to nearly $20 billion-by 2016.

Holdren in a statement argued that the quotes had been blown out of proportion and that the authors had in fact advocated "noncoercive approaches" to population control. The White House office released a statement saying, "This material is from a three-decade-old, three-author college textbook. Dr. Holdren addressed this issue during his confirmation when he said he does not believe that determining optimal population is a proper role of government."

But more recently, addressing in 2007 the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), of which he was then president, Holdren opened a slideshow presentation with a quote from Harrison Brown-"It is clear that the future course of history will be determined by the rates at which people breed and die . . ."-and cited Paul Ehrlich as "a giant" of what he called "public interest science."

Holdren's more recent work and speeches indicate scholarly work more intently focused on climate change than on population growth. But he affirmed one out-of-the-mainstream position at his confirmation hearing by saying that 1 billion people could die by 2020 as a result of climate change.

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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