Procreation vs. Overpopulation: The New Yorker

April 9, 2012 • Daily Email Recap

Several people mentioned the following article to me, including Valentina Canavesio. See:

The Case Against Kids: Is procreation immoral?
by Elizabeth Kolbert April 9, 2012
In 1832, Charles Knowlton, a doctor in Ashfield, Massachusetts, published a short book with a long title: “Fruits of Philosophy: The Private Companion of Young Married People, by a Physician.” Knowlton, who was thirty-one, was a “freethinker” and, by the standards of the Berkshires, an unusually adventurous soul. While attending the New Hampshire Medical Institute (now Dartmouth Medical School), he was too poor to pay for a dissecting class and so had liberated a corpse from a cemetery. For this, he was convicted of grave robbing and sentenced to sixty days in jail. In 1829, he wrote up his ideas about agnosticism in a tract and had a thousand copies printed at his own expense. Unable to find buyers in western Massachusetts, he took the copies to New York City, where he was arrested for peddling without a license.

In “Fruits of Philosophy,” Knowlton took up the subject of sex, or population growth, which, at the time, amounted to much the same thing. Like Thomas Malthus, whose work he cited, Knowlton was worried about the hazards of fertility. Using nineteenth-century birth rates, he projected that the number of people on the planet would double three times every century. Unlike Malthus, who saw no remedy except plague or abstinence, Knowlton believed that a more agreeable solution was at hand. What he called the “reproductive instinct” need not actually lead to reproduction. All that was required was some ingenuity. “Heaven has not only given us the capacity of greater enjoyment, but the talent of devising means to prevent the evils that are liable to arise therefrom; and it becomes us, ‘with thanksgiving, to make the most of them,’ ” he wrote.

Knowlton’s pamphlet provided his readers with easy-to-follow instructions. “Withdrawal immediately before emission” could, “if practiced with sufficient care,” be effective. A small piece of sponge, fitted with a narrow ribbon and inserted into a woman’s vagina “previous to connection,” would also suffice. If neither of these techniques appealed, he counselled “syringing the vagina immediately after connection, with a solution of sulphate of zinc, of alum, pearl-ash, or any salt that acts chemically on the semen.” As for the reliability of this last method, which he called the “chemical check,” Knowlton testified that he had discussed the matter with a gentleman who used to live in Baltimore, and that the gentleman had “no doubt of its efficacy.”

“Fruits of Philosophy” once again brought Knowlton into conflict with the law. Not long after the first edition appeared, he was charged with publishing obscene literature and fined fifty dollars. Even before the trial ended, he was indicted on new charges. This time, Knowlton was sentenced to three months of hard labor. In 1834, he was hauled into court for a third time. The third trial resulted in a hung jury, as did the retrial that followed.

But a good idea could not be kept down. Perhaps partly because of Knowlton’s legal trouble, “Fruits of Philosophy” was a popular hit. One of the jurors at the first trial told the doctor that, even though he’d seen no choice but to find him guilty, “still I like your book and you must let me have one of them.” In twenty years, the pamphlet-it was printed on tiny pages and could fit easily into a back pocket-went through nine editions in the United States. It was also published in Britain, where it sold roughly a thousand copies a year for nearly four decades.

To read the full article, please click here:

Current World Population


Net Growth During Your Visit