An older woman shows something to a younger worman holding a baby in front of a Profamilia poster.

Historical Films on Population Health and Family Planning

By Sarah Eilers ~

The National Library of Medicine has a rich new set of digital resources for researchers interested in the history of global health and health disparities, women’s health and history, anthropology, and international development. During the last year, NLM has digitally preserved nearly 250 rare films addressing these topics, with a particular emphasis on birth control, family planning, and social determinants of human health and overpopulation. Many titles have soundtracks in multiple languages, as they were designed as a direct-to-the-people educational tool, and were distributed worldwide chiefly through non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Funding and production support for these 1970s-era titles came from multiple sources, among them the US Agency for International Development, the Inter-American Dialogue Center, the George Washington University Airlie Foundation, Planned Parenthood International, and the Johns Hopkins Program for International Education in Gynecology and Obstetrics (JHPIEGO). Government and community-based health agencies across the globe also contributed to films set in their countries, including the Philippines, Jamaica, India, Kenya, and Colombia.

The Population Bomb?

Next year will mark the 55th anniversary of the publication of The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich, who in his 1968 book predicted mass global starvation as a result of uncontrolled population growth. This calamity hasn’t come to pass, but Ehrlich was not alone in his alarm. The ‘60s and ‘70s featured considerable research and commentary about the impact of growing overpopulation on the planet, its resources, and vulnerable humans. A cursory literature review of NLM titles and a Google Ngram search reveal a focus on the theme, with data indicating that the prevalence of the word “overpopulation” and the term “family planning” in published literature peaked in the early 1970s.

From 1800 to 2020 use of 'overpopulation' began to rise in 1920, peaked at 1970 and plateued at the 1940s level in 2000.
Google Ngram is a search engine that charts word frequencies from a large corpus of books printed between 1500 and 2008. Frequency of the word “overpopulation” peaked in 1972.

Moving images were then—and remain today—a key tool of communication and education. These titles provide a rare visual window into contemporary efforts to address one of the most critical international public health concerns of the 1960s-70s era, delivering an urgent message in multiple languages and reaching people who may or may not have been literate.

A Question of Choice

The most common and consistent message presented in these films is that gaining choice and control over fertility, family size, and child-spacing benefits all members of the family—and perhaps a nation’s entire economy and society as well.

The City: Implications for the Future is one example. Taking Bogotá, Colombia as a case study, the film presents a blunt assessment of the possible downsides of widespread rural-to-urban migration in Latin America. Large families, customary in farm settings, could be a liability in cities, where housing, food, and suitable jobs are in short supply. Family planning, argues the film, is essential to a decent life in an urban environment. The film describes a family-planning organization in Colombia called Profamilia that educated women on birth control options and made the pill easily accessible. A crucifix hangs on the wall of the Profamilia clinic, a powerful symbol of Catholicism. This would have been a comforting image to women at the clinic and might have been intended to deliver the message that planning one’s family was not incompatible with a strong faith.

Still from an animation of the female reproductive system.
About Conception and Contraception, 1972
National Library of Medicine #101774478

Another film, About Conception and Contraception, depicts the mechanics of different options for preventing conception. It’s a silent and was meant to be presented by an instructor who guides the audience and answers questions. Viewers need not be fluent in any one language to comprehend the information.

A Question of Choice, 1978
National Library of Medicine #101194682

The NLM aims to release five to ten of these newly-preserved titles per month in NLM Digital Collections, each one captioned. Follow this link for access to released titles.

An informal portrait of a white woman in a library.Sarah Eilers is the Manager of Historical Audiovisuals in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

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