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What’s so troubling about ‘voluntary’ family planning anyway? A feminist perspective

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)221-234
Issue number1
Early online date13 Dec 2021
Accepted/In press22 Sep 2021
E-pub ahead of print13 Dec 2021
Published15 Dec 2021

King's Authors


Voluntary family planning is a key mainstay of demographic work and population policies. The 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) signalled a decisive shift away from fertility reduction and target-setting to an emphasis on voluntary family planning as intrinsic to reproductive health and women’s empowerment. Yet, criticisms of voluntary family planning programmes persist, interrogating how ‘voluntariness’ is understood and wielded or questioning the instrumentalization of women’s fertilities in the service of economic and developmental goals. In this paper, I reflect on these debates with the aim of troubling the notion of voluntary family planning as an unambiguous good that enables equitable empowerment and development for all. Drawing on literature from cognate disciplines, I highlight how voluntariness is linked to social and structural conditions, and I challenge the instrumentalization of voluntary family planning as a ‘common agenda’ to solve ‘development’ problems. Engaging with this work can contribute to key concepts (e.g. ‘voluntary’) and measurements (e.g. autonomy), strengthening the collective commitment to achieving the ICPD and contributing to reproductive empowerment and autonomy. Through this intervention, I aim to help demographers see why some critics call for a reconsideration of voluntary family planning and encourage a decoupling of interventions from fertility reduction aims, instead centring human rights, autonomy, and reproductive empowerment.

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