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The Population Issue: Big, Critical, Global

Neal Peirce / Oct 02 2008

For Release Sunday, October 5, 2008
© 2008 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal Peirce By Neal Peirce

Imagine the next president of the United States moving decisively to slow down the world’s population growth as it arcs from today’s 6.7 billion toward a predicted and perilous 9.2 billion by 2050.

The cost to the U.S. Treasury could reach $1 billion a year. Worth it? Consider what a proactive U.S. global family planning effort might achieve.
+ By moderating population growth, there’d be some lessening of catastrophic food and water shortages afflicting less developed nations.
+ Global warming dangers wouldn’t rise quite so rapidly.
+ The rights and life prospects of literally millions of women around the globe might be enhanced.
+ Significant worldwide totals of abortions and infant deaths could be avoided.
+ Democracy and stability would be promoted worldwide as fewer nations faced the turmoil easily triggered by high birth rates creating population “bumps” of poor and resentful youth.
+ And with a clear, unequivocal U.S. lead, other countries and the United Nations might expand their international family planning assistance.

But you’re asking — a president could easily promote all those positive outcomes? And I have to acknowledge — the case isn’t conclusive.

But it’s powerful, and it goes this way. The most colossal population boom in world history followed World War II; in the U.S. the fertility rate (average number of children per woman) soared from a level of 2.0 in the 1930s to almost 4.0 in the mid-1950s. Worries about overpopulation ricocheted around the world, despite opposition to contraceptives by the Roman Catholic Church and religious leaders in many Islamic countries.

“One of the most serious challenges to human destiny in the last third of the 20th century will be the growth of population,” Richard Nixon declared in 1969, reflecting broad concerns of the time. President John Kennedy, the first Catholic president, gave a green light to federal government action on world population issues; within a decade, we were supervising a program (worth yearly $125 million, some $600 million in today’s dollars) to distribute contraceptives around the world.

Globally, wherever family planning was introduced, birth rates declined sharply. The “pill” helped too. In 1965, the average woman worldwide had five children; today the figure is half that.

Yet world population, up 139 percent since 1950, is increasing yearly by at least 78 million — the population of Ethiopia, notes the WorldWatch Institute in a special edition of its World Watch magazine.

In significant portions of the world — rural India, for example — living standards are so abysmal that children’s “little hands” are seen as part of survival. Often children as young as six tend domestic animals, fetch water and wood. And this rural population explosion results in lost forests, polluted water sources, exhausted soil.

A replacement fertility rate for the world would be roughly 2.1 children per woman — the current U.S. rate. Yet in Sub-Saharan Africa, the rate is 5.4. In parts of Asia it’s almost as high — reflecting, in the words of New York demographer Joel Cohen, “cultures in which the survival of women depends on having a large number of children, and the prestige of men on having a large number of wives who have many children.”

There is overwhelming evidence that family planning services helps women and couples prevent unintended (and often high-risk) pregnancies, with the byproduct of higher infant survival rates and sharply reduced abortions. The status of women improves dramatically as they’re then often able to gain educations and jobs. And population increases do moderate.

This should be an American global cause. And likely it would be if it weren’t for the bitter domestic conflicts over abortion sparked by the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision. In 1984 President Reagan issued a rule prohibiting U.S. aid to flow to foreign organizations that promote or even countenance abortions. President Clinton rescinded the rule (opponents had dubbed it a “global gag rule”). But President Bush reinstated it his first week in office. Notwithstanding congressional efforts to overturn the ban, it stands today, hampering family assistance efforts worldwide.

Reagan also suspended U.S. assistance to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in 1986, claiming UNFPA’s support of voluntary contraception services in China was somehow tantamount to coercive abortion. Clinton restored the funding, only for the Bush administration to keep demanding cuts.

So what will our next president do? Will he boost U.S. global family planning funding to the $1 billion a year that advocates propose, working with other nations to make family planning and modern conception services globally available?

The issue’s not just moral: in an environmentally imperiled world, it’s strategic and critical.

John McCain’s anti-abortion, anti-birth control assistance record is unequivocal. So is Barack Obama’s diametrically opposed position: in favor of activist government support for family planning, domestically and internationally.

Nov. 4 we all get to decide.

Neal Peirce’s e-mail is

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