World Population Day raises global concerns
July 6, 2001
July 11 is World Population Day.
We ought to use this day to address our nation's policies that threaten reproductive rights, the environment and our world health, instead of blaming the planet's problems on population growth.
Americans tend to believe that overpopulation in the Third World is the major cause of poverty and environmental degradation. And some seem to condone the loss of reproductive rights -- even loss of life -- in the Third World as a necessary cost for preserving the planet.
Such views are off-base and immoral.
First of all, world population growth rates are currently declining faster than anticipated in most regions of the world. The global population, today at six billion, is expected to reach around 9 billion by 2050 and then start to level off, according to U.N. projections. The rise will be due, in part, to the large portion of people in developing countries now entering their reproductive years.
But overall, the population explosion is fizzling out as more people around the globe have smaller families. Fertility rates are projected to fall to between 1.6 and 2.5 births per woman by 2050 from the current level of 2.7, according to the Population Fund.
Population growth rates are declining for a number of reasons, including the shift from rural to urban livelihoods, the spread of mass education, female employment outside the home and reductions in infant and child mortality. Voluntary family planning services also help people to achieve their desired family size.
Nevertheless, some countries still think they should drive down birth rates by forcing people to have fewer children.
At the 1994 U.N. population conference in Cairo, the international community called for an end to coercive population policies and support for reproductive health and women's empowerment. Unfortunately, many governments have reneged on these commitments.
In India, the central government is allowing states like Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh to impose draconian sterilization policies. In order to receive loans and other anti-poverty benefits, poor people must undergo sterilization after having one or two children. The U.S. government and the World Bank are major funders of India's population program, and they need to speak out against these unethical practices.
China also has a harsh population-control policy, which has resulted in forced abortions and sterilizations when couples do not comply with strict quotas limiting them to one or two children.
Even our own 1996 welfare "reform" violates the Cairo agreement. The welfare law currently permits states to enact child exclusion or family-cap measures that deny additional benefits for children born to women on welfare. Twenty-three U.S. states now have such a provision. These measures are based on the myth of the overbreeding "welfare mom." In reality, most women on welfare have only two children, the same as the national average, according to Nancy Folbre and Randy Albelda's "The War on the Poor" (New Press, 1996).
As the U.S. government interferes with women's reproductive choice at home, so, too, does it do so abroad.
Shortly after coming to office, President Bush re-imposed the Global Gag Rule, which blocks U.S. family-planning aid to foreign non-governmental organizations that provide or merely counsel women about abortion, or lobby their governments to reform abortion laws -- even if the organizations use their own funds for these purposes. The Global Gag Rule endangers women's health and violates freedom of speech.
Every year at least 78,000 women die from unsafe abortion, and millions more suffer permanent physical injuries, according to the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy.
When many people worry about overpopulation, what really concerns them is the environment. But it's not the Third World that is the biggest threat here. With only one-fifth of the world's people, industrialized nations consume almost three-quarters of the world's resources. The United States is the biggest and most wasteful consumer of all. We need to get our house in order first before we view other people as the problem.
Last but not least, today we should reflect on the mounting tragedy of AIDS. It is now projected that sub-Saharan Africa will face a demographic catastrophe, with a quarter of its population likely to die of the disease. Yet as the pandemic escalated in the 1980s and '90s, the United States and the World Bank pressured many African governments to make population control a higher priority than basic health care.
We need to stop being distracted by the population bugaboo and get on with the work of changing our nation's policies so they advance health, human rights and environmental quality.
Betsy Hartmann is director of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., and author of "Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control" (South End Press, 1995). She can be reached at email@example.com.