Political Attacks Threaten the Hard-Won International Consensus On Stabilizing World Population
Jacques Cousteau, a still-vigorous Earth explorer at 86, sat looking out his office window at the familiar form of the United Nations, where so much hopeful international planning is launched. He’d just been asked what he considered to be the most significant environmental problem facing the world as the 21st century drew near.
“The biggest problem in the future will be population,” he said. “When I was born, the population of the world was 1.3 billion, and it had been approximately that for 1,000 years. It is now 5.8 billion and has quadrupled during my lifetime. Recently in France we celebrated the 125th anniversary of a woman who is probably the oldest person in the world. When she was born, there were only 700 million people, so in her lifetime we have increased eight-fold.
“I don’t think it’s a question of food—that will be there. All those people aren’t going to starve, but what kind of life will they have? Will they be able to get potable water? We will have 13 billion people in a half century.”
By any measure, population projections are daunting, leapfrogging past even the wildest dreams of gloomy prognosticator Thomas Malthus who, in his 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population, warned that “the power of population is infinitely greater than the power in the Earth to produce subsistence for man.” The human race grows by a quarter million every day, despite hopeful signs of an international “downsizing” consensus reached at the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt in 1994. Every two days, the population of Boston or Pittsburgh is added to the Earth’s burden, which now approaches six billion people (and could double in 50 years). Although fertility rates worldwide have dropped or stabilized since the 1960s (from a global average of 5.7 children per woman to 2.3), death rates have also plunged and many of the world’s countries, already very poor and resource-stressed, will double their populations by 2025. This is due in part to the low median age in most developing countries. In a phenomenon known as “population momentum,” the number of births continues to rise even as fertility falls, simply because there are more young people having children. In Western Europe, just 18 percent of the population is under 19, but in sub-Saharan Africa, 48 percent is under 19. In 60 years, Africa’s population could quadruple. We’ve created a caste of environmental refugees, 10 million of whom are on the run from exhausted agricultural land (see sidebar).
It took until 1917 for the U.S. population to reach 100 million, but 200 million was reached in 1967. There are 263 million Americans now, but we should cruise past 300 million soon after the year 2000. Though we are now in a period called “demographic transition,” in which birth rates and death rates are equalizing, immigration continues to be a dramatic force for growth (see sidebar). The U.S. could be forced to deal with an incredible 400 million people in just two more generations, and 500 million by 2100.
We are at a critical turning point in Earth’s long and colorful history. The World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity, signed by a majority of the living Nobel laureates and issued in 1993, puts it succinctly: “The Earth is finite. Its ability to provide for growing numbers of people is finite. And we are fast approaching many of the Earth’s limits….Pressures resulting from unrestrained population growth put demands on the natural world that can overwhelm any effort to achieve a sustainable future….No more than one or a few decades remain before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for humanity immeasurably diminished.”
Paul and Anne Ehrlich (see “Conversations”, this issue), in their new book Betrayal of Science and Reason, charge the human race with being negligent custodians. “Key ‘renewable’ resources, the natural capital of humanity, are being used so rapidly that they have become effectively non-renewable,” they write. “Homo sapiens is collectively acting like a person who happily writes ever-larger checks without considering what’s happening to the balance of the account.”
Population Action International (PAI) points out that, by the middle of the 21st century, more than half of the world’s population—7.7 billion people—might live in countries “with chronic or recurring water shortages.” For example, Pakistan, which is already water-stressed, is projected to double its population to 271 million by 2025. The Sudan could see its per capita water supplies reduced to a third or a quarter of the 1990 levels, says PAI.
Water is not the only problem. The Washington, D.C.-based Worldwatch Institute, in a study called Shrinking Fields: Cropland Loss in a World of Eight Billion, reports that the world has consumed half its grain reserves since 1987, leaving it with an all-time low of 48 days’ supply. Almost every country is allowing record amounts of grainland to disappear to erosion or pavement. China, for instance, lost five percent of its cropland to urban growth and industrialization between 1986 and 1992, and that rate is projected to climb as new government-planned cities are built. In the U.S., an area the size of New Jersey was taken out of production in the decade between 1982 and 1992. Cities, meanwhile, are continuing to grow, and will be home to 60 percent of the world’s population by 2030.
Tropical forest loss caused by human expansion has reached record levels (15.4 million hectares a year between 1981 and 1990), and because of it, Zero Population Growth (ZPG) estimates that some four to eight percent of tropical species will become endangered in the next 25 years. Of the world’s 17 major fisheries, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that four are depleted and nine are in decline as factory trawlers stripmine the seas to meet increasing demand (see “End of the Line,” cover story, July/August 1996).
Bob Engleman, PAI’s director for population and environmental programs, notes that there are plenty of instructive examples of devastated ecosystems ruined by human population pressure, dating back to the possible extinction of megafauna like the mastadon and sabre-toothed tiger at the hands of man in North American prehistory. Another example he cites is that of Easter Island in the Pacific, where Polynesian colonization 1,500 years ago led to total destruction of the subtropical environment and complete extinction of native mammal species by the time of the first European visit in 1722. “If you look closely at what’s happening to arable land and food security,” says Engleman, “you see a clear relationship between population and the environment. You can’t identify absolute limits, but when you look at the deteriorating resource base you’ll recognize the growing magnitude of the challenge.”
Given the urgency of stabilizing world population, the role of international family planning becomes crucial. Unfortunately, while the U.S. has historically been the world leader both in providing such services, through U.S. Aid for International Development (USAID), and financially supporting them, through the United Nations Popul
ation Fund, the process has become caught up in domestic abortion politics. This is particularly tragic, family planning advocates say, because, in the wake of the Cairo conference, a worldwide consensus has emerged that focuses on women’s health and empowerment as a key to population stability. And through the advocacy work of such groups as the New York-based Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), the international coalition has taken mainstream feminism in as a strategic partner.
Two Steps Back
Last January, the 104th Congress’ new conservative majority, spearheaded by anti-abortion activist Chris Smith (R-NJ), succeeded in passing a drastically reduced foreign assistance budget (which includes the USAID appropriation). USAID’s funds were cut by 25 percent overall, but the family planning/population assistance budget was cut by an even larger 35 percent. What’s more, highly restrictive language was added that spread the year’s allowance over a 15-month period.
As the New York-based Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI) has pointed out, this effectively reduced USAID’s 1996 population funding from $547 million to $72 million. AGI estimates that Congress’ action will leave seven million couples in developing countries without modern contraception, resulting in four million more unwanted pregnancies and 1.6 million more abortions. There will also be, estimates AGI, 8,000 more women dying in pregnancy and childbirth and 134,000 more infant deaths. Ironically, the most significant side effect of the cut is to increase unwanted pregnancies and abortions.
“Because the U.S. has traditionally been the largest family planning donor, this will have an overall compressing effect on family planning assistance worldwide,” says Jim Painter, deputy director of USAID’s budget office. “It will limit our ability to mount programs in countries with very high birth rates in Africa, Asia and Latin America.”
And the cuts have a ripple effect on such effective family planning agencies as the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), which is financed in part by USAID. UNFPA Information Officer Hugh O’Haire says politically motivated cuts are nothing new. “We were initially defunded in the Reagan period,” he says. “The U.S. sent a delegation to the 1984 International Population Conference in Mexico City headed by [former U.S. senator] James Buckley, and it adopted a policy of not allowing any U.S. money to fund abortions. We lost the $46 million U.S. share of our 1986 budget, and it was a big blow amounting to 25 percent of overall funding. Of course, we weren’t actually using any money to pay for abortions, but it didn’t seem to matter.” (The 1973 Helms amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act had already banned such use of U.S. funds.)
The Bush Administration continued the Mexico City ban, threatening vetoes of any bills containing UNFPA funds. President Clinton restored $30 million in funding on one of his first days in office in 1993 (inviting both UNFPA and Planned Parenthood to the signing ceremony), but last January’s congressional action nullified his efforts.
Sterling Scruggs, UNFPA’s director of information and external relations, says that family planning programs help implement the international mandate to improve women and children’s health and security developed at the Cairo conference. “Our main focus is on women’s empowerment,” says Scruggs. “Given a choice, women will only have the children they can provide opportunities for. The whole process saves millions of lives. If the ideologues really cared about women, democracy and choice, they’d want as much family planning available as possible.” Putting it another way, William Hollingsworth, author of Ending the Explosion: Population Policies and Ethics for a Humane Future, says, “Cutting out family planning programs in order to prevent abortion is like cutting out exercise in order to lose weight—it would have exactly the opposite effect.”
In addition to the other cuts and restrictions, the House bill cuts off $25 million in funding to UNFPA (set at $35 million in a Senate version of the bill) if it operates in China, anathema to social conservatives because of its one-child-per-family policy. China, of course, has drastically reduced its growth and fertility rates—“the most dramatic drop in human history,” according to Scruggs. In 1970, China had a fertility rate of 5; now it’s dropped to 1.8, in line with the U.S. rate of 2.1.
UNFPA is currently finishing its most recent family planning program in China, and is negotiating a new agreement. “Our main concern,” says Scruggs, “is do we abandon Chinese women, one fifth of the population of the world? Our board is considering what kind of response we’re going to make. Frankly, we’re sick and tired of dealing with all this garbage.” Like most environmentalists, Scruggs has reservations about China’s family planning policy—“they’ve done some outrageous things”—but doesn’t want to see this most populous of countries written out of the international birth control support network. (Though there undoubtedly are coercive elements to China’s one-child policy, it does not appear to be rigidly or uniformly applied, and forced abortions and sterilizations are waning. Even the once-appalling rates of female infanticide are coming down.)
Small Cuts, Big Impact
There’s nothing abstract about the impact the cuts will have in the developing world. AGI estimates that 250,000 couples will lose access to family planning in Brazil and 200,000 in Peru. AVSC International (formerly the Association for Voluntary Surgical Contraception), which provides women’s health services and training throughout the developing world, will have to cut its list of 500,000 clients in half, and plans for 10 new family planning sites in Kenya will have to be cancelled. Birth control training programs will be drastically cut in Mexico as well. The educational programs that will disappear can have a dramatic effect on women’s childrearing: in Senegal, for instance, the fertility rate for uneducated women is 6.5; for women with secondary school training, it’s 3.8.
The cuts are very real for Esther Yaa Apewokin, an official with the National Population Council of Ghana, the highest advisory body to that African government: “USAID is our biggest funder on population activities,” she says. “We have developed a five-year [1995-2000] population program and certain elements of it have already been put in place. Now with these cuts, we don’t know what the future looks like, or what to cut.”
Based on a fertility rate of 6.4, Ghana’s population of 17 million is growing by three percent a year. That rapid growth, Apewokin says, has put under threat Ghana’s remaining forest lands, which are being rapidly cut for farming, fuel and building materials. The Population Council’s goal, with government and USAID assistance, had been to reduce that annual increase to 1.7 percent by the year 2000, but now that reduction is unlikely to be met and a more modest goal of two percent growth by 2010 has been substituted. “It is a critical point in the program,” says Apewokin, who was in the U.S. in August for study at Washington’s Centre for Development and Population Activities (CEDPA).
Another CEDPA scholar, Grace Faoye, is director of The Association for Development Options in Nigeria, which works on the environment and reproductive health. Like Ghana, Nigeria has a three percent growth rate, but its population has now soared past the 100 million mark. “There is quite a lot of awareness of family planning in Nigeria now,” says Faoye, “and it is available on the local level through the establishment of clinics. But we are highly dependent on USAID, which is our largest supplier of contraceptives. So these cuts are a big disaster that put us another 10 years back. It’s one thing to build awareness, but if there’s no access to birth control for poor women it doesn’t help.” Nigeria’s fertility rate, which had been in decline, is now projected to increase.
The president of AVSC International, physician Amy Pollack, decries the manner in which USAID funding has been caught up in the political process. “It makes no sense what they’ve done,” she says. “It doesn’t save the U.S. any money, and it’s destroying a well-performing, well-established program.The position that the Congress has taken is also completely ironic and goes against their express intentions to prevent abortion. Decreasing access to family planning increases abortions, period. And when you take away critical family planning services, you basically kill women who are trying to do good. The onus rests on the backs of these people who are changing policy in Congress.”
It’s simply inaccurate for congressional conservatives to lump groups like AVSC International in with actual abortion providers like Planned Parenthood. Like many other groups concerned with women’s health (including CEDPA and Pathfinder International), AVSC works to provide technical family planning training to the developing world, as well as education on pre- and post-natal care and sexually transmitted disease treatment. They help to set up health clinics, not terminate pregnancies. And until recently, politicians across a broad spectrum supported their work.
The November elections may change the balance of power on the family planning issue, but conservative roadblocks are not likely to go away (indeed, a whole new offensive, aimed at completely defunding groups like Planned Parenthood, is shaping up in the 105th Congress).
Where’s the Science?
The intellectual underpinnings of the anti-family planning movement are hard to locate. The scholars tend to be people like Professor Julian Simon, who predicted confidently that the technology exists now “to feed, clothe, and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next seven billion years.” Two of the movement’s leading lights, Congressman Smith and his colleague Henry Hyde (R-IL), declined repeated requests for interviews. “We don’t have time,” said Hyde’s press secretary, Sam Stratman. “You’ve caught us at the end of the session.”
The movement’s “think tank” appears to be The Population Research Institute (PRI), which is in part funded by the Maryland-based anti-abortion group Human Life International (HLI). PRI, which denies that a vote against family planning is a vote for more abortions, takes credit for swaying Congress to its point of view. PRI charges that Planned Parenthood and its supporters are scheming “to make abortion on demand the international norm.”
For his part, Congressman Smith, speaking at an HLI conference shoulder-to-shoulder with PRI’s executive director, said that foreigners “resent the Ugly American” coming into their countries and telling them not to have more than two children. And, he said, “The act of dismembering and chemically poisoning baby girls and boys is morally wrong.”
Susan Cohen, a senior public policy associate at AGI, calls PRI a “front group” for abortion opponents. AGI, she says, “looked at PRI’s data, and even using their numbers, the legislation still results in several hundred thousand more abortions than we’re currently seeing worldwide.”
Smith’s position may have the backing of the Catholic Church hierarchy, but it is by no means monolithic doctrine in the religious community. One notable dissenter is the broad-based National Council of Churches (NCC), which has 32 member Protestant “communions,” including Presbyterian, Lutheran and Episcopal churches. According to Karen Hessel, director of justice for women at NCC, “Most of our member churches have a long history of supporting family planning and good reproductive health care. We support the general consensus coming out of Cairo.”
The “real issue,” says Hessel, “is separating women’s reproductive health from the issue of abortion. Our different faith communities have different views on abortion, which we respect and appreciate, but that doesn’t stop us from advocating basic care services for people. With good health availability, there are fewer abortions, and with good educational opportunities, there are fewer abortions.”
Hessel emphatically corrects the reporter’s use of the phrase “population control,” asserting, “We would never say ‘population control’ because it sounds coerced, and we would never support coercion. The West’s excessive consumption of the world’s resources is as much of a problem vis-a-vis population growth as people having babies. There’s no doubt about it; the next 50 years will be quite difficult, and we’re really quite unprepared.”
Hessel would get no argument from another faith-based group, The Christian Environmental Association (CEA), whose president, Gordon Aeschliman, leads summer programs for Christian students under the name Target Earth. CEA’s programs, which operate in 14 countries, have a special focus on population and the environment. Although CEA is fully supportive of family planning, its membership includes many Catholics who, as Aeschliman puts it, “find their spiritual home in the Church, but disagree with its positions on birth control.”
“The global environmental agenda is not very popular in the conservative Christian world,” says Aeschliman, “and that would include the Christian educational system. But we believe that the Scriptures are a manual for global environmental stewardship—serving the Earth and the poor—and that’s being largely ignored in Christian education.”
Like NCC, CEA focuses on consumption—specifically U.S. consumption of a third of the world’s resources—and on the UN approach to population stabilization through family planning and women’s empowerment. It links population with the environment by talking about the process in which human growth pressures destroy irreplacable natural resources. Although it takes no position on abortion itself, CEA believes firmly that, as Aeschliman puts it, “There are simply too many people, and the population is growing past the ability of the Earth to support it.”
Thunder on the Left
Not all of the dissenters to the population approach endorsed in Cairo, and then at the 1995 UN women’s conference in Beijing, are on the right. One prominent critic from the left is Betsy Hartmann, director of the Population and Development Pr
ogram at Massachusetts’ Hampshire College and author of the book Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control. Hartmann and her supporters oddly echo the Christian right in seeing the UN population agenda as a conspiracy to coerce (see immigration sidebar). And they add race into the mix. “There are a number of groups that use population issues as a window to promote an anti-immigration policy within the environmental movement,” Hartmann says. Writing in the program’s journal, Political Environments, she adds, “Will the environmental movement wake up from its…dreams of poor, dark babies destroying the planet?”
But one doesn’t have to be a racist to worry about the birth of too many babies, dark-skinned or not. As Paul and Anne Ehrlich note, “Microorganisms, plants and other animals are being exterminated at a rate unprecedented in 65 million years—on the order of 10,000 times faster than the stock can be replaced.” While no one can definitively identify the “carrying capacity” of the Earth, Joel E. Cohen takes a scholarly stab at it in his book How Many People Can the Earth Support? Using increasingly scarce and finite fresh water resources as a case study, Cohen sees an upper limit—based on projected domestic consumption and the demand for irrigated wheat—of 16 billion people. Unfortunately, as Jacques Cousteau notes, we could reach that seemingly-distant population figure in just a few generations.