Our Crowded Planet

The U.S. has long been the world leader in supplying financial assistance to fledgling birth control programs in the Third World. Until recently, that policy had broad bipartisan support in Congress. But now a small ideological alliance, led by Republican Congressmen Christopher Smith and Henry Hyde, has introduced a powerful divisive force: abortion.

Although the use of U.S. foreign assistance funds for abortion has been prohibited since 1973, raising it as a phantom issue has proved devastatingly effective in rallying the votes against birth control assistance. Last year, House-led efforts cut family planning assistance from $547 million to $356 million, and also attached stringent restrictions that slowed the money flow to a trickle.

The religious right has a very specific aim for the new congressional session, as summed up by Douglas Johnson, director of government relations for the National Right to Life Committee. “What we’re trying to get back to,” he said, is the policy that prevailed under Presidents Reagan and Bush, with family planning assistance only going to groups that “did not promote abortion.” Ironically, if Johnson and his friends get their way, the loss of contraceptive availability will result in many more abortions, an estimated 1.6 million additional procedures a year, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute.

If politics prevails, the small but incremental gains in Third World population control made over the last 30 years could be reversed. And with that reversal goes the hope that poor, increasingly resource-stressed countries can maintain sustainable populations—most are on a trajectory that could double their populations by 2025.

At the 1994 United Nations population conference in Cairo, the U.S. was one of 150 countries that pledged to increase family planning funding, with the aim of reaching $17 billion in worldwide assistance by the year 2000. The Clinton administration was keeping this pledge—until it ran into a wall of social conservatives.

Although there are encouraging signs that fertility rates are declining in such populous countries as Brazil (down 45 percent between 1960 and 1989), Mexico (down 47 percent in the period) and, especially, China (down 60 percent), world population moves inexorably up, at only slightly moderating growth rates. By the middle of the 21st century, there could be 12 billion people on the Earth, twice the current number. Sound far-fetched? Consider that world population doubled just between 1955 and 1995, from 2.77 billion to 5.73 billion. It’s hard not to see rising from all this growth a period of increasing turmoil, famine and civil conflict. Unchecked population, by most scientific measures, will equal more scarcity, vanishing natural resources, rampant disease, and escalating human conflict. That’s a scenario that the religious right—and its allies in Congress—might want to think twice about before embracing.

E would like to thank The Weeden Foundation for assistance in underwriting our population series. We would also like to thank The Summerlee Foundation for their continuing financial support.