Misunderstanding progressive population concern

The chief executive of Population Matters responds to Kalpana Wilson’s critique of neoliberal population control. Funding family planning in developing countries is a force both for social justice and environmental protection.

Simon Ross
22 August 2013

The reality for many millions of women across the developing world is that their opportunities for self-development and self-determination are severely limited.  Many in the international community are committed to addressing this, yet, surprisingly, some are opposed to these efforts.

Many women are effectively coerced into early marriage, typically ending their education and thus limiting their opportunity to earn a decent income.  Early marriages also often lead to early or frequent pregnancies, both significant health risks where healthcare is limited.

Others find that unreliable supply and support of family planning methods leads to unplanned pregnancies, disrupting their education and employment prospects.  Unplanned and poorly spaced pregnancies create potential health problems for both mother and child.  Many seek ‘backstreet’ abortions, creating further health hazards. 

Over the past ten years, funding of family planning programmes has been diverted to HIV/ Aids programmes.  It is only now that international funders, led by the UK government and the Gates Foundation, are beginning to invest again in this critical area.  In 2012, the London Summit on Family Planning committed to halving the number of women who want to delay or avoid pregnancy but who are not using modern contraception. 

These women are entitled to sexual and reproductive health and rights, both as rights in themselves and as an essential underpinning to their rights to education and employment.  This is sufficient in itself for this initiative to be supported.

There are other reasons for supporting sexual and reproductive health and rights, however.

Poor and populous countries, such as Pakistan, parts of India and much of Africa, are experiencing very rapid population growth, driven by a combination of high birth rates and falling death rates as development and aid reduce mortality.  The consequence is that individuals and countries experience real difficulty in escaping their situation of grinding poverty as increasing populations compete for limited resources.  Malnutrition is widespread and conflict and migration increasingly common.  Stretched education and healthcare services struggle to support ever larger numbers.  

With often limited agriculturally productive land, and unreliable weather patterns made worse by climate change, population growth is resulting in the exhaustion of local resources, such as timber and water, as well as forcing communities on to marginal lands, where they are even more vulnerable. 

Poverty and population pressures drive communities to increase their exploitation of local wildlife and virgin forest, further depleting an already weakened biodiversity.

There is a bigger issue.  With growing consumption, limited resources of water, minerals, fertile soil, forest and fisheries are being progressively exhausted.  Climate change is both a consequence of our increased consumption and a cause of future problems, particularly for agricultural productivity.  While the primary drivers of consumption are developed countries, developing countries are contributing increasingly to global consumption as their population and per capita consumption grows.

Funding family planning in developing countries thus supports health, women’s rights, social justice, environmental protection and future sustainability.

While population concern does naturally engage with those countries with high birth rates, this engagement does not at all mean that the situation in developed countries is not of concern.  Population concern is part of the study of sustainability and arises from the realization that the output of renewable resources is insufficient to maintain even the current global population at current consumption rates, which are unacceptably low for many.

Developed countries must lower their own consumption, even as that of developing countries rises.  We can do that through improved technology, reducing waste and conspicuous consumption and by reducing our populations.  All are welcome, but the first is uncertain and the second unpopular.  Only the trend to smaller families, which is already happening across much of the world, is certain to reduce consumption and our pressure on the planet.

Achieving smaller families has occurred in many countries and is not impossible.  It requires good quality sex education and family planning services to reduce the high rate of unplanned pregnancy.  It requires moral leadership from the government and other opinion formers making the case for smaller families. And it would be helped by a tax and benefits system which rewarded those with small, rather than large, families.

Kalpana Wilson, a member of the revolutionary leftist South Asian Solidarity Group, has attacked current family planning initiatives and even efforts to strengthen women’s ability to obtain paid employment.  She questions the motivations of such initiatives, without evidence.  She argues that programmes which improve the reproductive and employment rights of predominantly black women are fundamentally racist and patriarchal.  I suggest that we be guided instead by the real improvements in women’s lives resulting from such programmes. 

Wilson alleges that some planning family methods used in such programmes are unsafe.  In fact, while healthcare in developing countries is not at the standard of wealthy countries, family planning methods are typically well understood and safe, and are being improved all the time.  They are, in any event, much safer than an unplanned pregnancy in circumstances where both birth and termination carry significant risk.

While Wilson claims to support the aspiration of women in the global South to have real control over their bodies, she attacks concrete measures to deliver this and fails to propose any alternative.

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