Birth Control Can Save the World

The world population, by U.N. estimates, has just surpassed seven billion, and it's growing even faster than demographers' predictions. Nicholas Kristof has an insightful column (though I depart from him on one major point, as explained below) on what this means for humanity's future.

"Overpopulation" is a taboo word in some circles, not entirely without reason, but the simple truth is that an extremely large population makes every other problem worse. It accelerates the depletion of natural resources, the destruction and degradation of ecosystems, and the emission of greenhouse gases and other kinds of pollution. It makes societies less resilient, makes famine, crime and war more likely, forces people to move into increasingly marginal areas that leave them more vulnerable to natural disasters, and strengthens the voices crying that sustainability and conservation are unaffordable luxuries.

For basic Malthusian reasons, the human population can't continue to grow indefinitely at its current exponential rate. It has to level off eventually - or to put it another way, it will level off eventually. The only question is whether it will be a soft landing or a hard crash. Obviously, if we can bring it under control ourselves, it will be much better for us, and so it's a rational step to support efforts to make contraception available and educate people in its use, especially in the regions where population is growing the fastest.

This is hardly a radical view. Just a few decades ago, it was the American political consensus (one of my favorite facts from Michelle Goldberg's The Means of Reproduction is that George H.W. Bush, when he was in Congress, was nicknamed "Rubbers"). Unfortunately, many of the early population-control efforts were infected with racism, the idea being that non-white people needed to be kept from reproducing with or without their consent. This is obviously deplorable, but what's even more tragic and absurd is that, in retrospect, the heavy-handed nature of these programs was completely unnecessary. Given the opportunity, women themselves will choose to limit how many children they have, for perfectly understandable reasons: it reduces the risks of repeated pregnancy and allows them to invest more effort in raising each child.

And the same logic applies not just to individual women, but to an entire society. When they break out of poverty-induced cycles of subsistence, countries are free to turn their resources from crisis management to education, leading to the rise of a young, upwardly mobile working class. This is the so-called demographic dividend that's propelled many developing countries to prosperity.

When all the facts are considered, greater access to contraception - and greater female education and empowerment so that women can decide to use it - is a win-win. That's why, predictably, fundamentalists are against it. Naively, Kristof seems to think it's just abortion that religious groups are opposed to, which is why he's confused that Republicans are trying to gut family-planning programs that would actually reduce abortion (this is something I've pointed out before). In fact, many of them are opposed to contraception altogether. Whether it's "Quiverfull"-style Christianity, Roman Catholicism as taught by the bishops, some branches of Mormonism and Islam, or ultra-Orthodox Judaism, one of the most consistent themes of fundamentalist religion is to deny women agency and control of their own bodies and coerce them to have as many children as possible.

The believers who advocate this are steeped in the suicidal faith that miracles will save us as long as we follow God's decree by procreating with no thought for the consequences. In their minds, to plan for the future is a sin. Thankfully, most women already reject this insane view. They want to exercise control over their own biology, but they need the tools and the empowerment to follow through on that desire. Birth control can save the world - but only if we also help women break free of the voracious fundamentalism that would deny them the ability to use it.

Image: Margaret Sanger and supporters, via Wikimedia Commons

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