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Population and Morality: Why the Disconnects?


We've come a long way as a species. There were only one million of us, today's Saskatchewan population, on the whole planet prior to the agri-cultural transformations of 10,000 years ago. Population growth was slow as empires rose and fell, while far-away indigenous peoples carried on with their steady-state lives. World population escalated after 1400, largely due to the availability of more food from the spread of colonialism and improved living conditions in the homeland. Between 1730 and 1830 the number of children in London dying before five was cut by more than half.

In 1798 Mathus argued that if population grew exponentially it would outstrip food production. He was wrong in the short run as food production grew along with population, but this challenge is revisiting us with climate change. Population continues to be associated with many ideologies, e.g. that it increases prosperity or military might. Fears of the European elite about being out-bred by non-whites or the lower classes led to the push for eugenics, which was embraced by the Nazis and thankfully discredited. But deep double standards remain. U.S. foreign policy in the 1960s promoted population control abroad as a means to foster economic development. The opposite has proven truer.


Population and economy are more than chicken-and-egg, and in the 1970s we learned that enhanced quality of life leads to smaller families. The lowering fertility rates in many developing countries attest to this. By the 1990s the UN was focusing on women's rights -- including reduction of infant mortality, access to education and, most contentiously, reproductive health. Now the climate crisis has brought back concerns about population and food security. The lucrative market for bio-fuels to "feed" the military-industrial complex has already pushed up the price of staple foods in many regions.

There's lots to disentangle. What might we find if we bracket some of our moral beliefs? In sub-Sahara Africa there is a cluster of high fertility and maternal mortality rates, low contraception use, high incidence of unsafe abortion and escalation of the ravages of HIV. It is very challenging to sort out correlation from causation. Some people carry memories of coercive population control programs. Disinformation about HIV sometimes undercuts prevention programs, including the promotion of condoms. Worldwide, abortions have dropped since 1995, but not in Africa, and they remain highest where abortion is illegal, such as in Catholic areas of Nigeria. According to the Guttmacher Institute the rate is at least 29 per 1,000 in Africa compared to 12 per 1,000 in Western Europe. The WHO estimates that one-seventh of all maternal deaths in Africa result from unsafe abortions.

Disinformation is always rampant with prohibition; in some places fear of contraceptive side effects leads to reliance on unsafe abortions for birth control. There are many factual surprises in this highly charged matter, and religion doesn't necessarily shape outcomes as stereotypes might expect. The country most successful in lowering fertility rates, from 6.6. in 1970 to 1.9 per women today, is Iran. The Islamic leaders initially opposed family planning, interestingly to ensure enough soldiers to fight Iraq, but Iran ultimately launched a quality of life campaign based on family planning and availability of contraception. This campaign largely succeeded due to women's rising educational status; from 1976 to 2006 the literacy rate among young rural Iranian women went from 10% to 90%.

Discussion of reproductive health easily gets polarized into controversies over conception, contraception and women's rights. Can we get beneath these differences and find a view that better unifies humans in our quest for a sustainable population? I think so. There is little doubt that the main reason why family planning is working is because it enhances equality of women. When young girls go to school, they delay and better space childbearing. In other words, building up public education and healthcare is the way to reduce population growth. And this also improves population health; the chances of survival of children increase in smaller families and these children are generally healthier.


Various groups nevertheless oppose different aspects of family planning as immoral and a threat to "human dignity" and "creation". Abortion is not the only issue. A woman's right to say "no!" to aggressive male sexuality is still very much in dispute worldwide. Yet there is no doubt that, if women are better protected from violence and rape, abortion goes down. Abortion is also directly tied to lack of contraception; according to the February New Internationalist, 40% of women worldwide who desire contraception don't have access. Often opposition to women's reproductive rights and women's heath cloaks the defense of patriarchy. So it seems that traditional morality will continue to be challenged by the shift towards sustainability.

What might happen if human morality were better linked to consequences rather than treated as being abstractly right or wrong? If the move towards women's equality is the most fundamental factor in lowering fertility, and averting a population crisis, and if this shift to equality lowers the need for abortions, dangerous or safer, then perhaps we are moving in the right direction. The sanctity of human life must include consideration of what the needs of 16 billion humans by mid-century would have done to the degradation of the planet and the quality of life, if not for family planning. The UN's population estimates for 2050 still range from below 8 billion humans to over 11 billion, and what we do now will shape the impact for our future kin. Perhaps the sanctity of life and creation has to become more about protecting, preserving and restoring habitats and biodiversity which will contribute to human betterment. Is it time for a rethink?