Population Growth—chapter 7
In the fall of 1994 an important international conference on human population growth was held in Cairo, Egypt. Kim Murphy began her report about that conference as follows:
"The story of Om Mahmoud illustrates the personal nature that is at the base of any discussion on population control. It also encapsulates some of the changes that are underway, which affect population growth in the developing countries. Whatever governments decide, whatever expert opinion may suggest, the ultimate decision concerning population growth rests in the hands of individual men and women. Because of the personal nature of reproduction and its deep cultural and religious connections the subject is a delicate one...."
The environmental consequences of human population growth discussed in Chapter 5 are reasons enough to control it. The danger of doing nothing is to run the risk of producing a human population that overshoots the carrying capacity of the Earth. Population studies have shown that overshooting the carrying capacity usually ends in a population crash—a massive die back due to starvation and disease. That is a situation that population experts believe has already happened in places like Ethiopia, Somalia, Bangladesh, and China, and fear will happen with greater and greater frequency in coming years. However, the most important thing that separates humans from the rest of the animal world is the ability to think ahead. We should be able to deal with our overpopulation problems in better fashion than allowing “nature to take its course.”
There are two broad ways that the growth of human population can be slowed:
Family Planning - Some people think of family planning as a synonym for deliberate termination of pregnancy on demand. The ethics of deliberate termination of pregnancy is complicated enough without this confusion. Family planning refers to a variety of actions and services: giving information to help couples avoid or achieve conception, counseling, educational services, improvement of the health of women and children, and the well being of families. Deliberate ending of pregnancy is just one of the many options considered in family planning discussions.
Strictly speaking the focus of family planning is not on population growth reduction. Rather its goal is to help couples have children when they want them.
According to information from a Population Council Report dated February, 1994, approximately one in four births in the developing world (excluding China) is unwanted, and even more are unplanned. Unplanned births are often detrimental to the development of the child, not to mention the disruption caused in the life of the mother and to family relationships.
Deliberate ending of pregnancy has always been a controversial subject of discussion among those who surround us. It is nearly impossible to find someone who does not have an opinion about deliberate termination of pregnancy. Since both sides have strong arguments in defense of their viewpoints, debates on the topic usually go nowhere. An unwanted child is a pitiful thing, but the thought of terminating something that if left to run its natural course would result in a birth of a human being gives many people a feeling of abhorrence. However, it is the government’s responsibility to ensure the well being of all its citizens, and the well being of all individuals includes the personal control of one’s own body.
According to the law a woman could legally have deliberate end of pregnancy up to a set number of weeks into a pregnancy only—after that a deliberate ending of pregnancy would be illegal. The applicable laws in the United States emanate from two basic governmental sources: (1) the legislatures of the several states and territories and (2) the United States (i.e., the “federal”) Supreme Court. The state legislatures, being responsible for the production of most criminal laws, are the traditional source of regulation of the termination of pregnancy. Thus, from the decline of common law (judicially created) crimes in the early 19th century, to the intervention of the United States (federal) Supreme Court in the 1970s, state legislatures widely criminalized deliberate termination of pregnancy. In 1973, in the case of Roe vs. Wade, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution provided a fundamental right for a woman to end pregnancy. The Supreme Court held that the “right to privacy,” established by the Court’s precedents in the contraception cases of the 1960s and early 70s, assured the freedom of a person to end pregnancy unless the state had a “compelling interest” in preventing such an action. The Court then held that, though the state had an interest in protecting fetal life, this interest did not become adequate to allow banning the deliberate termination of any pregnancy until fetal viability occurred in the third trimester of pregnancy. All the state laws that regulated deliberate ending of pregnancy during the first six months of pregnancy, except for the purpose of protecting maternal health during the second trimester, were invalidated.Additional Laws Restricting the Deliberate Termination of a Pregnancy
16 states still have pre-1973 laws on the books restricting deliberate termination of pregnancy even though they are clearly unconstitutional and nullified under Roe vs. Wade.
There have been many attempts since 1973 to reduce free access to deliberate ending of pregnancy. Laws have been passed by some states and at the federal level to:
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in its famous 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that:
Today most people who favor deliberate ending of pregnancy focus on a woman’s rights and the people opposed to deliberate ending of pregnancy focus on a fetus’ rights. Both agree that the life of a child is a precious thing that deserves the full protection of the law. There would even be nearly universal agreement that it is a woman’s exclusive right to make decisions concerning her body.
The crucial question of the controversy is, “When does a fetus become a human being?” Unfortunately science cannot give a clear answer to this question and conservative religious opposition has increased since the early 1980s.
Deliberate ending of pregnancy is at present the most widely practiced form of family planning in the world. According to the World Health Organization an estimated 50 million women each year resort to deliberate ending of pregnancy to prevent unwanted births. The fact that it has a long history and that many women do it does not, in the view of the opponents, make it morally right. Many of them hold that the life of a human being starts with the union of a sperm with an egg and that the growing fetus should be treated as a human being. From that point of view destruction of a fetus is the same as murder of an individual.
The courts and most people in the U.S. have adhered to a different view. The nine months of pregnancy are divided into thirds. During the first three months (first trimester) medical access to deliberate termination of pregnancy is guaranteed by law. It is a decision and responsibility of the woman.
The opposition of the Roman Catholic Church to any interference with conception except for the avoidance of sex during a woman’s fertile period is well known. At one time Thomas Aquinas had held that the fetus went through various stages of development before it acquired a human spirit, which did not happen until about 45 days after conception. This became the Church’s position until 1869 when church law changed. Today, Church authorities admit that they do not know when a fetus becomes a person but that doubt is sufficient reason to oppose all deliberate termination of pregnancy.
All over Western Europe after World War II and in other industrialized countries, women began to leave the house for the world of outside work, and went to school for career education. As women moved out of the home into offices and factories increased education gave them the tools to do jobs other than child raising and housekeeping and it gave them a different image of themselves. Expanded life choices were available. Using birth control, women could choose when they wished to start a family. Statistics showed that invariably the more educated a woman was, the later she tended to marry and the fewer children she had.
In many of the less developed countries, however, the role of women has not changed. Young girls are forced by social pressures, coercion and sometimes even violence into early marriages and frequent childbearing. Where boys are valued more highly than girls, wives are expected to keep having children until the desired number of sons are produced. Where women are denied education, independence, property ownership, legal and social rights they will continue to rely on childbearing as a source of status and security.
Multiple births can take a terrible toll on the mother. Every pregnancy is a drain on her health. This is especially true in situations where the woman not only works in the fields but where low living standards do not give her the support she needs. In many cultures where women work the fields and prepare the food, they usually eat last and only the leftovers. In these places women are limited to roles as field workers, preparation of meals, home keepers and child bearers. Without rights and education, they do not have the economic or political strength to change their roles.
As we have seen, where women have some degree of control over their own destinies, the birth rate declines and female health improves. Where education of women is encouraged the size of families is much smaller. One of the methods to reduce population growth then, is to improve their situation.
The controversy that surrounds deliberate ending of pregnancy impinges on the right of a woman to control her own life. Those who support deliberate ending of pregnancy as a legitimate choice point to the consequences of forcing unwilling parenthood on women. Childbearing permanently disrupts the course of life. It curtails education, employment opportunities, and changes the social status of women. Where a child is unwanted or where there is a lack of ability of the parents to support it, the effect on the child’s development can be disastrous.
Going beyond the question of the right of women to make their own choice with regard to deliberate ending of pregnancy, the right of women to birth control measures is still an issue in some cultures. Many people see access to effective birth control as a personal liberation that gives a woman the means to shape her own destiny and stabilize her family’s life. For some men this is a perceived threat to their authority. Others may see birth control as a means toward an immoral life or as giving a woman too much control.
Birth rates are influenced by many factors. The family planning movement is one of them. Population experts point out that economic and social changes also influence birth rates. The theory of the demographic transition was developed out of the experience of the industrialized countries of the West. Many experts expected developing countries in the rest of the world to follow the same pattern. The expectation was that, as industrialization proceeded, a reduction in the birth rate would follow economic improvement. The slogan of the World Population Conference in 1974 was “development is the best contraceptive.” In the last century in the U.S. and the U.K. this process took many decades. However, recent studies have shown that a reproductive change is already under way in the developing world.
All over the developing world women from different cultures, and from different social and economic backgrounds have started to desire smaller families. Birth rates have begun to fall even in the absence of improved living conditions. They have declined by about a third in the last thirty years. Where women formerly had an average of six children they now have four. These changes have taken place in countries as different as Thailand, Colombia, Morocco and Turkey.
Although many factors must necessarily be present to bring about declining birth rates, among them is the distinguishing characteristic of the modern age — information exchange. It is no longer noteworthy that a television antenna may sprout from the roof of the poorest home. Remote villages that may not have a school have a communal television set around which many members of the community gather in the evening. It is impossible to measure what changes in attitudes and values are taking place as viewers watch messages about personal and family health and see portrayals of different, and sometimes foreign, life-styles. However, in some countries popular entertainment shows also encourage family planning. They seem to have had great effect. Other methods of communication, like radio and visits of traveling nurses, are also being used to spread information concerning family planning.
If contact with the wider world has changed attitudes concerning family life, the availability of contraceptive methods have provided the means to put new ideas into action. In the developing countries 38 percent of women in their childbearing years now use contraceptives. There is increasing use of condoms as a contraceptive technique as well as protection from sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS. Voluntary sterilization is increasingly common in Latin America and in India. Birth rates have declined even in the sub-Saharan lands of Botswana, Kenya and Zimbabwe.
In Kenya, for example, where the culture previously favored large families the growing shortage of agricultural land changed the aim of family life. Strong programs by the Kenyan government and volunteer population organizations provided information and contraceptives throughout the country. Better education for women increased their status and promoted the use of contraceptives. The result was that between 1984 and 1989 contraceptive use rose 59 percent.
One of the social benefits of smaller families is the concentration of family energy and assets on a smaller number of individuals. This result is true of families in the U.S. as well as elsewhere. The Rand Corporation, a study group that researches such questions, reported in 1994 that the largest family factor contributing to higher scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests were a drop in family size.
If the worldwide decline in birth rates generates optimism with regard for the long-term future of human population, there is still the sobering thought that, despite the decrease in birth rates, the total human population will continue to grow. The number of people in the world is expected to double to 10 billion by the year 2050. One of the reasons is that a large part of the world population has not yet reached its reproductive years. In the developing countries more than one third of the population is under 15 years of age. Even if future couples practice family planning and have 2 or fewer children, the number of childbearing couples will result in a population increase. The population age structure graphs below compare a rapid growth country (Kenya), a slow growth country (China) and a negative growth country (Russia).