Right now, all around the world, women are having sex.
Some are on the pill. Others can fish condoms from a drawer. But too many women, especially in developing countries, are still denied their basic human right to choose if, when, and how many children to have.
On 11 July, World Population Day, health organisations and heads of state will gather in London at the 2017 Family Planning Summit to assess progress toward increasing access to family planning for women and girls around the globe. As the day nears, we should remind ourselves that protecting women’s reproductive rights is not about curbing population, easing resource burdens, cutting carbon emissions or bolstering conservation efforts. It’s about helping women assume the control they are entitled to.
Remarkably, not everyone agrees. Author Eugene Linden’s op-ed, Remember the Population Bomb? It’s Still Ticking, exemplifies a dangerous and persistent type of population alarmism that sees birth control not as a right, but as a way to stem “rising tides of people” fleeing environmentally ravaged countries and banging on the West’s gates. Forget colonialism, structural adjustment, racism, AIDS. For struggling countries like Lesotho, in Linden’s view, the “biggest problem probably was, and is, the obvious: too many people.” Less explicit, but no less noxious, is the growing narrative that empowering women and girls is one of the most cost-effective ways to solve the climate crisis: when women are empowered, they have fewer children, and fewer children means fewer emissions.
This is an old and fatuous argument. Casting family planning in developing countries as a solution to resource stress, migration, or rising carbon emissions not only unfairly pins blame for these crises on poor women, it also misdiagnoses the problem. It’s not population numbers, but global inequalities — in resource consumption, health care access, political power, etc. — that determine which countries are flush, and which lack enough to go around.
Rich countries suck up the most resources and spew out the most climate-warming greenhouse gases. From 1980 to 2005, wealthy nations accounted for 29.1 per cent of emissions but just 7.2 per cent of population growth. Poor nations, on the other hand, accounted for 52.1 per cent of population growth but just 12.8 per cent of emissions. Overconsumption of carbon-intensive products, largely by industrialized nations, drives climate change and its effects, not high fertility rates in developing countries.
In fact, high fertility rates reflect the same imbalances in resources and power that allow climate change to trace such an uneven pattern of destruction across the globe. Just as global inequalities saddle developing nations with the costs of climate change, gender inequality and uneven access to information and contraceptives deny women and girls across the world control over their own fertility.
But if population alarmism helps poor women access contraception, is it so bad?
When people say “overpopulation” is going to destroy the planet, what they mean is poor people are making it harder for wealthy people to live the lives they’ve come to feel they deserve. When we blame women’s fertility for resource scarcity or climate change, we turn our attention away from these glaring inequalities. And we allow people and governments with the most power to shirk responsibility for addressing climate change, food insecurity, and other environmental crises.
Moreover, framing access to contraception as a means to any end, no matter how noble, is dangerous. It ignores the fact that reproductive choice is a basic right, and it risks recasting women’s bodies as tools for solving problems they did not cause. Just as entrenched inequalities determine “who eats first and who eats worst”, who lives in the world’s most dangerous places, and who calls 5th Avenue home, it determines who can decide whether, when and how many children to have. Unless we challenge these inequalities, poor people will remain just as vulnerable to the devastating effects of poverty and climate change as they are now, and they will not have enough food to feed their families, no matter how large or small.
So, instead of wringing our hands about “overpopulation”, let’s attack the inequalities that sustain poverty and drive migration, climate change and high fertility. But let’s do it without shifting responsibility to the poor, and without undermining women’s rights to reproductive self-determination.
At CARE, our work in the North Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, shows that it is possible to fulfill those rights for women and girls even in some of the most difficult regions of the world. There, CARE has helped the government train providers on high quality family planning counseling and services, including youth-friendly service provision. This has resulted in dramatic increases in access to and use of modern contraception. Our common cause is in working to expand equality and freedom for women and girls no matter where they live, so let’s join forces to rid the planet of the injustices that are the true threat to all of our futures. Because if women and girls in poor communities around the world have equitable access to education, resources, and political power, and yes – family planning – they might very well change the world.
Christine Galavotti is senior director for sexual and reproductive health and rights at CARE USA and leads CARE’s global work to help 100 million women and girls exercise their rights to sexual, reproductive and maternal health by 2020. Casey Williams is a PhD student in literature at Duke University and freelance writer.