You may have seen the population bumper stickers around: “Zero Population Growth”, “Population Forecast: Increased Crowdiness” or something of the like. You may have been at a dinner party where someone was making the ‘sensible’ argument that “we need to start talking seriously about population control!” out of concern for ‘sustainability’ or ‘so we don’t overrun the planet!’.

I am now inviting everyone to never have the population control discussion again. We can place it gently to sleep as not only a Red Herring but a hurtful and culturally insensitive line of inquiry.

The issue for our planet, our global neighbors, and our shared future is not how many people there are but the quality of life and equality in access for each individual to reach their potential. In this spirit, I will move ‘population conversations’ towards women’s health and liberty.

First, I’ll give reason why I don’t believe that population per se is a profitable conversation. There is, I believe, no suggested or perfect number of people for our planet. If there were as little as one hundred or as many as 30 billion there is nothing to say that one is necessarily ‘better’ for the world (at the time of this posting, world population is estimated at nearly 7 billion). Evolution has given no prescription for how many humans there should be. Our morals and values have however given us strong motivations to aid each other, feel compassion with, and share alongside others in our common humanity and this should remain our focus.

Michelle Goldberg, author of “The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and The Future of The World” writes in the May 17th, 2009 L.A. Times that women, if given education, access to healthcare, ability to work, social protection, and contraception, will themselves make choices that benefit them, their children, and their families. Whatever balance of growth occurs will then be coming from empowered women in their local contexts, not from outside voices.

This brings me to how ‘population control’ discussion can be hurtful. When folks around me in often middle class U.S. settings talk about ‘having only the children you can take care of’ they are coming from the privilege of knowing about condoms and having access to them without fear. They have access to safe, legal, and accessible abortion. They have social security and healthcare to aid them in age and sickness. I sometimes feel as if some feel that having more than 2.5 children is a character flaw or a moral weakness rather than part of a complex web of societal influences.

Population control is often framed negatively rather than positively, to its detriment. It is given as a “no more people!” frame rather than a “yes to social justice and women’s health!” Positive statements and affirming political and moral statements always achieve greater results.

So what is at stake?

The UN Population Fund and the Alan Guttmacher Institute found that if we could just get condoms and effective contraception into women’s hands that need it, those women could avoid:
23 million unplanned births
22 million induced abortions
142,000 pregnancy related deaths

Social stability, upward mobility, and political voice effectively give women better chances at creating healthier families.

Writes Goldberg, “In developing countries, lower social status for women is associated with higher fertility, but once societies become highly industrialized and women taste a certain amount of freedom, the reverse is true.”

Goldberg puts it simply: “The ethical and effective way to counter rapid population growth is to bolster women’s rights and imporve their access to family planning.” Goldberg also emphasizes education and contraception. Goldberg points to unsafe abortions accounting for 13% of maternal mortality as portraying women’s desperation for birth control.

Even if the world was right now able to easily sustain billions of new children, we would still be called to the higher moral standards of working towards all children being wanted and cherished. We would strive for their mothers to be healthy and with access to education and fulfilling work.

Let’s stop talking numbers and start talking compassionately about women’s lives.

Goldberg, Michelle. “Skirting The Issue” Los Angeles Times, May 17th 2009.