Environmental Sustainability, Women and Health

Tod Preston

Can greater access to family planning and contraception save the earth? Curbing global warming, says Tod Preston, will require empowering women first.

Global warming (aka climate change) is arguably the greatest environmental challenge our planet has faced in modern history. Fortunately, as we mark the 37th Earth Day this month, we can take some degree of satisfaction in the fact that—at long last—policymakers and the public are waking up to the reality of the problem.

According to a recent survey from the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, more than 80% of Americans now say that global warming is a serious problem. With the exception of a handful of largely disgraced global warming skeptics, including "Senator"—I use that term loosely—Jim Inhofe (R-OK), it's no longer in vogue to dismiss global warming as pseudo-science or scare tactics by environmentalists.

So now that there seems to be a consensus that global warming does exist, the question is what can we do about it?

Reducing CO2 emissions and promoting alternative fuels are just a couple of the measures that are needed to tackle global warming. But another important part of the solution is addressing gender inequality, particularly in terms of reproductive health, in the developing world.

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The interconnections between environmental sustainability and the status of women and their health are significant. One of the most eloquent proponents of these linkages is none other than former Vice President Gore.

For more than two decades, Mr. Gore has talked about the critical role that rapid population growth has played in degrading the Earth's resources and fostering global warming. Because of this, he has consistently cited voluntary family planning, along with girls' education and other empowerment-related programs, as part of any solution to the global environmental crisis.


In his 1992 book, Earth in the Balance, Mr. Gore wrote that "No goal is more crucial to healing the global environment than stabilizing human population" and recommended that family planning supplies be made "ubiquitously available" as a key strategy to curb population growth.

Unfortunately, the continuing jihad against family planning (FP) programs by conservative officials and activists has resulted in far less progress than should be expected in making FP supplies "ubiquitiously available."

Today more than 200 million women in poor, developing nations wish to delay or end childbearing but lack access to contraceptives (PDF). In places such as Ethiopia, Haiti, and Pakistan more than one-third of married couples have this "unmet need" for contraceptives. This deprivation of basic reproductive rights—which often leads to larger than desired family size—takes a heavy toll on women and society as a whole.

Consider a few statistics. Since Mr. Gore published Earth in the Balance 15 years ago, world population has increased by 1.2 billion, the equivalent of adding four United States or nearly one China in population. Since the first Earth Day celebration in 1970, world population has grown from 3.7 billion to 6.6 billion.

The world is currently adding 6.3 million people every month and is on track to add another 2.5 billion people by 2050. Believe it or not, these updated projections assume declining birth rates in the developing world. If birth rates remain static, the planet could easily add 5 billion people in the next 43 years.

These statistics should give pause to anyone who cares about the health of our planet—not to mention the health and well-being of women. Despite the best efforts of family planning/reproductive health opponents and—yes—even some proponents in our community, the two are inextricably linked.

A 2005 documentary produced by PAI called "Finding Balance: Forests and Family Planning in Madagascar" really crystallizes these linkages for me. The short video profiles Voahary Salama, a local organization whose innovative approach to conservation provides women in remote rural areas with the health services they so desperately desire in order to choose how many children to bring into this world.

But rather than supporting more efforts like Voahary Salama—programs that empower and improve women's lives and help ease population pressures on the environment—U.S. funding for voluntary family planning programs has been cut more than 35% (adjusted for inflation) since 1995. And the President's budget for next year recommends cutting them an additional 25% (PDF).

Something Mr. Gore wrote back in 1992 speaks uncannily to the situation today: "… in the face of this clear challenge, the United States is—unbelievably—reducing its commitment to world population programs, essentially because President Bush depends upon a political coalition that includes a tiny minority who strongly oppose contraception…"

It's time for this injustice to end. The lives of women and the future of our planet are at stake.

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