Family Planning: For Women or For Population Control?

Lucinda Marshall

Access to family planning methods would be a great boon to women in other countries. But should it be considered as a way to stop global climate change?

As pressure to address climate change increases, long-simmering debates
on the connections between population and environment have been
renewed. Historically, concerns have been expressed about the impact of “population” policies on human rights. 
Rewire welcomes open debate on these
issues and encourages both comments on this and other articles as well
as submissions from other authors.

This article was originally published at Feminist Peace Network.

The U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA)’s recent report, “Climate Change Connections:  Gender and Population’s”
linkage between access to family planning and reproductive healthcare
and climate change has led to some troubling analysis regarding
population control. According to the overview of the report,

The world’s population is forecast to grow from today’s
6.7 billion to between 8.0 and 10.5 billion by 2050. The majority of
this growth is likely to be concentrated in areas and among
populations—poor, urban and coastal—that are already highly
vulnerable to climate change impacts. Population growth typically means
increased emissions. However, demographic factors such as household
size, age structure of the population and urbanization also affect
emissions patterns and energy use.
Further, unsustainable consumption and per capita emissions are
generally much higher in rich, industrialized countries. In this
context, it’s important to remember that population is not just about
numbers, it’s about people.

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Many of the policies that affect population trends—such as more
educational opportunities for girls, greater economic opportunities for
women and expanded access to reproductive health and family
planning—can also reduce vulnerability to
climate change impacts and slow the growth of greenhouse gas emissions,
helping to ensure adequate energy and sustainable development for all.

Yet as I pointed out last week,

The U.N. Population Fund acknowledged it had no proof of
the effect that population control would have on climate change. “The
linkages between population and climate change are in most cases
complex and indirect,” the report said.

It also said that while there is no doubt that “people cause climate
change,” the developing world has been responsible for a much smaller
share of world’s greenhouse gas emissions than developed countries.

Nonetheless, articles such as this  from Agence France Presse, were quick to focus on reducing births in developing countries,

In the world’s poorest countries, where 99
percent of the growth of the world’s population will occur over the
next four decades, reduced fertility would be a boon for adaptation.

It would mean fewer demands on the environment and fewer
people exposed to water stress, floods, poor harvests, bad storms and
loss of their homes.

“How Niger is going to feed a population growing from 11
million today to 50 million in 2050 in a semi-arid country which may be
facing climate change is unclear,” Lord Adair Turner, a British
businessman and academic, observed crisply.

While it has been excruciatingly difficult for women in poorer
countries to gain access to family planning because of fundamentalist
governments, the influence of religious institutions, the U.S. Global
Gag Order, etc. despite overwhelming evidence that family planning
would greatly increase women’s empowerment and well-being, it is
disturbing that reproductive empowerment is now being touted as a
panacea for combating climate change.

It is instructive to look at  which countries have the most people:

  1. China – 1,330,044,544
  2. India – 1,147,995,904
  3. United States – 303,824,640
  4. Indonesia – 237,512,352
  5. Brazil – 196,342,592
  6. Pakistan – 172,800,048
  7. Bangladesh – 153,546,896
  8. Nigeria – 146,255,312
  9. Russia – 140,702,096
  10. Japan – 127,288,416

and at those which are the biggest polluters:

Country Emissions (million tons CO2):

  1. China 6,027
  2. United States 5,769
  3. Russia1,587
  4. India 1,324
  5. Japan 1,236
  6. Germany 798
  7. Canada 572
  8. Britain 523
  9. South Korea 488
  10. Mexico 437

Per-capita emissions (tons CO2/capita):

  1. United States 19.1
  2. Canada 17.37
  3. Russia11.21
  4. South Korea 10.09
  5. Germany 9.71
  6. Japan 9.68
  7. Britain 8.6
  8. South Africa 7.27
  9. France 5.81
  10. China 4.57

In countries like the U.S., Germany, Japan, Britain, France and
Canada, access to birth control is widespread, and China’s one child
policy has clearly decreased the number of births in that country but
yet these countries are top polluters.  In fact these lists don’t even
include  poorer  countries with the least amount of access to family
planning.  So where is the connection?

Going back to the paragraphs I highlighted above, what concerns me
is that while acknowledging that the U.S. and China are the worst
offenders, the concern seems to be for poorer, darker countries where
populations are expected to increase significantly even though they
don’t make an appearance on the list of countries which are
contributing the most to the degradation of the planet.

Cut to the punch, in all these decades that we have been polluting
like there’s no tomorrow, the more developed nations have been
practicing a de facto kind of population control in poorer countries by
not providing the necessary funds to combat malaria, hunger and 
HIV/AIDS.  We’ve had little concern about the maternal mortality that
kills hundreds of thousands of women in poor countries every year and
we’ve done little to empower women in these nations.

To be clear, you’ll get no argument from me that less humans would
in general be better for the health of the planet. And unquestionably,
we need to address the gendered impacts of climate change (which,
incidentally are thoroughly detailed in the UNFPA report). But, and
particularly against the backdrop of abortion rights being under the
worst siege in decades in the U.S., linking population control and reproductive empowerment is extremely troublesome.  Betsy Hartmann puts it well:

A world of difference exists between services that treat
women as population targets and those based on a feminist model of
respectful, holistic, high-quality care.

There is no question that better access to reproductive services is
desperately needed and that empowering women is crucial in addressing
climate change.  But equating family planning with population control
is disingenuously patriarchal and a slippery and dangerous assertion
for women.


Note:  Gender CC has an excellent website with resources and information about women and climate change.  George Monbiot dissects the patriarchal underpinnings of population control here.

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