Commentary Human Rights

Seven Billion People: Every Conversation About Numbers Starts with Human Rights

Suzanne Ehlers

As we pass the seven billion mark, it’s easy to get caught up in numbers. But the only reason those numbers mean anything is because of the individual lives behind them. In order to make the most of this moment and all those to follow, we need to lead every conversation about numbers with rights.

This fall, the world population will reach 7 billion people at a time of accelerated environmental disruption. This article part of a series commissioned by Rewire to examine the causes and consequences of population and environmental change from various perspectives and the policies and actions needed to both avoid and mitigate the inevitable impacts of these changes.

All of the articles in this series can be found here.

If you haven’t heard by now, the world is adding its 7 billionth person on Oct. 31, 2011. A few months before this milestone, PAI took to the streets of Washington to find out what people thought about our growing population. Their reactions to 7 billion speak for themselves:


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“That’s a lot.”

“I’m surprised it’s gone up quite that fast.”

“More people will need more energy, more food.”

“Do we have enough funding for that?”

“It’s definitely going to affect each individual.”

While people were understandably awed by the numbers, their answers also revealed concern about how those numbers impact their — and all of our — lives. It’s a balance PAI has always tried to strike, between big picture demographics and the needs and rights of individuals. In other words, numbers matter, but people count.

When we undertook the first edition of the publication Why Population Matters in 1996, we saw an opportunity to open a conversation with population devotees, to help them unpack their numbers game and see a woman’s face at the center of it all. We also, importantly, saw an opportunity to talk to women’s rights advocates, who were suspicious of quantitative analyses that could lead to quota-based systems.

In the sixties and seventies, when population issues were gaining prominence, the concern was largely if not exclusively about numbers. Some devastating experiments were the outcome—coercion, sterilization, and blatant disregard for human rights. The “overpopulation” crusade suggested, however implicitly, that some people are superfluous, which PAI finds morally unacceptable.

In 1994, at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt, the world came around to a different way of thinking—framed fully within a rights-based context. But really, who lives their life by a UN mandate? The real benefits of that framework were conferred on women who had no knowledge of it. It showed up in small ways – in empowerment, in the way they lived their lives. In the way I live my life.

Fast forward to where we are now, facing renewed attacks in as hostile a climate as any of us can remember. Politically, there are relentless attacks on women’s rights and health. Economically, we are witnessing deep and irrevocable cuts to spending and foreign aid. Even the religious and cultural corner is waging newly energized attacks on contraception, though Catholics, for example, admit—in poll after poll—to using it widely.

Attacks on reproductive health may seem small in the face of the economic and political crises of the day, but we must remember that it is small acts that contribute to the big, sweeping changes. Something as simple as having the status to make your own decisions about children—being able to get birth control at a nearby clinic—may not seem like a big event. But multiply that by billions of women the world over, and it is the foundation of a constant push to make the world more equal, better educated, more sustainable, more safe.

Any way you slice it, it comes down to women being valued and having the freedom to make good choices for themselves and their families. When they can’t, numbers problems ensue. This is true in high-fertility countries, where high birth rates create high maternal deaths and growing demands for resources and infrastructure. It’s equally true in low-fertility countries (or aging communities), where women are refraining from having children because society doesn’t offer a way to balance motherhood and their career. Tragically, this latter piece of the equation still plays out in dangerous ways, such as “missing girls” resulting from China’s one-child policy. The policy itself is troubling, but its effects also point to a broader societal challenge that women are not valued.

We have plenty to celebrate, of course. Look how far we’ve come in the US – just a few generations ago, child survival was not ensured. And looking ahead, much depends on the choices we make now. Family planning is far from a silver bullet, but on so many issues, it’s a critical part of the solution. And it’s what women are asking for as they deal with challenges from poverty to climate change to political instability.

Time and time again, in country after country, history has shown that if you give women the tools to have control over their lives, the numbers will follow. They solve the “population problem” on their own. No need for laws, no force necessary.  Make them healthy, make births safer, ensure their kids will live, give them access to contraception, and women opt for smaller families.

As we pass the seven billion mark, it’s easy to get caught up in numbers. But the only reason those numbers mean anything is because of the individual lives behind them. In order to make the most of this moment and all those to follow, we need to lead every conversation about numbers with rights.

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: ‘If You Don’t Vote … You Are Trifling’

Ally Boguhn

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party's convention.

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party’s convention.

DNC Chair Marcia Fudge: “If You Don’t Vote, You Are Ungrateful, You Are Lazy, and You Are Trifling”

The chair of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), criticized those who choose to sit out the election while speaking on the final day of the convention.

“If you want a decent education for your children, you had better vote,” Fudge told the party’s women’s caucus, which had convened to discuss what is at stake for women and reproductive health and rights this election season.

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“If you want to make sure that hungry children are fed, you had better vote,” said Fudge. “If you want to be sure that all the women who survive solely on Social Security will not go into poverty immediately, you had better vote.”

“And if you don’t vote, let me tell you something, there is no excuse for you. If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” she said.

“So as I leave, I’m just going to say this to you. You tell them I said it, and I’m not hesitant about it. If you don’t vote, you are ungrateful, you are lazy, and you are trifling.”

The congresswoman’s website notes that she represents a state where some legislators have “attempted to suppress voting by certain populations” by pushing voting restrictions that “hit vulnerable communities the hardest.”

Ohio has recently made headlines for enacting changes that would make it harder to vote, including rolling back the state’s early voting period and purging its voter rolls of those who have not voted for six years.

Fudge, however, has worked to expand access to voting by co-sponsoring the federal Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

“Mothers of the Movement” Take the National Spotlight

In July 2015, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that 28-year-old Sandra Bland had been found dead in her jail cell that morning due to “what appears to be self-asphyxiation.” Though police attempted to paint the death a suicide, Bland’s family has denied that she would have ended her own life given that she had just secured a new job and had not displayed any suicidal tendencies.

Bland’s death sparked national outcry from activists who demanded an investigation, and inspired the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to the deaths of Black women who died at the hands of police.

Tuesday night at the DNC, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and a group of other Black women who have lost children to gun violence, in police custody, or at the hands of police—the “Mothers of the Movement”—told the country why the deaths of their children should matter to voters. They offered their support to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during a speech at the convention.

“One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine. I watched as my daughter was lowered into the ground in a coffin,” said Geneva Reed-Veal.

“Six other women have died in custody that same month: Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Raynette Turner, Ralkina Jones, and Joyce Curnell. So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten,” she continued. 

“You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “His life ended the day that he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.” 

McBath said that though she had lost her son, she continued to work to protect his legacy. “We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and we’re urging you to say their names,” she said. “And we’re also going to keep using our voices and our votes to support leaders, like Hillary Clinton, who will help us protect one another so that this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.” 

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, called herself “an unwilling participant in this movement,” noting that she “would not have signed up for this, [nor would] any other mother that’s standing here with me today.” 

“But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven, and … his brother, Jahvaris Fulton, who is still here on Earth,” Fulton said. “I did not want this spotlight. But I will do everything I can to focus some of this light on the pain of a path out of the darkness.”

What Else We’re Reading

Renee Bracey Sherman explained in Glamour why Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s position on abortion scares her.

NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue told Cosmopolitan why she shared her abortion story on stage at the DNC.

Lilly Workneh, the Huffington Post’s Black Voices senior editor, explained how the DNC was “powered by a bevy of remarkable black women.”

Rebecca Traister wrote about how Clinton’s historic nomination puts the Democratic nominee “one step closer to making the impossible possible.”

Rewire attended a Democrats for Life of America event while in Philadelphia for the convention and fact-checked the group’s executive director.

A woman may have finally clinched the nomination for a major political party, but Judith Warner in Politico Magazine took on whether the “glass ceiling” has really been cracked for women in politics.

With Clinton’s nomination, “Dozens of other women across the country, in interviews at their offices or alongside their children, also said they felt on the cusp of a major, collective step forward,” reported Jodi Kantor for the New York Times.

According to, Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition staffed “eight curtained breast-feeding stalls on site [at the DNC], complete with comfy chairs, side tables, and electrical outlets.” Republicans reportedly offered similar accommodations at their convention the week before.

News Law and Policy

Court Blocks North Carolina’s ‘Discriminatory’ Voter ID Law

Imani Gandy

“[T]he new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision," Circuit Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote for the court, describing the North Carolina GOP's voter ID law.

A unanimous panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down North Carolina’s elections law, holding that the Republican-held legislature had enacted the law with discriminatory intent to burden Black voters and that it therefore violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The ruling marks the latest defeat of voter ID laws passed by GOP-majority legislatures across the country.

“We can only conclude that the North Carolina General Assembly enacted the challenged provisions of the law with discriminatory intent,” Circuit Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote for the court.

HB 589 required in-person voters to show certain types of photo ID beginning in 2016, and either curtailed or reduced registration and voting access tools that Black voters disproportionately used, including an early voting period. Black voters also disproportionately lack photo IDs.

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Republicans claimed that the law was intended to protect against voter fraud, which has proven exceedingly rare in Republican-led investigations. But voting rights advocates argue that the law was intended to disenfranchise Black and Latino voters.

The ruling marks a dramatic reversal of fortune for the U.S. Justice Department, the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, and the League of Women Voters, which had asked the Fourth Circuit to review a lower court ruling against them.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Schroeder in April ruled that plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate that the law hindered Black voters’ ability to exercise political power.

The Fourth Circuit disagreed.

“In holding that the legislature did not enact the challenged provisions with discriminatory intent, the court seems to have missed the forest in carefully surveying the many trees,” Motz wrote. “This failure of perspective led the court to ignore critical facts bearing on legislative intent, including the inextricable link between race and politics in North Carolina.”

The Fourth Circuit noted that the Republican-dominated legislature passed the law in 2013, immediately following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby v. Holder, which struck a key provision in Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act.

Section 4 is the coverage formula used to determine which states must get pre-clearance from the Department of Justice or the District Court for the District of Columbia before making any changes to election laws.

The day after the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Shelby, the Republican chairman of the Senate Rules Committee announced the North Carolina legislature’s intention to enact an “omnibus” election law, the appeals court noted. Before enacting the law, however, the Republican-dominated legislature requested data on the use, by race, of a number of voting practices.

After receipt of the race data, the North Carolina General Assembly enacted legislation that restricted voting and registration, all of which disproportionately burdened Black voters.

“In response to claims that intentional racial discrimination animated its actions, the State offered only meager justifications,” Motz continued. “[T]he new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

The ruling comes a day after the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and one of the primary organizers of Moral Mondays, gave a rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention that brought convention goers to their feet.

During a protest on the first day of the trial, Barber told a crowd of about 3,500 people, “this is our Selma.”