Cross-posted with permission from PPSFL Writes.
Back in November, Nicholas Kristof argued in the New York Times that if humans are serious about answering problems like climate change, resource shortages, and armed conflicts that seem ever ready to unravel civil society, we need to get serious about family planning. (See “The Birth Control Solution.”)
“What’s the impact of overpopulation? One is that youth bulges in rapidly growing countries like Afghanistan and Yemen makes them more prone to conflict and terrorism. Booming populations also contribute to global poverty and make it impossible to protect virgin forests or fend off climate change. Some studies have suggested that a simple way to reduce carbon emissions in the year 2100 is to curb population growth today.”
It should be said that the concept of “overpopulation” has a somewhat checkered history. As Michelle Goldberg details in The Means of Reproduction, a lot of early support for birth control in developing countries came from those less concerned about women’s rights than about stemming the spread of communism. Some will hear echoes of that realpolitik perspective in Kristof’s warning about struggling nations being more prone to conflict and terrorism.
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Also, while there is reason to worry about the environmental impact of a growing population, a lot of Western eco-anxiety is unfairly focused on developing countries in Asia and Africa. High fertility rates in those countries would not be such a concern if their inhabitants did not aspire to the comparatively extravagant lifestyles we are modeling right here in the U.S. Ten billion is a sustainable population for Earth, but not if everyone lives like the average American.
With those caveats in mind, Kristof’s point is still quite sharp. Family planning in developing countries can help prevent violent conflicts and environmental degradation that will create far more misery in those parts of the world than they ever will in the U.S. But as Goldberg and Kristof both stress, the key to success with family planning programs lies in empowering women.
According to the Population Institute, “It’s no coincidence that population growth rates are generally fastest in those nations where girls are taken out of school at an early age, the status of women is low, violence against women is high, and reproductive rights are not respected.”
High birth rates cannot be effectively addressed without tackling the underlying problem of gender inequality. But the chicken to this egg is that a lack of health care (including reproductive health care) and reproductive rights is a cornerstone of that inequality.
The Center for Reproductive Rights has published a map of the world that color codes every country according to the status of its abortion laws. Click here to download it for yourself. As you’ll see, green countries are those where abortion is relatively unrestricted; red countries only allow it in cases where a woman’s life is in danger or not at all. In between are yellow and orange countries. When you look at this map, it is impossible not to be struck by the obvious segregation of pro-choice countries and anti-choice countries into other broad categories – poor countries versus rich countries, conflict-prone versus relatively peaceful, modern versus not, and so on.
Now compare this map with numbers from the UN’s gender inequality index. The index is calculated for each country by looking at maternal mortality, teen pregnancy rate, contraceptive use, antenatal care, percentage of births attended by a skilled professional, and the levels of female education, employment, and government participation. The top five countries with the lowest inequality include the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, and Norway – all “green” pro-choice countries. Countries with lower rankings have more inequality, with the worst ranked* being Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Niger, Mali, and Afghanistan – all “red” anti-choice countries.
There are a few exceptions. Abortion is legal in Nepal, Guyana, and Turkey** where inequality is still fairly high. Conversely, while Ireland is the only anti-choice country to rank in the top 50, it manages 29th place compared to 37th for the United States, which is coded green by the CRR map. Of course, whether the U.S. is really a pro-choice country depends on what part of it you live in. States like Texas, Mississippi, and Kansas are a lot closer to Ireland than they are to Denmark – the fact that they are often labeled “red states” is an odd coincidence.**
But exceptions are just that. The rule is that women in pro-choice countries have far more equality on average. In fact, the “green countries” have an average inequality index of 0.402 versus 0.598 for “red countries.” Maternal mortality rates are especially striking. Pregnant women are 450 percent more likely to die in anti-choice countries, and that’s just an average. If you compare Yemen to Denmark, the difference is 142,000 percent… and that is not a typo.
In every category measured in the index, the story is the same. If you are a woman who wants to have a better education, a bigger voice in government, considerably less risk of dying while pregnant, more equality with men, and better living conditions all around, you want to live in a pro-choice country. And as a man who thinks that equality is essential to a civil society, so do I.
*Some countries did not have sufficient data to calculate an index number and be ranked.
**It should be noted that an estimated 5,000 women a year – those who can afford it – travel from Ireland to other countries for abortion services, and that women who do have abortions are entitled to free (state-funded) post-procedure counseling and follow-up medical care in their own country when they return. It should also be noted the UN report shows contraceptive use at an astonishingly high rate of 89%, higher than any other country with figures available, including Norway (88%).