Monday, May 16, 2011

defusing the population bomb

LATimes | Forty years ago, early efforts to provide family-planning aid in developing countries ran aground when they became associated with coercive birth control programs such as China's one-baby policy and India's forced vasectomies. Such violations of human rights are not just unacceptable; they also are unnecessary. Surveys find that women in developing countries would choose smaller families if they had the means to do so.

Women who have no schooling give birth to an average of 4 children; with just a year or more of schooling, the number drops to 3. As education increases, the number of births drops. Girls in Africa who receive some education will have fewer children and have them later in life. Their children will be healthier, and more educated as well.

Of course, foreign aid is of limited help in countries where religious beliefs or oppressive regimes make it all but impossible for women to exert control over any aspect of their lives. But as individual nations find it more difficult to provide for burgeoning populations in coming decades, there could be some surprising changes. In Iran, a campaign to increase the birthrate after the shah was deposed in the late 1970s — the legal age to marry was lowered to 9 — was reversed when the country struggled to find housing, employment and even enough water for a population that had nearly doubled in two decades. The new smaller-families campaign included birth control counseling before a couple could obtain a marriage license, and the birthrate plummeted to just above replacement level. More recently there have been calls to raise the number of births again.

The industrial world struggles with a different form of ambivalence about population growth. When birthrates in Japan and Italy fell to well below replacement levels, leaders were horrified and the Western news media reported it as terrible news. It's true that such a decline in birthrates presents a challenge: a smaller population of working-age people to support a larger population of retirees. Radical drops in birthrates and the subsequent aging of the population have presented formidable problems in some countries. But the situation is temporary; that smaller population will age in a few decades and become easier for future generations to support.

This much is certain: Nations cannot indefinitely produce larger and larger generations to support older ones. Humans may have the reproductive ability to keep raising their numbers, but the planet on which they do it is finite.