“As we crawled through the city, we encountered a crowded slum area. The temperature was well over 100, and the air was a haze of dust and smoke. The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people.” Ann and Paul Ehrlich in Population Bomb, 1968
Impact = Population x Affluence (consumption) x Technology
Ehrlich and Holdren, 1971
Close your eyes for a moment and conjure up an image of overpopulation. Did you picture hundreds of people hanging off a train in India? or dark-skinned crowds in a street in a poor country?
Yes, family planning is important in those scenarios. Voluntary access to modern contraception is important for humanitarian reasons in the global south. You probably know the litany of its benefits: decreased maternal mortality, healthier children, economic savings, progress in standard of living and education, local environmental protection.
However, the need for effective, universal access to family planning and to safe, legal abortion is much more important in rich countries in the global north. This is because of the issue of consumption.
What! you might be asking. The average woman in many African countries has 5 or more children. Niger tops the list; the total fertility rate there is over 7! Surely the population explosion there must be causing problems. Yes, Niger is one of the lowest ranked countries in the UN’s Human Development Index. Repeated drought has caused famine; population pressure and overgrazing cause environmental degradation.
Let’s compare two countries in the Western Hemisphere—the USA and Haiti. They are, respectively, one of the richest and one of the poorest in the world. The carbon footprint of an average person in the USA is about 20 tons of CO2 per year, while that of a Haitian is 0.2 tons—one hundredth of ours! Thus it would take a hundred Haitians to equal the climate damage done by one of us.
Another way to compare the impact of a single person in the two countries is with Ecological Footprint. The ratio between the two countries is 16 to 1. Thus 16 kids of a really large Haitian family would have the same impact of a single-child family in the USA. I have to admit that there are several problems with this comparison: it doesn’t include the two parents, the average Haitian family size is just a little over 3 so I doubt that there are many as large as 16. The legacy of a large family grows over generations. In Niger, if each generation has 7 children, the number of grandchildren would be 49!
The two measures of impact are different. The carbon footprint is global, since carbon emissions into the atmosphere spread over the whole planet. The Ecological Footprint includes carbon emissions, but it also includes effects that are localized, such as damage to the local environment. In any case, the impact of a person in the USA is much greater than one in Haiti or Niger, and it is spread over the planet.
There is good news! The unintended pregnancy rate (this includes mistimed and unwanted pregnancies) has dropped significantly in the USA. Whereas this rate has hovered at about 50% for years, the latest information is that it has dropped to 45%. The news is especially good for young women, when an unintended pregnancy can be devastating. This decrease is due to increasing use of effective contraception. It is very concerning that the new administration threatens women’s reproductive health and may make contraception and abortion services either unaffordable or totally unavailable.© Richard Grossman MD, 2017