IN the late 1960s, before the world’s population hit three billion, a movement emerged with the snappy title of ZPG, or Zero Population Growth.
There was even a 1972 movie, Z.P.G. — a dystopian vision of a polluted and overpopulated Earth, in which governments banned giving birth for a generation. Despite brainwashing and robotic baby substitutes, this was apparently not entirely successful …
Forty years on, the world’s population is seven billion and rising, but the issue of population growth seems to have largely slipped from public consciousness.
University of Hawaii biogeographer Dr Camilo Mora argues scientists too have “critically underplayed” the issue, despite its likely impact on the future health and wellbeing of humanity and the planet our species inhabits.
“… the issue of population growth has been downplayed and trivialized among scientific fields, which may in part account for the reduced public interest in the issue and in turn the limited will for policy action”, he writes in Ecology and Society.
Whether it’s climate change, or the health of people in resource-poor countries, population levels are a crucial factor in many of the most pressing problems we confront, he argues.
Yet resource-rich nations continue to offer their citizens incentives to have more babies, while women in resource-poor countries are often unable to access the contraceptive services they need.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates at least 200 million women around the world want, but cannot get, safe and effective contraception — and the figure is rising.
Developed world apathy is partly to blame: the UNFPA says funding for family planning services is actually decreasing, with the issue “losing ground as an international development priority”.
Birth control services in resource-poor countries can come up against local religious or cultural beliefs, but they can also be undermined by powerful lobby groups in resource-rich countries, especially in the world’s largest donor nation, the US.
For more than 40 years now, US foreign aid policy has seesawed between restricting aid to family planning services and relaxing it, depending largely on whether there is a Republican or a Democrat in the White House.
Abortion is a particularly potent issue in American political life and aid policy has become one of its battlegrounds, as a 2014 Congressional Research Service report makes clear.
Republican administrations have repeatedly denied foreign aid, not just for abortion services themselves, but for any other activities run by organisations that offer abortions, thus ruling out many of the health services best equipped to provide contraceptive services.
When Barack Obama in 2009 became the most recent Democratic president to rescind those restrictions, he said they had “undermined efforts to promote safe and effective voluntary family planning programs in foreign nations”.
Perhaps the most bizarre moment in this slice of US political history was the Reagan administration’s extension of foreign aid to organisations that limited their advice to “natural” contraceptive measures (abstinence, for example).
The motto for that now-defunct policy could have been, “We’ll teach you about contraception provided we know it’s not going to work”.
And what happens when contraception isn’t available or doesn’t work?
The UNFPA says almost 50 million of the 190 million women who get pregnant each year have abortions, many of them in unsafe and clandestine conditions.
For their sake, and for the planet’s, it’s about time we got serious about this.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.