For women to have children by choice rather than chance and to plan their family size and spacing is a matter of autonomy and dignity.
Two hundred and twenty-five million women in lower-income countries say they want the ability to choose whether and when to become pregnant, but lack the necessary access to contraception – resulting in some 74 million unintendedpregnancies each year. The need persists in some high-income countries as well, including the United States, where 45 percent of pregnancies are unintended. Securing the fundamental right to voluntary, high-quality family planning services around the world would have powerful positive impacts onthe health, welfare, and life expectancy of both women and their children. The benefits for social and economic development across all genders are myriadand, unto themselves, merit swift and sustained action. Family planning can also have ripple effects on drawing down greenhouse gas emissions.
In the early 1970s, Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren developed the now-famous equation known as “IPAT”:
Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology.
In simplified fashion, it argues that the impact human beings have on the environment is a function of number, level of consumption, and the kind of technology used. Much of the work to address global warming has focused on the technology piece of the equation and the shift away from fossil fuels. Some has zeroed in on affluence, aiming to reduce consumer appetite for things, particularly in rich countries. Addressing the third factor, population, remains controversial, despite widespread agreement that greater numbers place more strain on the planet, though not equally so. Each person consumes resources and causes emissions throughout a lifetime; those impacts are much greater for someone in the United States than in Uzbekistan or Uganda. Carbon footprints are a common and comfortable topic. How many feet are leaving their tracks is not, due largely to concerns that linking family planning with environmental health is inherently coercive or cruel – Malthusian in the worst sense. However, when family planning focuses on healthcare provision and meeting women’s expressed needs, empowerment,equality, and well-being are the goal; benefits to the planet are side effects.
Challenges to expanding access to family planning range from basic supply of affordable and culturally appropriate contraception to education about sex and reproduction; from faraway health centers to hostile attitudes of medical providers; from social and religious norms to sexual partners’opposition to using birth control. Currently, the world faces a $5.3 billion funding shortfall for providing the access to reproductive healthcare that women say they want to have.
The success stories in family planning, however, are striking. Iran put a program into place in the early 1990s that has been touted as among the most successful such efforts in history. Completely voluntary, it involved religious leaders, educated the public, and provided free access to contraception. As a result, fertility rates halved in just one decade (from 5.6 to 2.4). In Bangladesh, average birth rates fell from six children in the 1980s to two now, as the door-to-door approach pioneered at the Matlab hospital spread across the country: female health workers providing basic care for women and children where they live. These and other success stories show that provision of contraception is rarely sufficient. Family planning requires social reinforcement, for example the radio and television soap operas now used in many places to shift perceptions of what is “normal” or “right. (The Population Media Center deals with this, specifically.)
After being silent on the topic of family planning for more than twenty-five years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) included access to reproductive health services in its 2014 synthesis report and pointed to population growth as an important factor in greenhouse gas concentrations. Growing evidence suggests that family planning has the additional benefit of building resilience – helping communities and countries better cope with and adapt to inevitable changes brought by global warming. That too has implications for women and girls, who, because of existing inequities, suffer disproportionately when impacts, from disease to natural disaster, hit. Still, this topic continues to be taboo in many countries and institutions, hemmed in by the persistent belief that raising the issue of population, or approaches that reduce it, is inherently draconian and an affront to the worth of human life. It may be the other way around on a warming, crowded planet: To revere human life it is necessary to ensure a viable, vibrant home for all. Honoring the dignity of women and children through family planning is not about centralized governments forcing the birth rate down – or up, through natalist policies. Nor is it about agencies or activists in rich countries, where emissions are highest, telling people elsewhere to stop having children. It is most essentially about freedom and opportunity for women and the recognition of basic human rights. Currently, family planning programs receive just 1 percent of all overseas development assistance. That number could double, with low-income countries aiming to match it – a moral move that happens to have meaning for the planet (and by that, for the survival of humans).
Source: Drawdown – Paul Hawken