Ask environmental leaders where voluntary family planning fits into their organizations’ missions and goals, and most will draw a blank.
Their tasks are hard and often controversial enough without promoting expanded access to contraception, some might respond. Others might dismiss the importance of family planning with statements along the lines of “it’s not our numbers, but the way we consume, that matters.” This inaccurately equates family planning with population control, but it’s an understandable reaction. Even the progressive British newspaper The Guardian has endorsed such a statement editorially.Yet many environmentalists recognize that aspects of population—its size, its rate of growth, its resource demands—are a piece of the larger puzzle that is environmental sustainability. Scientists are even more likely to support this connection. A 2015 survey of 1,627 working PhD scientists by the Pew Research Center found that 82 percent agreed with the statement that “a growing world population will be a major world problem because there won’t be enough food and resources.” No one seems ever to have polled scientists or environmentalists on whether better access to family planning and reproductive health might ease food or resource scarcity either through slower population growth or by empowering women to help address such problems.
Given the importance of sound science to environmental work, might it make sense to see what science has to say about family planning in relation to environmental sustainability? At the Worldwatch Institute—where research on population, family planning, and women’s status has been the norm since our founding in 1974—we thought so. We wanted to engage others in the work, and we gathered a diverse project team and recruited a network of researchers and non-governmental experts from around the world to help us. After more than two years of work, we are releasing our report today (June 29, 2016).
The idea that parents should be able to choose the frequency and timing of childbearing enjoys broad public support, at least in the United States. Yet U.S. government support for domestic and international family planning programs remains tepid at best. Funding for the reproductive health needs of those with low incomes is threatened by fierce political opposition to Planned Parenthood. Internationally, family planning is less politicized—but hardly a priority for most governments.
UNFPA, the United Nations agency that helps developing-country governments with reproductive health services, is seeing its core funding cut this year by a projected $138 million from a budgeted $482 million, according to the reproductive health advocacy group Population Action International. UNFPA’s funding for contraceptives and related supplies is down from a budgeted $120 million to $75 million.
Several European governments that normally are generous to UNFPA say they are cutting back their contributions due in large part to the need to absorb the recent increase in refugees and migrants from the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. It’s a frustrating irony, given the likelihood that rapid population growth in both regions in recent decades has contributed to the conflict and joblessness that drives young people to seek safety and economic opportunities far from home. (Even The Guardian understands this argument.) Much of that population growth stems from poor access to the contraceptives and family planning services that UNFPA offers to countries that request the agency’s help.
Some two out of five pregnancies that occur worldwide are unintended—either happening too early or not wished for at all by the pregnant woman—according to data we reviewed in our search of scientific literature. And that fact buttresses the essential values principle that underlies the FPESA project. We are exploring the benefits of voluntary family planning, not population control. “The use of family planning must always be based on the fundamental human right of all individuals and couples to decide for themselves the timing and spacing of pregnancy,” as we noted in a recent blog on this topic.
The bottom line on our findings, after reviewing more than 900 peer-reviewed scientific papers related to family planning’s influence (or lack of influence) on the environment:
There’s no scientific consensus on this influence, in part because there’s not really a field or discipline that studies it. A rich diversity of evidence, however, from authors of both genders and from countries around the world, suggests that environmental benefits likely result from increasing access to and use of voluntary family planning. – Worldwatch Institute