Population and Policy: The Elephant in the Room
The Catholic Church recently excommunicated a doctor who performed an abortion on a 9 year old girl who had been raped by her stepfather. Don Jose Cardoso Sobrinho, the Archbishop, has been criticized for the excommunication of the doctor, the doctor’s medical team, and the mother of the child. He did not excommunicate the rapist, saying that, “A graver act than rape is abortion, to eliminate an innocent life.” (He also did not excommunicate the girl, which would otherwise be Church rule, because, “The Church is benevolent to minors,” he said.)
Feel your blood pressure rising? You’re not alone. There may be no political issue that generates more controversy than abortion. Some recent polls indicate that almost half of voters say it is a top issue influencing their vote one way or another.
Lost in the shuffle of whether life begins at conception or at birth is the broader implications of family planning on the one issue that most affects sustainable development: population.
It may surprise some that Prescott Bush, grandfather of George W. Bush, was Treasurer of Planned Parenthood in 1947. Grandfather Bush supported Planned Parenthood and women’s reproductive rights, as did Father Bush, until given an ultimatum in 1980 by then candidate Reagan. Why exactly the switch came is the subject of much debate.
Some have said that it is tied to racism, and that as Planned Parenthood expanded its operations out of city centers with predominantly minority populations and into white suburbs, conservative support for it began to erode. Others have suggested that the religious extremists grew in power until they had control over the Republican party and withdrew support for centrist candidates on the topic of reproductive rights.
But family planning goes far beyond the topic of abortion, which receives the most public attention and scrutiny. Women’s education and access to good careers, and their ability to put off having children in order to pursue satisfying work, can be hindered by political whims: John Ashcroft, Attorney General under George W. Bush, was extreme enough in his views to consider contraceptives, such as Intra-Uterine Devices (IUDs), as ‘immoral’.
Meanwhile, America’s, and the world’s, population continues to grow. Higher economic standing of a country tends to come with a larger per capita ecological footprint, with America leading the way. David Suzuki’s Green Guide lists the ecological footprint of individual countries by the number of hectares needed to support each person: America leads with a whopping 9.6. Europe, which has largely the same standard of living as America, comes in at 4.8. Edward C. Hartman, author of The Population Fix: Breaking America’s Addiction to Population Growth, points out that in 1960, the density of America’s population equated to roughly one person per 31.5 hectares. By 2000, it was one person per 20 hectares. With population growth, that number will be one person per each 13.75 hectares in 40 years. Remember, currently, it requires 9.6 hectares to support each American.
So it’s possible for us to reduce our footprints, sure, but how realistic is it, given Americans’ penchant for bigger, faster, stronger? Everyone became a conservationist when gas was $4 per gallon, but we’ve proven before (oil embargo of the 1970’s) how short our attention span is, and how little we remember times that weren’t so flush. Right wing politicians don’t help anyone but the oil and gas lobby when they distract Americans with their focus on short term fixes (e.g., off-shore oil drilling, oil shale development, etc.), and allow us to forget about the underlying problem. As soon as gas prices stay low for a short time period, Americans will resume their love affair with the Hummer and suburban sprawl. Hartman profiles a survey by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and the National Association of Realtors (NAR) conducted with recent homebuyers, asking what factors influenced their purchasing decision:
- 62% said ‘houses spread out’,
- 47% said ‘bigger house’,
- 45% said ‘bigger lot’,
- 40% said ‘less developed area’, and
- 39% said ‘away from the city’.
- 10% said ‘smaller houses’,
- 9% said ‘smaller lots’, and
- 13% said ‘closer to public transit’.
(Take these figures with a grain of salt, however, as the NAHB and NAR have vested interests in propagating the idea that Americans want bigger houses spread out over larger areas with larger lots. Note how the wording of ‘smaller houses’, and ‘smaller lots’ seems unappealing, and if they had worded it, ‘lower maintenance’, ‘energy efficient’, ‘walkable community’, or ‘social with neighbors’, they might have received quite a different response.)
Getting a hold of (and hopefully reversing) population growth is the the most effective (and some would argue, only) way to prevent runaway destruction of Earth’s remaining resources. And that means the political will to support family planning services for all Americans, and to provide counseling for those least likely to be receiving sex education, as most citizens of developing countries are. Many are affected by the global gag rule, which President Obama rescinded in January, allowing for Federal funds for family planning and counseling services around the globe.
In addition, there must be an end to the rampant pro-population growth subsidies in the U.S. Nadya Suleman has received a blunt repudiation for having octuplets (which brings her total to 14 children, all as an unwed and unemployed single mom). The criticism is largely centered around how irresponsible it is to not only continue to have children, but to manipulate the outcome by taking fertility drugs. But it is not just the fact that this population growth is unsustainable and destructive: our tax dollars pay for Suleman’s irresponsibility.
Should we really be extending child tax credits, as George W. Bush did, so we can further subsidize population growth? Welfare reform also needs to be addressed. Could we counsel welfare recipients with family planning aid and make it mandatory for them to take sex education classes? Could we let them know that they get one chance, and tell them that we will deny welfare claims for repeat claimants after they’ve received this family planning and sex education? Yes. We can.
Scott Cooney is the author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill), and hopes that someday the green economy will simply be referred to as…the economy.
Planned Parenthood Federation of America
Californians for Population Stabilization
Carrying Capacity Network
Negative Population Growth
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