Why a new president may slow population growth

Democrat in the White House is likely to reverse Bush policies on global birth-control funds.

By , Columnist

If a Democratic president enters the White House about a year from now, some experts in family planning anticipate a boon for mankind: a greater effort by the United States government to restrain world population growth.

As it is, when a baby born today enters kindergarten, the number of people in the world will have grown by more than 300 million. That's on top of the 6.7 billion individuals alive today. That four-year population-growth projection is comparable to the 303 million people now living in the US – the third most populous nation in the world after China and India.

The Bush administration has handed over population policies "to the far right," charges J. Joseph Speidel, a population expert at the Bixby Center for Reproductive Health Research & Policy, in San Francisco. "I hope we will have a more science-based population policy in the future rather than an ideology-based policy."

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Should Sen. Hillary Clinton (D) of New York or another Democratic candidate become president, Mr. Speidel and other enthusiasts for more family planning assistance anticipate, among other things, a quick repudiation of the Mexico City Policy, or as its opponents call it, the "global gag rule." This policy makes organizations ineligible for US family planning money if they use non-US funds to provide legal abortions, counsel or refer for abortions, or lobby for the legalization of abortion in their own countries.

The Mexico City Policy was announced by President Reagan in 1984. It was repudiated by President Clinton the day after his inauguration, and it was reinstated by President Bush on Day 1 of his administration. There's little doubt in Washington that a new Democratic president would repeal the gag rule again.

Some family-planning advocates see the current tribal conflicts in Kenya as one indication of the need for greater efforts to provide poor women with the ability to prevent unwanted pregnancies and thus limit the size of their families.

When President Truman was in office, Kenya's population was 6 million. Today it is six times that and growing rapidly. Women in Kenya have on average 4.9 children today, up from 4.7 in the late 1990s, but down from the 7.5 or 8 in the 1960s.

Rapid population growth in itself is not necessarily a direct cause of conflict, says Elizabeth Leahy, a researcher at Population Action International (PAI), a Washington advocacy group. "But it can exacerbate underlying conditions of conflict."

In Kenya, the government has difficulty educating and finding jobs for hordes of young people. Some 73 percent of Kenyans are under 30. In two years, Kenya will have 70 people per square kilometer, up from 10 in 1950. Though one-fifth of Kenyans now live in urban areas, up from 6 percent in 1950, there is competition for farmland. Some of the worst tribal battles have occurred in rural areas.

In many countries, says Joseph Chamie, former research chief of the United Nation's Population Division, rapid population growth raises tensions between groups – such as between the poor and the well-off, or between ethnic groups (as in Pakistan), or between religious groups (as in Lebanon or Israel/Palestinian territories). "They are all competing for the same living space and resources," says Mr. Chamie, now research director of the Center for Migration Studies in New York.

Despite a reduction in global population growth from about 2 percent a year in the 1960s to 1.2 percent now, the world's population is still adding 78 million people a year, mostly in South Asia and Africa. That's down from 88 million in the late 1980s. The population of less developed countries outside China is still projected to increase from 4 billion today to more than 6.5 billion by 2050.

Even in China, where the government was last week seen as bolstering its one-child rule by expelling violators from career-­crucial Communist Party membership, the large number of couples of reproductive age means that the population grows by about 8 million people a year.

Family planning advocates see a faster reduction in population growth as crucial to the health of the world's environment and for easing the competition for resources. Many hope a new US president will restore contributions to the United Nations Population Fund. Bush ended them in fiscal 2002.

Total US financial assistance for population, family planning, and reproductive health programs peaked in 1995 at $577 million. Today, spending on these programs is 41 percent less in inflation-adjusted dollars, despite some congressional efforts to boost funding, says Tod Preston, a vice president of PAI. In the same time frame, the number of women capable of bearing children has increased by 275 million.

More money could help. Organized voluntary family planning programs have a 40-year track record of success, notes a lengthy study by Speidel and other authors. The study cites details of dramatic reductions in birth rates in a short time in Thailand, Iran, and – curiously – California, under a state program.

In Iran, for example, a woman had an average of 5.5 children in 1988. Today, there are 2.1 births per woman, just enough to stabilize Iran's population.

In Thailand, the "total fertility rate" has dropped below replacement level to fewer than two births per woman, compared with seven births per woman just two decades earlier. A population program in that country made a broad array of contraceptives available within communities. They were distributed by nurses and midwives. The study figures that the government saves $16 on social services for every dollar invested in the program.

Fully voluntary programs, holds Speidel, can substantially decrease population growth and "alleviate the increasing burden it places on the environment." But helping in such an effort, he says, will require the US overcoming "determined opposition from social and other ideological conservatives, who try to minimize the significance of continued population growth or to limit the medical options of those seeking to avoid pregnancy and disease."

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