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Sustainable population, minus the control

Empowering women will naturally restore balance.

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That approach, which powerfully supports reproductive liberty, might sound counterintuitive for shrinking population growth, like handing a teenager the keys to the family car without so much as a lecture. But the evidence suggests that what women want is not more children but more for the fewer children they can reliably raise to healthy adulthood. Left to their own devices, women collectively "control" population while acting on their own intentions. Governments can, and should, get out of the way, merely helping assure that family-planning services are safe, inexpensive, and available to those who seek them.

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More than 200 million women in developing countries are sexually active without using effective contraception even though they do not want to be pregnant anytime soon, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive-health research group. The result: Some 80 million pregnancies around the world are unintended, a number similar (though not strictly comparable) to the one by which world population grows every year.

In the US, which spends about 17 cents per dollar of economic activity on healthcare, nearly half of all pregnancies is unintended. Yet in all nations in which a choice of contraceptives is available, backed up by safe abortion services, women have one or two children. Combine such services with education for girls and decent opportunities for women, and average global fertility would fall below two.

True, old-style population control seems at first glance to have helped slow population growth in China. But most of the drop in Chinese fertility occurred before the one-child policy went into effect in 1979, and given fertility trends elsewhere in Asia, it's likely the drop would have continued without coercion. Many developing countries – from Thailand to Colombia to Iran – have experienced comparable declines in family size by focusing on making schooling and family-planning services as accessible as possible.

With President Obama in the White House and Democrats dominant in Congress, the US government is at last supporting the kind of development abroad and reproductive health at home most likely to encourage slower population growth. Like nearly all other politicians, however, Mr. Obama doesn't talk about population or its connection to problems from health and education all the way to food, energy security, and climate change. The topic is still too sensitive, despite the recent upsurge in attention.

Bringing population back into the public conversation is risky, but people increasingly understand that the subject is only one part of most of today's problems and that "population control" can't really control population. Handing control of their lives and their bodies to women – the right thing to do for countless other reasons – can. There is no reason to fear the discussion.

Robert Engelman is vice president for programs at the Worldwatch Institute and is author of "More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want." A longer version of this essay first appeared in the magazine Scientific American.