The significance of this week's International Conference on Population in Mexico City will be directly proportionate to the amount of determination and commitment it generates toward the vital task of vastly accelerating voluntary humanitarian efforts to reduce world population growth. It could be the most important global forum of this century.
Between now and the end of the century the world's population is projected to increase from 4.8 billion to more than 6 billion. Virtually all of that growth will occur in the third world - the very poorest nations, where enormous problems abound.
Ten years ago, when the United Nations sponsored the World Population Conference in Bucharest, Romania, many developing countries were less than enthusiastic about sanctioning family-planning programs. Their leaders assumed that such policies would arouse their constituents' contempt, if not outright rebellion, because decisions of a very personal nature were involved.
Certainly religious sensitivities and cultural and traditional values had to be respected in each individual country. But there has been a revolution in attitudes toward family planning in the last decade. Today 80 percent of the people in the developing world live under governments with policies to limit their population growth.
This ''revolution'' owes much to the United Nations Fund for Population Activities and to private nongovernmental organizations that established family-planning programs and won the confidence of the people in a number of developing countries. As family-planning methods became known and accepted, demand for services increased and governments began to establish programs. The World Fertility Survey, the largest global social science research program ever undertaken, and other fertility studies show that 50 percent of the women in some 50 developing countries want no more children.
A study just released by the Population Institute shows that by intensifying population and family-planning programs and by raising sufficient resources to sustain them, global population can be held to 5.8 billion by the end of the century, rather than more than 6 billion as most demographers currently project. Furthermore, the acceleration of efforts to meet the family-planning demands of developing-world couples could result in global population peaking at well under 8 billion, rather than at 10 billion to 12 billion or more.
Ironically, a United States position paper for the Mexico City conference has enunciated a puzzling if not awkward stance by the country that has been contributing the largest absolute dollar amounts of population assistance over the past two decades. The paper says, in effect, that industrial development will do more than population assistance to slow down population growth rates. This issue was vigorously debated at Bucharest - and was thought to be laid to rest by the sensible reasoning that both development and family-planning assistance are needed - that the two factors need not and should not be mutually exclusive.
In addition, the position paper, drawn up by the White House Office of Policy Development, says the US will no longer provide funding to nongovernmental organizations that fund or promote abortions, even when these organizations use private funds for abortion services. This is counterproductive: It will increase the demand for abortions by denying a vast number of third-world couples access to modern family-planning methods.
At the outset I maintained that the significance of the Mexico City conference will be weighed by the determination and commitment it generates toward solving the world overpopulation problem. Whether this goal is accomplished ultimately will be determined, not by governments or institutions, but by the decisions of millions of couples throughout the world. Fertility surveys indicate many of these couples have already made their decisions.
A resolve must emerge from Mexico City that will ensure a lasting commitment from world leaders to reduce rampant population growth and to raise the resources to accomplish this. This conference can be a turning point in the effort to overcome one of the world's gravest problems. The key is human ingenuity and dedication; our ability to respond effectively, with compassion and sensitivity, to the worldwide demand for family planning will, to a major extent, determine the kind of world in which future generations will live.