5 billion and counting

HOW much is enough? How many will be too much? And should we worry about too few? This is supposed to be the month when world population clicks past the 5 billion mark, but nobody can be quite sure. The United Nations had designated this past Saturday as the ``Day of the 5 Billion,'' but in fact the UN's own population figures tend to be somewhat politicized.

Even as hands are being wrung over the rising tide of humanity in developing countries, however, concern is growing in some quarters that Western countries are becoming depopulated. The term ``population explosion'' was such a catch phrase of the 1960s that it even worked its way into a commercial for laundry soap. The baby-boom generation grew up on dire predictions of a future where everyone would have about two square yards to call his or her own.

The future always comes out a little different from the plan, though. The ``future'' we're looking ahead to nowadays is not so much one of cheek-by-jowl living as of a world in which an affluent developed world, with a static and graying population, coexists rather uneasily with a developing world bursting with more people than it can feed, educate, or employ.

But children - people generally - should be seen as a resource themselves, not just drains on other resources. We would like to see a world in which each child is wanted and where people have control over the number of children they have, so that they can support them appropriately. And at the macro level, we want to see countries able to provide the kind of educational and economic infrastructure that their populations need.

Inevitably, all this comes around to family planning, which developing countries are now accepting as an instrument of self-determination, and not a Western plot to squelch their peoples.

It is more important than ever that the United States continue to support family planning programs in its foreign aid programs. The administration has generally trailed Congress in eagerness to support such programs, and appropriations for them look to be on a downward trend.

Unfortunately all this gets tied up with the abortion issue. Under the administration's so-called Mexico City policy, family planning organizations getting US aid are forbidden not only to use such aid for abortions, but to present abortion as an option, or even to associate with organizations providing abortion services or counseling. The Planned Parenthood Federation of America is suing the Agency for International Development over this issue. Meanwhile, the administration continues to spend precious resources on promotion of ``natural family planning,'' which is of dubious effectiveness, especially as practiced in the third world. Whose agenda is this, anyway?

Many people support groups like Planned Parenthood precisely because they oppose abortion. They feel making family planning services available is one of the most important ways of preventing abortions. There is a clear distinction between favoring abortion rights and favoring abortion. Extremists among anti-abortionists should not be allowed to preempt the high ground by blurring this distinction.

Meanwhile, Baby No. 5 billion, wherever you are, welcome!

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