About 30 women sat on the ground near Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, talking to a foreign journalist on a cold June day in 1985. Some had small children in their laps and babies strapped to their backs in bright, woven shawls. All were poor. They said they had barely enough to feed their children, and little hope of sending them to school. Of one thing they were sure: It is best to have only a few children - two or three at the most. They were simply too poor to provide adequately for more. Those with many children said they were worn out and in poor health.
These women had a problem. Many had at least five children; a few had more than 10. Often, their babies did not live past infancy. They wanted to know how to limit the size of their families. Shyly, but with an urgency apparently born of desperation, they asked a stranger for advice and help.
In most developing countries, the demand for family planning services far exceeds the supply, according to the a recent study by the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington-based research organization. Even though hundreds of millions of women (and increasing numbers of men) want small families, ``annual additions to world population increased from 74 million in 1970 to 86 million in 1987,'' says the study. ``If the needs of even half of the women lacking access to family planning had been satisfied, annual additions to human population would now be falling instead of rising.''
Experts estimate that today's world population of 5.1 billion will double in 40 years, and that 90 percent of this growth will occur in economically depressed developing countries. Already, analysts say that overpopulation is causing irreparable damage to the earth's environment. Resources are being depleted, forests destroyed, soils overcultivated. Most economies in developing nations are already unable to cope with the need for food, education, public services, and jobs.
``Many people won't have jobs, or any possibility of ever working,'' says Hugh O'Hare of the United Nations Fund for Population Activities. ``The political ramifications of that are ominous, as are the implications for trade. How are the US and others going to trade with whole sections of the world that are impoverished? How does a [poor] country pay its debts when its population is soaring?''
Even in countries where overpopulation is not a problem, more and more people feel compelled by economic pressures to limit the size of their families. And agencies such as the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) say that health risks to mothers and children are seriously increased when mothers become pregnant again before their last child is two years old, or after they already have four children.