In an effort to energize anti-abortion voters for the upcoming election, congressional Republicans have once again distorted United States foreign policy by painting US population assistance as an issue of morality.
In the recent appropriations negotiations, they orchestrated a stalemate on settling the $1.6 billion US debt to the UN by restricting the use of American funds for international family-planning organizations that perform legal abortions, counsel women on abortion, or hold open dialogues on abortion.
This is not a moral issue; it is a public-health issue, a women's health issue, and ultimately an environmental issue.
The primary goal of international population assistance is to provide women with reproductive health care, including family-planning services and prenatal counseling. Women in developing nations largely do not go to family-planning clinics for abortions. They go for basic health-care services which are a human right, not a privilege.
One of the myriad benefits of filling the international family-planning gap is reducing the number of children that couples in countries such as Pakistan, Egypt, Indonesia, or Nigeria choose to have. A lack of US funding will disable international family-planning programs and efforts to slow population growth.
Human population growth is intimately tied to many of the environmental, political, and socio-economic challenges the world faces. Population growth has the effect of reducing the supply of available finite resources, such as cropland and freshwater. Population growth can also lead to overuse of ecosystems, such as fisheries, forests, and rangelands, encouraging degradation and eventual collapse.
The governments of countries that have experienced rapid population growth for several decades often find national goals reduced to national dreams. Overwhelmed by the simultaneous challenges of educating growing numbers of children, creating jobs for a swelling work force, and dealing with the environmental effects of population growth, their leadership and fiscal resources are stretched to the limit. When a major new threat arises, such as AIDS or aquifer depletion, governments often cannot cope.
And these are not scenarios from a doomsayer's futuristic dystopia. Nations are succumbing to a type of demographic fallout even now. As recent experiences with AIDS in Africa shows, many high-fertility nations are having problems providing basic preventative health services. While industrial nations have held HIV infection rates among their adult populations to 1 percent or less, infection rates are as high as 25 percent of the adult population in some African countries, including Zimbabwe and Botswana.
At present rates of infection, the nations could lose at least one-fourth of their adult population within the next decade from AIDS alone. These adult deaths, the deaths of infants infected with the virus, and high mortality among the millions of AIDS orphans, along with the usual mortality, will bring population growth to a halt or even into decline.
With these high-mortality trends more reminiscent of the Dark Ages than the bright new millennium that so many had hoped for, these countries are falling into a pre-modern demographic stage where high death rates offset high birth rates, and there is no growth in population.
Evidence from many nations whose populations are projected to grow substantially over the next few decades, such as India, the Congo, Vietnam, and Nigeria, indicates that population growth will indeed slow in the future. It is less clear whether it will slow because societies quickly shift to smaller families or because ecological collapse and social disintegration cause death rates to rise.
Yet, whether population growth slows by humane means or because nature imposes its own checks, is ultimately a human decision.
Decades of family-planning experience have shown that bolstering educational and economic opportunities for young people, especially women, promotes a shift to smaller families. For every nation where data is available, the more education a woman has, the fewer children she is likely to bear.
There remain hundreds of millions of couples in the world who lack access to contraception and basic family-planning assistance, but want to make use of these services.
Unfortunately, international family-planning assistance has fallen off dramatically in recent years.
Funds provided by Congress for population assistance - including funds for the US Agency for International Development and the UN Population Fund - are near historic lows and the current delay on honoring UN arrears means further reductions in family-planning programs overseas.
The only moral question in this debate is whether Congress will continue to cling to ideology when the surest way to prevent abortions is to prevent unwanted pregnancies through broad access to family planning. At stake are the lives of millions of women around the world who are dying for lack of reproductive health services, and ultimately the fate of the many nations that are straining under the continual march of population expansion.
* Brian Halweil is a staff researcher with the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based research group.