Can Obama's family-planning policies help the economy?

Population soars toward 9 billion in 2050. Changes may slow that growth.

President Barack Obama's inauguration prompted a huge sigh of relief among the nation's family-planning advocates. As they see it, his policies could help slow the swelling world population while improving economic prosperity and political stability.

Since Obama's birth in 1961, the world's population has more than doubled to 6.7 billion, notes David Paxson, head of World Population Balance, an advocacy organization in Minneapolis. Despite low birthrates in many industrial nations, the world's population is growing an estimated 75-80 million a year.

When Mr. Paxson talks on the issue, he employs a metronome-like device that makes 140 ticks a minute. That's the number of people added to the world every minute, that is, births exceeding deaths. That amounts to about 200,000 people a day, with the world population headed toward 9 billion by 2050.

There's no way in the long run that the Earth can sustain even the present population because of limited amounts of safe water, oil, arable topsoil, ocean resources, and metals, Paxson argues. And he gets an "amen" from many other groups urging more attention to family planning.

On Friday, Obama repealed what critics call the "global gag rule," a US policy requiring all nongovernmental organizations that receive federal funds to refrain from performing abortions or citing abortion services offered by others. The policy was instituted by President Reagan in 1984, rescinded by President Clinton in 1993, and reinstated by President Bush in 2001. The rule has become a political flash point in the abortion debate.

Tod Preston, vice president of Population Action International in Washington, hopes repeal will let the US make a contribution once again to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the major international organization funding family planning. Last year, the House voted $60 million for UNFPA, the Senate voted $45 million. But the White House blocked any contribution.

By now, Mr. Preston notes, the US is behind $230 million in its dues to the UNFPA. Last year, that UN organization had $430 million to spend.

Five former directors of the US Agency for International Development earlier this month advocated raising American contributions to foreign family-planning and reproductive-health institutions to $1.2 billion.

Obama himself last July signed a letter with a dozen other senators, including Hillary Rodham Clinton, calling for raising US family-planning foreign aid to $1 billion.

Some 43 countries now have populations that are either essentially stable or declining slowly, notes Lester Brown, of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington.

But the UNFPA estimates that some 200 million women worldwide would like to delay or prevent pregnancy, but are not using effective contraception. They cannot afford it or are not knowledgeable about it. Universal access to family planning could save the lives of 175,000 women each year and prevent the deaths of 1.8 million children under age 5, the organization maintains. It would also dramatically reduce the number of abortions.

John Feeney, an environmental writer, charges that many well-known environmental groups are reluctant to talk about world population growth for fear of offending members and donors concerned about the abortion issue or even opposed to contraceptive measures.

So Mr. Feeney has organized a "Global Population Speak Out" in February to weaken "a decades-long taboo against open discussion of population issues." About 150 scientists, environmentalists, and others, some prominent, have promised to deal with the issue in talks, articles, lectures, interviews, and conferences during that month.

Paxson is one of the 150. In a telephone interview, he notes that already a billion people live in abject poverty on $1 a day or less. That 1 billion was the population of the world in the 1800s, he says.

The world faces incredible over-consumption and depletion of resources, he says. Paxson hopes that with widespread birth control the world could, over 150 years, reach not just a stable population, but a subreplacement rate of births that would bring the population down to maybe 5 billion. That would still be more than the level the Earth's resources can manage in the long term, he maintains.

"If Obama wants to go down in history as a great president, he should help bring people to an awareness of this population problem," Paxson says.

If population growth is not restrained humanely, by birth control, "it will happen inhumanely," he warns. Crowding will lead to wars, disease, starvation, and other catastrophes that will shrink the population drastically. Population growth is one factor behind the troubles in Darfur, the Congo, Gaza, and even Pakistan.

Population growth, Paxson says, is "the No. 1 issue of our time on the planet."

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