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Crowds outside the White House in 1945 (National Archives)

The reproductive rights movement, in all of its glorious diversity, is a loose collection of individuals and groups who wish to see, variously (and not exhaustively), access to contraception and safe abortion facilities within a medical context, more comprehensive sex education, a greater variety of birth control options for men and women, and the protection of the inalienable right of every human being to make informed decisions about his or her health (sexual and otherwise) and well-being. A major part of that health and well-being includes women’s right to choose when they will conceive and carry a pregnancy to term, and a host of factors, including biological, social, economic, cultural, and environmental considerations factor into this choice. This is a discussion which Margaret Sanger famously provoked, and a discussion which has continued to rage well into the next century. It is especially timely in light of a recent UN report, released this week in which the world population reached an especially large, round number.

Sanger organized the first World Population Conference, held in Geneva, in 1927. Members in attendance included, from left: Lucien March (France), F.A.E. Crew (Great Britain), C.C. Little (USA), E. F. Zinn (USA), H. P. Fairchild (USA), C. Gini (Italy), Bernard Mallet (Great Britain), J. S. Huxley (Great Britain), R. Pearl (USA), A. M. Carr-Saunders (Great Britain), B. Dunlop (Great Britain) and J. W. Glover (USA). (From the Proceedings)

By now, many of our readers will likely have heard that population experts estimate that the seven-billionth baby was born on October 31st – ideally a joyous occasion for mother, baby, and family, wherever they are. Much of the discourse surrounding this seven-billionth birth has been positive, uplifting, and light-hearted: Population Action International has a web app which allows you to determine where you fall, chronologically, among the seven billion. There’s an iPad app by National Geographic in a similar vein, and the BBC has its own version of the “where am I?” meme. There is something tremendously exciting about passing such a major population milestone, despite the fact that 7 billion followed 6 billion much faster than 6 billion followed 5 billion, and 8 billion is likely to arrive even more quickly – such is the nature of exponential growth.

There is a dark side to population growth, however: overcrowded cities, food shortages and famine, over stretched water systems that fail to flush away sewage and provide clean drinking water, and other symptoms of infrastructure forced to operate at its breaking point. Once we start to consider the environmental toll, the future can may seem grim indeed. While there is no shortage of hand-wringing in the global North over the failure of the younger generation to procreate in sufficient quantities to support social structures for their parents’ generation, and while fertility may be decreasing in most parts of the world, the fact remains that globally, the human race is not getting any smaller. Even in 1920, Margaret Sanger was writing about the negative effects of overpopulation – and how these conditions meant that:

The fact is that we are not caring properly for the children now here and the conditions which are in prospect for the near future will make it impossible to give even such care to children as they are now getting. (Sanger, “Preparing for the World Crisis [full text]).

The fact that higher fertility rates are correlated with lower development indicators suggests that conditions in areas with the highest fertility are less favorable for healthy child development and survival. If a woman does not feel physically, emotionally, or financially capable of caring for a child to the fullest extent possible, that woman needs the right to choose whether or not to become pregnant.

Five days ago, on October 26th, the UN launched its State of World Population Report, which provides an overview of current trends, patterns, and emerging issues in world population studies and which contains an explicit endorsement of

“better and more universal access to reproductive health services particularly family planning for the countries. These services must be based on and reinforce human rights and should include sexuality education for young people, particularly adolescent girls” p. 6 (full report.)

Sanger, ca. 1917

An earlier UN publication, in August 2011, emphasized the legal restrictions placed on access to abortion and contraceptives worldwide, and called on member states to remove or relax restrictions in order to make family planning services more accessible. This documentlinks gender equality, health, and the socioeconomic context of gender roles and expectations to women’s fertility and the ways in which they are or are not permitted to control their own fertility. It is demoralizing that such an assertion should still be radical or controversial, given that in 1917 Sanger wrote:

When woman becomes conscious of her ego, her inner self, then shall she become a pivot in the world’s advanced thought, and shall hold within her hands the reins of human destiny. Those who have opposed her development and progress are simply those who refuse to accept this new Moral Standard for her.

They do not realize that Birth Control, which shall place woman in possession of her own body, is an epoch-making process in racial development (Sanger, “Voluntary Motherhood, (full text)).

Language evolves, and some of the language that Sanger uses may seem strange to twenty-first century eyes, but the central message is the same: allowing women to control their own fertility is crucial to the success, health, and overall well-being of the human race.

While the seven-billionth baby born is cause for celebration (not the least because babies are adorable), it is also worth pausing to consider that by continuing Sanger’s work and providing safer and easier access to contraception and other reproductive health services, we help to ensure a world in which the eight-billionth baby is wanted and born in the social, economic, and environmental conditions that will offer the best chance of a long and rich life.

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