A Word on Our Sponsor: Shared Values on Family Planning, Population, and Environment

A Word on Our Sponsor: Shared Values on Family Planning, Population, and Environment

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Over the coming weeks, the Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment (FPESA) project will be providing advance peeks at peer-reviewed scientific papers from the last decade that offer evidence on the link between family planning and environmental sustainability. We’ll include brief annotations, hyperlinks to the papers or their abstracts, and summaries of our assessments of their value to our hypothesis that family planning benefits the environment. These assessments are still a work in progress, and they probably will remain so even after we publish a report this spring on our findings. We hope to continue and learn from this work for some time to come.

But first, a word on our sponsor.

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Our work … is rooted in a common global understanding that has evolved over several decades.


No, not the funders that have made this project possible, though it’s true that we wouldn’t be here without them. (Thank you, United Nations Foundation Universal Access Project, Turner Foundation, and Wallace Global Fund.) Rather, in a broader sense, our work in assessing the scientific evidence base for environmental benefits of family planning is rooted in a common global understanding that has evolved over several decades. There is now a fertile ground of shared values that allow us to work on this sensitive and often controversial linkage with confidence that we are not dehumanizing any group of people or urging coercion or imposition of some kind of environmental obligation on the reproductive behaviors of women or couples.

Our work on the FPESA project is consistent with the consensus of those in the field of sexual and reproductive health and rights and related fields that the use of family planning must always be based on the fundamental human right of all individuals and couples to decide for themselves the timing and spacing of pregnancy. Even if some of the scientific evidence we assess suggests an urgency to slowing the growth of population to ease pressure on natural resources and the environment (and some does), this principle is paramount. So is the principle that the importance, value, dignity, and rights of girls and women should be equal everywhere to those of boys and men, and that politics, economics, law, and culture should reflect and support this equality.

There have certainly been times when these principles have been undermined or shunted aside—sometimes in the interest of boosting population growth, sometimes to slow it down. China tries to control its population even today by restricting childbearing. The population field has to live with its history—and with at least one misguided policy in the present. But we at FPESA believe that the mindset of demographic control is passing and is unlikely to return given growing respect worldwide for human rights and individual choice.

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Perpetual vigilance against such a return of the control mentality is essential.


Perpetual vigilance against such a return of the control mentality is essential. But absent evidence that such a threat exists, the FPESA project has seen no reason to shy away from evidence that population growth threatens environmental sustainability. At the same time, we hypothesize that there also are non-demographic pathways through which family planning contributes to sustainability, and we explore these as well.

In part to demonstrate the global acceptance of the rights basis of family planning and its consistency with evaluation of scientific evidence on the population-environment linkage, we have gathered an international network of some two dozen researchers and some leaders of nongovernmental organizations to help us conduct the Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment. The group is evenly divided by sex, and most of its members are in or from developing countries in all three major regions (Latin America, Africa, and Asia). If we or any of the authors whose papers we examine ever appear to veer from our stated values in this work, we can count on FPESA network members to raise a question or concern.

The fact that such concerns have been minor, almost non-existent, reflects an encouraging bit of scientific information. In the 936 papers published since 2005 that we have studied so far, we have not identified one that argued for a weakening of the rights basis of family planning. True, a few authors use terms such as “overpopulation” or “population control” that earn winces from some of us who work in this field. But in each case that we encountered such terms, it seemed clear that they reflected more of a lack of familiarity with common word usage in this field and not a conviction that coercion or anything resembling it has a place in family-planning or population policy.

In the weeks to come, you can expect to see a number of descriptions, annotations, and assessments of some of the more relevant, interesting, or compelling pieces of scientific research that the FPESA project has identified over the last two years. Some of this research makes no mention of family planning, women’s rights, education, or anything else directly pertaining to the values described above. None of it is inconsistent with these values, the exercise of sexual and reproductive rights, or the importance of women and girls standing in equality with men and boys everywhere. If you disagree, please let us know. And we welcome your comments on any other aspect of the project and its work.

Robert Engelman is a senior fellow at Worldwatch and director of its Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment (FPESA).



9 Responses

  1. Hi Bob,
    Longtime no speak – miss our occasional lunches
    Will I see you at the GMA reception? I hope so.
    My comment on your work is:
    I agree that coercion, or anything resembling it, has no place in family-planning or population policy. However, we do have to face up to over-population, over-development, and overshoot! Do you agree that humanity has significantly overshot nature’s capacity to support our aggregated socioeconomic endeavors? If not, we need to talk! 🙂
    Ending population growth was an appropriate goal way back in the 20th century. Today the goal must be to stabilize and reduce human numbers, and as rapidly as possible. Hope we can chat sometime.
    Ps: How does one “speak” your acronym; FPESA? (UNEP and OPEC are easy)

  2. This is great news Robert! In addition to all your excellent points, could I encourage you to include the role of men in FP/RH decision-making? At World Vision, we have found that programs where we initiate conversations with men, even before we reach out to women, gain greater acceptance, more quickly. When in-country male staff discuss with men their individual perceptions of “what’s in my best interest”, attitudes and beliefs begin to adjust to their new realities that frequently include increasingly scarce resources. We encourage a new point of pride, shifting from “how many children do you have” to “how are your children doing.” They value the differences between quantity and quality as many are eager for their children to be healthy and educated. I do look forward to learning more – thank you!

    • Thanks for your comment, Adrienne. The FPESA project is indeed interested in the role of men in the issues we’re exploring–sometimes it’s positive, sometimes less so. There’s not much recent peer-reviewed literature relevant to our conceptual framework, but watch this space. Secondly, I’m delighted to hear of your shift in emphasis from numbers to quality of life for the children parents have. I made the same point in my book More. One of the reasons for the title was the point that women in particular typically don’t so much want “more children” as “more (i.e., better) FOR their children.”

  3. Max Kummerow

    Yes to equal reproductive rights. Yes to universal human rights. Yes to empowering women. But reality is that external costs and benefits of reproduction are so great as to threaten continued life on earth, and certainly well being of all of us. So, sadly, the message “Have as many kids as you as an individual want” turns out to be a kind of feel good message, but fundamentally wrong ecology and economics and therefore ethically wrong as well. Individual costs and benefits differ from social costs and benefits quite significantly. The key issue is to limit total numbers to low enough levels to allow freedom to thrive. Maximizing freedom in the long run requires universal adoption of family planning. We enforce speed limits and pollution laws and land use laws to protect fundamental rights. Governments also have a role to limit total population. Sorry. As Galileo said, It moves whether or not people are in denial of reality. Too many people damages life for all even if individuals want every child. At present many women want fewer children so empowering individual freedom may help, but externalities mean individual freedom doesn’t give us automatic maximum total freedom. Increasing your freedom may reduce mine.

  4. Aubrey Manning

    Any biologist knows that Earth is already grossly overpopulated if all are to enjoy a reasonable standard of life in a healthy environment. If this were generally accepted then only selfish couples would ever wish for more than 2 children. As it is we have developed an artificial notion of ‘human rights’ such that it is unthinkable to apply coercion or even persuasion to family size, although it has been and still is common enough for institutions to exhort women to have MORE children. You may shy away from the term population control but we can move towards a population policy if we can get understanding that NUMBERS COUNT and not just accept that all we can do is drift along hoping that if people begin to prosper they’ll have fewer children. It’s too late for this to be sufficient – we are trudging up a down escalator and active persuasion/education/incentives towards reducing the birth rate are needed everywhere – certainly among the wealthy developed nations. Such an attitude will commonly be denounced as fascist/racist/anti-human. It is the converse, if we do not stop growth by persuasion and advocacy it will be stopped for us by undesirable external factors.

  5. Robert Engelman

    Thanks for your comments, Max and Aubrey. There may be some intellectual basis for arguing that the risks to the planet and humanity of a population that won’t stop growing are so great that reproductive rights should be subordinated to the need for survival. Problematically for the argument, however (and leaving aside for the moment my own distaste for its ethical position), the number of people worldwide who would support this trade-off is minuscule. Political support for any form of reproductive coercion is non-existent outside of China. In the meantime, efforts based on reproductive health and rights have succeeded in cutting human fertility in half since the 1950s, a social revolution (and arguably an environmentally beneficial one) based on individual intention and capacity that would not have occurred had governments tried to mandate reproductive controls. For this reason and many others, I’ll stick with a rights-based approach to addressing population growth.

  6. […] right to make decisions about avoiding pregnancy or becoming pregnant when one wants to. (See this article from the FPESA project’s upcoming report for our take on this […]

  7. […] and couples to decide for themselves the timing and spacing of pregnancy,” as we noted in a recent blog on this […]

  8. […] and couples to decide for themselves the timing and spacing of pregnancy,” as we noted in a recent blog on this […]

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