Is There a Place for Family Planning Advocacy in Environmental Work?

Is There a Place for Family Planning Advocacy in Environmental Work?

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Ask environmental leaders where voluntary family planning fits into their organizations’ missions and goals, and most will draw a blank.

Their tasks are hard and often controversial enough without promoting expanded access to contraception, some might respond. Others might dismiss the importance of family planning with statements along the lines of “it’s not our numbers, but the way we consume, that matters.” This inaccurately equates family planning with population control, but it’s an understandable reaction. Even the progressive British newspaper The Guardian has endorsed such a statement editorially.

Yet many environmentalists recognize that aspects of population—its size, its rate of growth, its resource demands—are a piece of the larger puzzle that is environmental sustainability.

Yet many environmentalists recognize that aspects of population—its size, its rate of growth, its resource demands—are a piece of the larger puzzle that is environmental sustainability. Scientists are even more likely to support this connection. A 2015 survey of 1,627 working PhD scientists by the Pew Research Center found that 82 percent agreed with the statement that “a growing world population will be a major world problem because there won’t be enough food and resources.” No one seems ever to have polled scientists or environmentalists on whether better access to family planning and reproductive health might ease food or resource scarcity either through slower population growth or by empowering women to help address such problems.

Given the importance of sound science to environmental work, might it make sense to see what science has to say about family planning in relation to environmental sustainability? At the Worldwatch Institute—where research on population, family planning, and women’s status has been the norm since our founding in 1974—we thought so. We wanted to engage others in the work, and we gathered a diverse project team and recruited a network of researchers and non-governmental experts from around the world to help us. After more than two years of work, we are releasing our report today (June 29, 2016).

The idea that parents should be able to choose the frequency and timing of childbearing enjoys broad public support, at least in the United States. Yet U.S. government support for domestic and international family planning programs remains tepid at best. Funding for the reproductive health needs of those with low incomes is threatened by fierce political opposition to Planned Parenthood. Internationally, family planning is less politicized—but hardly a priority for most governments.

UNFPA, the United Nations agency that helps developing-country governments with reproductive health services, is seeing its core funding cut this year by a projected $138 million from a budgeted $482 million.

UNFPA, the United Nations agency that helps developing-country governments with reproductive health services, is seeing its core funding cut this year by a projected $138 million from a budgeted $482 million, according to the reproductive health advocacy group Population Action International. UNFPA’s funding for contraceptives and related supplies is down from a budgeted $120 million to $75 million.

Several European governments that normally are generous to UNFPA say they are cutting back their contributions due in large part to the need to absorb the recent increase in refugees and migrants from the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. It’s a frustrating irony, given the likelihood that rapid population growth in both regions in recent decades has contributed to the conflict and joblessness that drives young people to seek safety and economic opportunities far from home. (Even The Guardian understands this argument.) Much of that population growth stems from poor access to the contraceptives and family planning services that UNFPA offers to countries that request the agency’s help.

Some two out of five pregnancies that occur worldwide are unintended.

Some two out of five pregnancies that occur worldwide are unintended—either happening too early or not wished for at all by the pregnant woman—according to data we reviewed in our search of scientific literature. And that fact buttresses the essential values principle that underlies the FPESA project. We are exploring the benefits of voluntary family planning, not population control. “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,” as we noted in a recent blog on this topic.

Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability: Assessing the Science coverThe bottom line on our findings, after reviewing more than 900 peer-reviewed scientific papers related to family planning’s influence (or lack of influence) on the environment:

There’s no scientific consensus on this influence, in part because there’s not really a field or discipline that studies it. A rich diversity of evidence, however, from authors of both genders and from countries around the world, suggests that environmental benefits likely result from increasing access to and use of voluntary family planning.

Check out our launch recorded via webstream (June 29, 2016). Our report is online, as an interactive PDF file chock full of hyperlinks to the studies themselves—many of which we’ve assessed and annotated—at the Worldwatch and FPESA websites. We welcome your feedback as well, and we hope to continue this work.

 


Robert Engelman is a senior fellow at Worldwatch and director of its FPESA project.

Banner photo credit: Jonathan Torgovnik/Reportage by Getty Images). Updated June 30, 2016.

About the Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment (FPESA)

Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability AssessmentThe Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment (FPESA), a project of the Worldwatch Institute, is surveying the field of health and environmental research for well-documented and evaluated data shedding light on how the use of family planning might relate to climate change mitigation and adaptation, sustainable water supply and food production, the maintenance of biological diversity, the future of forests and fisheries, and more. Learn more at fpesa.net.

Learn more about the evidence linking family planning and environmental sustainability by watching the recording of our launch via webstream from June 29, 2016 in Washington, DC. You can access the report for free at the Worldwatch and FPESA websites.

Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability: Assessing the Science cover

One Response

  1. Unless and until humans can control their reproduction, corporate political rights are repealed and capitalism is replaced with some variant that is not dependent on exponential growth, there can never be fully realized sustainability. These three barriers are a virtual guarantee of failure in that they all three are resource abusers that yield nothing to common sense and frugality. It is less than intellectually honest to even ask if family planning affects sustainability or if it is part of the environmental movement’s business. This area of study should be paramount in all discussions of sustainability. We can recycle, use alternative energy sources and backyard farm all day long and we will still fail if there are 20 billion people on planet earth in the next century. Sustainability should also be addressing asteroid collision avoidance and response as well. What good would a cooler, cleaner planet be if it sustains a strike from an extinction event asteroid or comet? NASA is not spending enough time or resources on this threat. It may be a future threat. But it may not.

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