High Rates of Unintended Pregnancy Even as Fertility Falls: Population, Contraception, and Research in Latin America and the Caribbean

High Rates of Unintended Pregnancy Even as Fertility Falls: Population, Contraception, and Research in Latin America and the Caribbean

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The population of Latin America and the Caribbean has nearly quadrupled since the mid-20th century, from 169 million in 1950 to 634 million in 2015, according to the United Nations Population Division. A key factor behind this sharp growth was the substantial decline in infant mortality, which was not balanced by comparable declines in fertility. This led to a rise in the number of live births and, over time, to an increase in the number of women of childbearing age. Demographers project that the region will be home to some 780 million people in 2050.

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The region also has the world’s highest level of unwanted pregnancy.


Although the region has experienced a rapid decline in total fertility—from nearly 6 children per woman in the 1950s to 2.2 children today—fertility among adolescent girls is well above the global average. During 2010–15, for girls and women aged 15–19, the birth rate was 66.5 per 1,000 at the regional level, compared to a worldwide average of 46.2 per 1,000. Adolescent fertility is especially high (above 80 births per 1,000) in the Dominican Republic, French Guiana, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. The region also has the world’s highest level of unwanted pregnancy, according to the Guttmacher Institute. In 2012, 56 percent of total pregnancies in women aged 15 to 44 (comprising unplanned births, induced abortions, and miscarriages) were unintended, ranging from 40 percent in Central America to 62 percent in South America, and 64 percent in the Caribbean.

Governments in Latin America and the Caribbean have invested substantially in policies geared toward improving family planning. Yet the data on unintended pregnancy demonstrate that certain populations still face substantial obstacles to avoiding or delaying pregnancy. This is worrisome given that efforts to reduce the unmet need for contraception—especially to limit births, in contrast to merely delaying wanted pregnancies—have been a major force in bringing down fertility rates. As researchers John B. Casterline and Laila O. El-Zeini observed, as the demand for family planning in the region was increasingly met between 1975 and 2014, unwanted fertility declined by an annual average of 150 births per 1,000 women who were married or in non-marital unions.

Links Between Family Planning, Population, and the Environment

children-482904_1280Research for the Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment (FPESA) project turned up only limited empirical studies on the relationship between family planning (i.e., population dynamics) and environmental effects in Latin America and the Caribbean. Although population dynamics are likely as important to the environment in this region as they are in others (see, for example, the Montevideo Consensus on Population and Development), most research on this topic appears to be based on exploratory case studies and remains inconclusive.

Within the regional literature, Mexico and Central America have received special attention, as this area has a high concentration of tropical forest zones that are threatened by increasing deforestation. A 2008 study by David L. Carr et al. examined the influence of demographic and household variables on deforestation in Guatemala’s Sierra de Lacandón National Park, a core conservation zone of the country’s Maya Biosphere Reserve. The study surveyed a random sample of 241 households in the park’s agricultural borderlands and considered adjacent areas of deforestation. The number of farmers in the agricultural borderlands—mostly the product of in-migration—correlated closely with the conversion of primary forest into farm and grazing land.

Another 2008 study by Carr, in Mexico’s Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, assessed the relationship between marine resource management and the use of contraception among married couples in the lobster fishing village of Punta Allen, using a qualitative approach. Results showed that the village’s observed low fertility levels were due to the universal use of modern contraception among couples, based on the intention of villagers to favor smaller family sizes. Carr concluded that the need to protect the lobster population, the village’s main economic resource, was a key factor behind the desire to limit childbearing. The villagers perceived population growth to be a threat to the economic security of Punta Allen and its inhabitants.

A 2006 study by Sergio Franco Maass et al. analyzed the land cover change in Mexico’s Nevado de Toluca National Park between 1972 and 2000. The park is one of the most important natural areas of the country, as it provides 30 percent of the water used in the populous Toluca Valley and 14 percent of water used in the valley that is home to Mexico City. Although the authors did not specifically analyze the impact of demographic change in the park, they noted that a tripling in the number of villages during the last two decades of the 20th century was highly influential in the loss of more than 8,000 hectares of forest and natural vegetation during the study period.

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Each 1 percent increase in the number of households boosted the risk of deforestation 0.6 percent


In a 2002 study, Luis Rosero-Bixby et al. analyzed the relationship between population growth and forest conservation in Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula, using logistic regression and multivariate analysis in their methodology. Nearly a third of the country’s tree species are located in this area, including half of Costa Rica’s endangered species. The authors analyzed deforestation, reforestation, and forest fragmentation between 1980 and 1995, through geographically referenced censuses and information on land-use derived from satellite and aerial imaging. During the study period, 16 percent of the forest in the peninsula was harvested and 3 percent was fragmented. The researchers found that the probability of deforestation was zero in unpopulated areas but rose to as high as 65 percent as the number of farmers in an area increased. Each 1 percent increase in the number of households boosted the risk of deforestation 0.6 percent and the risk of fragmentation 1 percent, whereas reforestation decreased 0.4 percent.

Such conclusions by Latin American scholars (all written in Spanish, except for Carr’s Mexico study) hint that if the FPESA project were expanded to Spanish-language literature, the project’s overall findings might be reflected in Latin America and the Caribbean as well. The literature on population’s impact in the region is at best suggestive, but it is more likely than not to suggest demographic components of environmental change. Research on more-direct connections between family planning and environmental sustainability in the region would likely be harder to identify, as is the case with the project’s English-language scientific literature.

Javiera Fanta photoJaviera Fanta is a doctoral candidate in demographic communication at the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba in Argentina. She is a specialist in migration and fertility and is a member of the FPESA network of collaborating research assessors.


This article is excerpted from the upcoming report of the findings of the Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment. The author’s complete cited references will be included in the report.


2 Responses

  1. The 1 billion richest population with incomes of over $12,000 income and have on average 2 children emit 13 times as much carbon dioxide as the poorest billion with $995 per capita income and have 4 or more children!

  2. It’s hard to find knowledgeable people on this topic, but you sound like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks

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