Population control and sustainability: it's the same old song but with a different meaning.

Author:Abrams, Paula
Position:Symposium on Population Law

If the earth must lose that great portion of its pleasantness which it owes to things that the unlimited increase of wealth and population would extirpate from it, for the mere purpose of enabling it to support a larger but not a better or a happier population, I sincerely hope, for the sake of posterity, that they will content to be stationary, long before necessity compels them to it.(1)


    What is the population problem? To some, it is environmental, an imbalance of people to natural resources that threatens sustainability. To others it is economic, perpetuating an endless cycle of misery and poverty. Some see the population problem as one of injustice, created by systematic oppression of women. Still others perceive it as social, degrading the quality of life through overcrowding and increased crime. The population problem is all of these and none of these. Overpopulation is a multi-faceted problem, at one time both cause and effect of a myriad of social, economic, and environmental issues.(2) Like most complex social problems, development of successful strategies to address the population problem requires consideration of conflicting values and priorities. The resolution of these conflicts impacts the individual, the state, and the international community.

    An individual's decisions concerning reproduction are influenced by numerous factors, including religion, economics, culture, and politics.(3) Pressures placed upon the individual or family may be pro-natalist or anti-natalist depending on whether large families are encouraged or discouraged.

    Beyond the level of individual interest, the state may have significant interest in obtaining optimal population size. Optimal population size may vary substantially, once again, depending on the values emphasized by the state. The state may focus on environmental resource depletion, economic enhancement, political strength, individual rights, or some combination of these values. Until recently, the primary justification for state regulation of fertility has been economic. Since the 1960s, numerous developing countries with insufficient economic bases to support exponential growth in population have opted for programs of fertility regulation.(4) In many countries, family planning programs, seeking to reduce births, tended to assess their success solely on the basis of population goals.(5) Unfortunately, coercive measures to achieve these goals were not uncommon.(6)

    In the last few decades, the effect of population control upon the environment has emerged as a justification for regulation of fertility in dependent of economic concerns. The impact of a world population rapidly approaching six billion upon the world's natural resources presents profound questions of national and international policy.(7) Whether the earth can sustain these numbers is an issue quite separate from concerns about the inequitable distribution of people and resources.(8)

    The sustainability rationale for population correlates population growth with environmental degradation. Depletion of natural resources through overuse and destruction of ecosystems by development and pollution seriously threaten the survival of the planet.(9) Environmental sustainability can be achieved only through stringent conservation of resources and reduced demand. Limiting population growth is a critical part of this formula.

    Both economic and environmental justifications for reducing birth rates are essentially utilitarian in nature, intended to promote the greatest good for the greatest number of people. When reducing birth rates is the stated social goal, the focus quickly becomes the most cost-effective means of achieving this goal. But the search for the most cost-effective methodology is the pursuit of the answer to the wrong question because fertility regulation is unlike most other economic or social regulation. Reproductive decisions are among the most personal and primary choices made by an individual. For women in particular, these decisions impact personal liberty, self-determination, gender equality, and physical autonomy. Serious human rights violations may occur when these decisions are not truly voluntary.

    It was not until the late 1960s that the international community began to recognize the human rights implications of family planning programs.(10) However, recognition of the individual rights affected by family planning programs did not necessarily change the focus or methodology of such programs.(11) The absence of specific language protecting reproductive rights in international treaties has hindered the meaningful application of human rights principles to population programs.(12) At the 1994 World Population Conference at Cairo, the international community reached a consensus that population programs should comply with the basic human rights principles already protected by national and international laws.(13) The human rights which are most relevant to population programs are those designated reproductive rights. The umbrella of reproductive rights encompass the rights to "life, liberty, and the security of person," prohibitions against torture, "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" or medical or scientific experimentation "without free consent," and distinctions made on the basis of "sex."(14) In addition to these general rights which may be impacted by fertility regulation, international law specifically protects the right of individuals and couples to decide:

    freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children and

    to have the information and means to do so, and the right to attain the

    highest standard of sexual and reproductive health. [International law

    protections] also include[ ] their right to make decisions concerning

    reproduction free of discrimination, coercion and violence, as expressed

    in human rights documents.(15)

    The international recognition of reproductive rights presents significant issues for population policy. The Cairo Programme emphasizes reduction in birth rates through voluntary, informed choice by individuals and couples. This approach will require dramatic changes in many cultures, foremost of which is providing women with sufficient education and economic opportunities so they have options other than having large families. This principled transformation will yield lower birth rates,(16) however, these declines will not occur immediately.(17) To many policy makers, the gradual and transformative process defined by the Cairo Programme is inadequate where rapid reductions in birth rates are desired. However, there is a great deal of controversy over whether alternative approaches which directly target reproductive behavior by limiting family size or aggressively recruiting for contraception or sterilization programs are inherently coercive. Thus, while most governments agree that coercive measures violate human rights, there is a great deal of disagreement about what constitutes coercive practices and regulation.(18)

    This Article analyzes the practical and interpretative conflicts between two different approaches to population policy. One approach is structured to achieve maximum protection of human rights through full reproductive health care and voluntary family planning. The other approach focuses more specifically on the achievement of fertility reduction to achieve specific

    environmental goals. What is missing from the current debate is consensus on a population-environment ethic which incorporates both human rights and sustainability values. Part II analyzes the history and problems of population regulation theory. Part III describes various sustainability theories and their general relation to population policy. Part IV considers the impact of sustainability and population policies upon the individual. Part V analyzes the tensions and conflicts between current family planning and sustainability theories, concluding with a proposal for a human rights model to use as a baseline for further policy development.


    The impact of population on economic and social welfare has been debated since ancient times.(19) Both Aristotle and Plato argued that successful city-states required optimal population size,(20) and they advocated governmental action to achieve the desired population balance.(21) The Romans under Augustus instituted legislation rewarding procreation and penalizing childless marriages.(22) Throughout most of history, large populations were valued as essential to economic and military power.(23) With the development of demographic analysis, economists began to contemplate the relationships between the number of births, deaths, and economic well-being.(24) That relationship remains controversial today.

    Thomas Malthus, who is generally credited with the first modern theory of population, postulated that population increases exponentially while subsistence increases only arithmetically.(25) Malthus argued for "moral restraint" in the form of delayed marriage or celibacy as the means of reducing population growth.(26) Malthus ultimately concluded, however, that voluntary means would be insufficient. Natural forces such as occupational hazards, severe labor, extreme poverty, disease, war, plague, and famine ultimately would be necessary to lower the population, particularly that of the lower classes.(27) Poverty, in other words, was necessary to check unrestrained population growth. Although Malthus found a great deal of support for his theory, it was disputed by more optimistic analysts of his day who argued either that the infinite reason of humans would lead to voluntary reduction of fertility, or that we were capable of feeding and sustaining far greater numbers than predicted.(28)

    The relationship between population and economic development continues to be factious. Neo-Malthusians insist that fertility rates must be decreased before economic development can occur.(29)...

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