Campaigners for universal access to sexual and reproductive health rights must contend with some of the most sensitive issues in international development.
One strand of opposition derives from the narrow dividing line between voluntary family planning and coercion. A long shadow falls from the history of over-enthusiastic birth control policy in India in the 1970s and ’80s and the one-child policy imposed by China between 1979 and 2015.
China’s policy was explicitly coercive but claims to have averted 400 million births. However, a high price was paid in the denial of human rights in family life and in the unspoken tolerance of sex-selective abortion. From 2010 to 2015, China’s birth ratio was 116 boys to 100 girls. The Chinese authorities themselves estimated that, in 2020, there could be 30 million more men of marriageable age than women. Similar abuse is prevalent in India.
Religious conservatism is in a position to influence population policies and does so ruthlessly. The Catholic Church, which claims over one billion followers, opposes all forms of contraception, despite evidence of the consequent human distress. In the Philippines, one in ten girls aged under 20 is a mother.
Islamic teachings generally adopt a pragmatic interpretation of the Koran, supporting the right of women to space their children through use of family planning within marriage. Government programmes in Bangladesh and Indonesia have been praised for their success in reducing high fertility rates.
Answerable to the religious right in the US, Republicans seek to deny funding for the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and to enforce legislation known as the Global Gag, or Mexico City, rule. This rule blocks US funds from supporting any developing country organisation whose programmes imply tolerance of abortion.
In 2017 the Trump administration expanded the scope of the Global Gag rule, triggering deep cuts in UN and international agency funding, ultimately closing down many field operations that supported people in need. Within ten days of his inauguration in 2021, President Biden signed a memorandum that restored the funding streams, including support UNFPA.
Nonetheless, it remains clear that the rights and welfare of millions of women in poor countries remain at the mercy of rotating US administrations. Wary of religious and racial sensitivities, and the on/off threat of the Global Gag rule, aid agencies and environmental groups have tended to suppress their views about population issues. Their silence may have contributed to the long term downward trend in funding for overall population assistance.
The 2015 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which defines the Sustainable Development Goals and is the most important statement of shared global ambition in a generation, includes not a single reference to population growth.
more Population briefings (updated August 2021)
World Population Projections
Overpopulation or Overconsumption?
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