The world’s population just raced past the seven billion mark, at according to the calculations of United Nations demographers. It took humans until the year 1804 to reach the first billion. It took another 123 years to reach two billion. The latest billion took just a dozen years.
In 1999, the United Nations’ best projection was that the world wouldn’t pass seven billion until 2013, but we reached it two years early.
Youth bulges in growing countries like Afghanistan and Yemen makes them more prone to conflict and terrorism. Booming populations contribute to global poverty and make it impossible to protect virgin forests or fend off climate change. A simple way to cut carbon emissions in the year 2100 is to curb population growth today.
Some countries have escaped this revolution. Women in Afghanistan, Chad, Congo, Somalia, East Timor and Uganda have six or more children each, the U.N. says. In rural Africa, some women have never heard of birth control. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 215 million women want but have no access to contraception.
What’s needed isn’t just birth-control pills or IUDs; it’s also girls’ education and women’s rights — starting with an end to child marriages. “In times past, the biggest barrier to reducing birth rates has been a lack of access to contraceptives,” the Population Institute notes. “Today, the biggest barrier is gender inequality.”
We need research for contraceptives. One discovery is a vaginal ring that releases hormones, lasts a year, and should not need a doctor. It has completed Phase 3 trials and seems effective. It could even contain medication to reduce the risk infection of HIV.
Traditionally, support for birth control was bipartisan. The Catholic hierarchy was opposed, but Republican Presidents like Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush provided support. Family planning became tarnished by overzealous programs in China and India, and contraception became entangled in America’s abortion wars. Religious conservatives turned against it, and funding lagged. The result was more abortions. When contraception is unavailable, the likely result is not less sex, but more pregnancy.
Contraception prevents 112 million abortions a year, by U.N. estimates. The United Nations Population Fund‘s promotion of contraception may have reduced abortions more than any organization in the world.
Republicans are seeking to cut more money from global family planning — which would mean more abortions and more women dying in childbirth. Conservatives have also sought to slash Title X Family Planning programs within the United States. The Guttmacher Institute estimates that in a year these domestic programs avert 973,000 unintended pregnancies, of which 406,000 would end in abortions.
Guttmacher calculates that these family planning centers in the United States save taxpayers $3.4 billion annually that would otherwise be spent on pregnancies and babies.
A group of evangelical Christians, led by Richard Cizik of The New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, is drafting a statement of support for family planning. It emphasizes that family planning reduces abortion and lives lost in childbirth.
As we greet the seven-billionth human, let’s try to delay the arrival of the eight billionth. We should all be able to agree on family planning as a strategy to reduce poverty, conflict, and environmental damage. If you think family planning is expensive, try babies.