Posted on June 14, 2017 by Leslie Carothers
Environmentalists have long debated the need to address links between population growth and environmental harm. Perennial issues include whether excessive consumption by the rich contributes more to environmental degradation and deserves more attention than population growth in poor countries and the merits of governmental incentives and disincentives to alter birth rates in either direction. Six writers with different perspectives explore these issues in the March/April issue of ELI’s Environmental Forum.
Professor Lucia Silecchia at Catholic University ably presents the case for focusing on poverty reduction and education, citing the warnings of Pope Francis against population control as a simplistic solution. (However, the views of the Catholic hierarchy have not caused the great majority of Catholic women to refrain from use of artificial contraception). None of the population experts joining the ELI debate, including Paul Ehrlich of Stanford and Joe Bish of the Population Media Center, supports coercive measures to reduce birth rates; but they generally agree that at a minimum, a much stronger effort to meet massive unmet needs for family planning education and service is essential to slow the rise in our numbers and make a meaningful difference.
Experts estimate that over 200,000,000 women in developing countries want to avoid pregnancy but are not using modern contraception. Melinda Gates, Co-Chair of the Gates Foundation, reports that during her visits with African women to talk about vaccination programs for children, the women generally speak up for improving access to contraception. Worldwide birthrates have declined from about 5 births per woman to 2.4 from 1960 to 2015 according to World Bank figures. But many developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa remain at near 5. If each of those 200,000, 000 women decided to have two fewer children, the result would be an appreciable reduction in population growth that would measurably increase family living standards and reduce impacts on scarce resources and the warming of the planet.
President Trump’s recent decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord was disappointing but not unexpected. More bad news for people and the environment has been the Trump Administration’s extraordinary set of initiatives to slash access to family planning services internationally and here in the U.S. The Administration has launched a veritable crusade to reduce women’s autonomy, increase family poverty, and derail progress toward lower birth rates compatible with environmental sustainability. The Monday following his inauguration and the Women’s Marches, President Trump announced that he was reinstating the “gag rule” prohibiting federal funding for international family planning programs if they provide counsel, referrals, or do lobbying for abortion services even with their own funds. This rule has been on and off as U.S. Presidents have changed over the years; but Population Action International (PAI), the leading advocate for international family planning support, describes the Trump version as the gag rule on steroids. That is because the old rule applied directly only to family planning programs of about $600 million. Flanked by a lineup of well-heeled white men, the President signed an Executive Order intending to apply the new gag rule to all “global health assistance programs” receiving 15 times more U.S funding than family planning programs alone. The impact according to PAI will be greatly reduced access to birth control services for women in 60 low and middle income countries, especially in Africa.
Women in the United States are now in the cross hairs of the crusade to make access to birth control more difficult and costly. The week before the President announced his intention to exit the Paris agreement, the online news site Vox reported that a regulation had been drafted and sent forward to the Office of Management and Budget to roll back the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that employers include cost-free contraception in their health insurance programs. The Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case to allow a privately held firm to claim a religious exemption, as if it were a church, has not settled the issue of application of the religious exemption. While further litigation and negotiations continue, the Trump Administration is preparing regulatory action to greatly broaden the basis for objections by allowing any employer with religious or “moral convictions” against offering contraceptives without cost to opt out of providing insurance covering them. This little change would be promulgated as an interim final rule entering immediately into effect before any public comment or hearings though it affects 55 million women who have benefited from the requirement.
Advocates for women’s health services such as the Center for Reproductive Rights will challenge the content and process for the rule if it moves forward.
And there is more. The “health care” bill passed by the House of Representatives and celebrated by the President would allow states to seek waivers of required elements of the current Affordable Care Act such as offering prescription drug or maternity benefit among others, a further blow to women’s health programs.
The deep cuts in Medicaid contemplated by the House health bill together with the reduction levels floated in the Administration’s skimpy outline of its budget proposals dealing with other federal benefit programs would further burden access to birth control services by reducing insurance coverage and imposing higher costs on people least able to afford them. In addition to eliminating all funding in support of international family planning programs as well as the UN Population Fund, the budget would slash U.S Medicaid funding that also supports reproductive health care for millions of women.
The continuing campaigns of the anti-abortion and now the anti-contraception factions to limit access to reproductive health care by other people have a grossly disproportionate impact on low income women and families. Women with resources may be inconvenienced by new limitations but will rarely be prevented from obtaining contraceptives or even abortions as before.
Perhaps psychologists or sex therapists can divine why the President and his minions seem so fixated on reducing women’s access to birth control. Whatever their motivations, this is an issue environmental advocates should not ignore. Improving the lives of women and their families and increasing women’s ability to participate in decisions in their communities are the primary goals of advocates for women’s reproductive rights. But the benefits of lower birth rates to reduce pressure on natural resources and to help slow global warming are real and merit strong support.
Categories: Sustainability, Climate Change
Tags: Population, Environment