Today’s opinion page of the New York Times features Nicholas Kristof hailing “The Birth Control Solution” to “many of the global problems that confront us.” This is nothing new for Kristof. His column this past Mother’s Day rightly called attention to the 350,000 women who die from childbirth each year, while wrongfully naming family planning as the solution. Today Kristof extends that familiar line of reasoning, wildly speculating that birth control could solve climate change and civil wars.
Before I continue, let me note that I have respect for Kristof’s journalistic work highlighting various human-rights abuses around the world, which has made him worthy of the two Pulitzers he’s been awarded. Somewhere along his many trips around the globe, however, he’s failed to realize the ineffectiveness of contraception and see the real needs of poor populations — particularly mothers and girls.
Let’s start with his first claim of overpopulation: “It took humans hundreds of thousands of years, until the year 1804, to reach the first billion. It took another 123 years to reach two billion, in 1927. Since then, we’ve been passing these milestones like billboards along a highway.” While it is true that world population has been rapidly growing, the future doesn’t look as bountiful. In more than 75 countries the replacement rate is well under the standard rate a country needs to sustain itself, 2.1 children per woman. No respectable demographer — or U.N. agency — believes that our population will double itself again anytime soon. At the present rate, most countries won’t even be able to fill their work forces.
While the Population Division of the U.N.’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs has predicted that the world’s population could increase from 7 to 10 billion over the next 90 years, this will be a very different kind of growth from what we’ve experienced before. Last month’s report from the Social Trends Institute and the National Marriage Project, “The Sustainable Demographic Dividend,” found that “53 percent of world population growth will come from increases in the numbers of people over 60, while only 7 percent will come from people under 30.” This means that the majority of our population growth is actually coming from people living longer — something that birth control can do absolutely nothing to reverse. The same report predicts that by the turn of the next century, world population will actually begin to fall if current birth rates continue their downward trajectory. This backs Kristof into a corner — unless he wants to advocate for the killing off of the poor, like the granddaddy of overpopulation theories, Thomas Malthus, which Kristof obviously wouldn’t do.
What about those women and girls in Africa who, as Kristof mentions, “have never heard of birth control”? Won’t they be faced with unwanted pregnancies and possibly die during childbirth? “It is true that the UNFPA’s report “Giving Birth Should Not Be a Matter of Life and Death” claims that family planning could reduce maternal deaths by 20 percent. But continue on, dear reader! One paragraph later, they note that skilled birth attendants and back-up emergency obstetric care would reduce maternal deaths by 75 percent. One can follow the money and easily see that U.N. and other international funding heavily favors family planning rather than providing these mothers with better care, which could save many more lives. Along with providing basic health care, this same funding could also be redirected to better educate women and girls, which, as many economists have noted, is a far more effective form of “family planning.”
Kristof ends his column with what he calls a “ray of hope” — a new group of evangelical Christians, the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, which is drafting a statement in support of family planning. The draft statement calls family planning a “contribution to family well-being, women’s health, and the prevention of abortion.” Meanwhile, here in New York City, we have a city-wide 41 percent abortion rate, with 54 percent of the women who obtain an abortion admitting they were using some form of contraception during the month they conceived. Simple math and common sense seem to indicate that something isn’t working here. In response to these staggering numbers, Mayor Bloomberg has ignored the root causes and issued a city-wide order requiring mandatory sexual education that preferences contraceptives as the solution to bringing down the number of unwanted pregnancies rather than promoting behavioral and lifestyle changes.
Like Kristof, I’ll conclude with my own ray of hope. New York City residents and parents have decided that enough is enough. Instead of simply accepting the mayor’s mandate and settling for solutions that have already proven ineffective, a group entitled the NYC Parents’ Choice Coalition is demanding an alternative. Weary of the broken methods of the past, they want an evidenced-based and biologically informed approach to sexual education that promotes abstinence and healthy decision making to their children. This approach both respects individual freedom and addresses the root causes — which the current curriculum fails to do.
While there are cultural considerations that must be taken into account, many of the problems of maternal health, sexual education, and reproductive health aren’t any more unique to the Congo than they are to the Bronx. Approaches that are rooted in respect for individual freedom and address the human person as a whole always win out. Investing in education for girls and proper care for mothers will prove to be a far more effective use of resources and will ultimately yield a world with exceedingly better conditions, not only for “baby seven billion” but for future generations.
— Christopher White is the international director of operations for the World Youth Alliance.