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Population priorities: Is family planning the key to curbing growth?

Tuesday 27 April 2010
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Widening contraception usage could be a vital link in the march towards sustainability. But what are the true realities regarding populations and global health? Giles Crosse finds out.

“Family planning is tried and tested, and it works,” says Karen Newman, Network Co-ordinator for the Population and Sustainability Network. “But this ironically is part of the problem. For certain people the story is the same as it was 15 years ago. So it’s not as exciting, and that’s an issue when it comes to funding.”

There’s an irony to this, as many experts reckon better aligned and considered policies and action on global population will be vital to securing any future planet. The Optimum Population Trust (OPT) suggested back in 2009 that sex is the main cause of population growth, and that this is vital to understanding how best to plan the future.

‘Conventional economic wisdom, which says that couples in poorer societies actively plan to have large families to compensate for high child mortality, to provide labour, and to care for parents in their old age, is wrong, Professor John Guillebaud will tell a conference on sustainable population,’ explained OPT.

‘Economists overlook the fact that sexual intercourse is more frequent than the minimum needed for intentional conceptions, and that half of pregnancies worldwide are unplanned. Moreover, demand for contraception increases when it is available, irrespective of a society’s wealth or child survival rates.’

Guillebaud was set to ‘argue that in both rich and poor countries, “something active needs to be done to separate sex from conception - namely, contraception. The evidence is clear within a wide variety of settings that, despite no prior increase in per capita wealth or child survival or other presumed essentials, demand for contraception increases when it becomes available, accessible, and accompanied by correct information about its appropriateness and safety.”

Contraception is key

The message it seems is pretty simple, getting effective sexual health options out there is the best way to start tackling problems created by rising populations.

‘Despite being long seen as synonymous with contraception, the oral contraceptive pill is not an ideal method. It has the wrong “default state”, conception occurs if an error is made in its use. Long acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs), such as implants or copper intrauterine devices (IUDs), are far more effective because, unlike the pill, they are “forgettable”: mistakes in use do not result in conception.’ argues OPT.

‘Prof. Guillebaud argues that LARCs are particularly valuable for young people, “whose track record for unwanted conceptions - due to failure to comply properly with pill taking even where oral contraception is available, is high in all societies”. This is a crucial feature in reducing population growth, he adds, since nearly half the world’s population is under the age of 25.’

“There are other elements to this too,” argues Newman. “We need to stop thinking about populations as abstract, and think also in terms of individual human rights. It’s morally correct to offer family planning, to give women that vital element of decision making.”

“We need to capture the zeitgeist now. Whether you’re talking about fragile states or climate change, there is a plain link into how population affects this. Maternal mortality rates and ratios, population dynamics, all of this is has a profound effect on development in its widest sense.”

“It’s true that population growth is falling, but it is not falling as quickly as it needs to,” she continues. “And it’s falling slowest in those countries which are least well equipped to deal with the issues it presents.”

“We need to secure universal access to contraception, there is evidence that when programmes offer contraception people want to use them.”

“UN projections forecast a population stabilising at around 9.5 billion by 2050, but that’s assuming existing programmes delivering contraceptives and sexual health care are maintained and continue.”

Deals on development

Newman maintains there are other issues regarding development and population. “Consumption will continue to rise as populations rise and we need to look at this. Low carbon growth might offer a path on this but we’ve presently no real idea what this looks like.”

“Other things like peak oil will make the scenario increasingly challenging. All of these elements mean we need to zero in on access to sexual healthcare, on drawing attention to it, the issue is ever more important.”

Other elements will also have a role to play. The Population Council has recently suggested HIV related deaths are likely to be far lower by 2030 than previously predicted.

‘Until a few years ago, the global HIV/AIDS epidemic was widely expected to continue to spread, and the annual number of AIDS deaths was projected to grow from less than three million in 2004 to over six million in 2030,” explains the Council statement.

‘But in 2008 the WHO revised its 2030 estimate to 1.2 million, and recent UN projections confirm this downward revision. More than five million fewer deaths per year in 2030 is a favorable change.’

This is great news, which demands yet more ongoing focus on sexual healthcare. Outsourcing and widening the availability of something taken for granted in the West could well be the way to secure a safe future for us all.

What are your views?  Not sure? Read the resources below for more information. Add your comment below. We welcome your thoughts and proposals. Not a Planetary Citizen? Sign up to Our Future Planet today!


Population Reference Bureau 2009 World Population Data Sheet
A Response to Critics of Family Planning Programs
The Lancet -Sexual and Reproductive Health 3 Family planning - the unfinished agenda
The Optimum Population Trust - UK population growth
WORLD POPULATION TO EXCEED 9 BILLION BY 2050 - Developing Countries to Add 2.3 Billion Inhabitants with 1.1 Billion Aged Over 60 and 1.2 Billion of Working Age

Comments (1)Add Comment
November 08, 2010
Votes: +0

Great news. I just graduated medical school in May. One of the many surprising things I learned was that Diabetes is far more deadly now than AIDS.

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