Editor’s Note: Dr. Natalia Kanem is the executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, the UN’s sexual and reproductive health agency. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion articles on CNN.
There is no perfect population number.
But you would not guess that from recent headlines, with some experts proclaiming that we are on the verge of a dramatic baby bust linked to fears around Covid-19. Others fret that a baby boom is imminent, at least in some parts of the world, driving ever-escalating pressures on scarce resources.
The real cause for alarm, though, is not the prospect of a baby boom or baby bust. It is the risk that we treat “population” as more important than people. Many countries have learned the hard lesson that assigning an ideal size to a population is not the answer to a variety of concerns, from flailing economies to the climate crisis. Instead, it often leads to the erosion of human rights and choices, particularly where women are pressured to have children – or prevented from doing so. Where population growth is slowing, that can mean, in the worst cases, new or expanded restrictions on abortion or contraception. Some places with rising birth rates have, in the darker chapters of history, experienced coercive family planning and involuntary sterilization.
There is no question that population is deeply intertwined with economics. Demographic shifts impact development progress. A country at a demographic stage with more people working and fewer young and old dependents may be able to better fund and sustain public services and pension systems. Having fewer workers can send all these benefits in the opposite direction. These are issues that rightly concern us all.
But what of assumptions that go along with these relationships? Managing populations to keep up the pace of progress rests on an implicit notion that women’s bodies are in service to economic policy. If population trends move in an “unwelcome” direction, a tone of blame arises around women’s choices, whether those entail having children or pursuing work or other goals. Such arguments miss the point that any individual woman has the right to make choices about her body. They also avoid grappling with complex issues that are a collective responsibility. How readily can women make real choices without decent work and income, for example? Or where sexual and reproductive health care is poor quality or nonexistent? Or if child care falls to them alone?
And then there are the gender norms, rooted in male entitlement, that burden women with unpaid household and care work, deny them opportunities and subject them to domestic abuse. Our United Nations Population Fund recent report found that nearly half of women in the 57 countries where data are available cannot even exercise autonomy over their own bodies, which means they cannot make basic decisions about their health, contraception and sex lives. With gender equality yet to be fully realized in any part of the world, these concerns know no borders. They are at play in poor and rich countries, in shrinking and growing populations.
The history of population policies is full of misfires and unintended consequences. For that reason, 179 nations agreed on the centrality of reproductive rights and choices for human and economic development at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development. More than 25 years later, policymakers and pundits should know better than to propose the management of populations by telling women the choices they should make. The real conversation should be around how we can uphold everyone’s right to make their own reproductive choices, with all evidence underscoring that this leads to happier and healthier societies.
This requires recognizing women’s rights in all spheres of life. It would mean every woman has the information and services to make her own sexual and reproductive health choices. Such services would be essential to health care systems and not readily suspended, as happened in many places during the onset of Covid-19, when family planning was one of the most extensively disrupted health services globally. To fully support choices, it would mean accelerating the elimination of gender disparities across the board – in income, ownership of assets, leadership and the law. It would mean easing the burdens of parenthood by increasing support for child care and parental leave.
Putting rights and choices first means thinking about people as more than an input churning through economies. Rather than ask women to produce a steady infusion of new workers to support economies, we should ask how and whether economies are serving women. Rather than looking at demographic changes as a domestic economic concern, countries could approach the issue multilaterally, by sharing innovations and best practices.
Countries experiencing a youth bulge, on the one hand, and aging, on the other, could collaborate to fill gaps on either side. Increased labor mobility, family friendly social programs, and greater investment in research and data collection to inform smarter policymaking are all responses that affirm human rights rather than undermine them.
We must also think about people as more than a threat to planetary resources. When it comes to climate change and environmental degradation, here too, a simple consideration of the sheer number of people is not the whole story. The billion people in Africa have the world’s highest population growth rates but have contributed only a tiny share of total greenhouse gas emissions, even as they suffer some of the worst climate impacts.
Instead, the focus needs to be on expanding opportunities for women (and indeed all people) to plan their families as they see fit, pursue education and decent work, access affordable clean energy and produce and consume resources more sustainably.
Women have long been denied rights and choices. And yet for many of us, wherever choice emerges, we take it and make it our own. And we will keep doing so. No amount of handwringing should stop the momentum of choice.
We will have more harmonious societies, inclusive economies and a better balance with nature when people can fully realize their right to make informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive life, and enjoy every opportunity to do so, on terms that they alone define.