World’s 7 billionth baby causes journalistic storm

09/11/2011 § Leave a comment

Last week, an opinion piece in the New York Times in response to the birth of the world’s seven billionth baby put forward family planning as the solution to the problem of the still rapidly rising population of the world.

It took pot shots at UN demographers for not being able to predict precisely when the numbers would reach 7 billion. It claimed that family planning, all by itself, could solve problems such as climate change and the destruction of forests, and blamed the absence of family planning for poverty, civil wars and even terrorism, due to an excess of youth in still growing populations! As if youth, and not old men, started wars.

This article is a real throwback to the old days when all the world’s ills were blamed on overpopulation and contraception was put forward as the only solution. Unfortunately, there has been a rash of such articles, one more erroneous than the next. An article in the Guardian quotes none other than Paul Ehrlich, making the same 1968 claims which, as Prof John MacInnes points out in a letter, have been discredited. Then, he claimed that population growth would lead to widespread famine when in fact drought and inequitable global food distribution policies is what causes famine; now he claims that development, which in regard to agriculture prevented famine, will lead to famine.

As MacInnes accurately explains, it is the rapid fall in mortality over the past 100 years, and not, any longer, increases in total fertility rates, that mainly drives population growth. In the past 4-5 decades, total fertility rates around the world have been falling rapidly, and more and more countries have achieved below-replacement fertility levels, such as almost all eastern and western European countries. Fertility levels (number of babies born per woman) are falling rapidly in most other countries as well. Only the poorest and least developed countries are lagging behind.

Unfortunately, below replacement fertility levels have triggered negative reactions in some countries, Russia being the most egregious recent example. [1] Russia has just passed restrictions on legal abortion and introduced pro-natalist policies in which women are offered financial and other incentives to have more babies. Such policies are supported by rightwing conservative religious forces that are opposed to women having any reproductive rights regardless of population trends. The subject is far more complex than it has been presented as being.

Unlike peer-reviewed journals, newspapers and other media do not have (or rather do not make) the time to have anything they publish peer reviewed. Articles about the seven billionth baby have to be published the day that baby is born or at most the day after. Newspaper editors seem to act on the principle that if an article contains false or distorted or contestable information, oh well, there are letters to the editor to correct it. This is a major mistake. The seventh billionth baby is not the same kind of “news” as Berlusconi stepping down or the US being stupid enough to bomb Iran. Articles such as the ones in the NY Times and the Guardian deserve more thought and research not only because they can contribute to misinformation of the public, who do not all have access to the facts, but also because they tie people who do have access to the facts up in knots writing letters to the editor to correct the errors. These letters must use far fewer words than the original article was given, and are placed at the back of the paper, without a big headline, and with the certainty that far fewer people will see the reply than read the original article.

When it comes to science, medicine and health issues – and in this case global demographic trends and the reasons for them – newspapers and the media could and should try harder to ascertain the truth value of what they publish – before they publish it. And they should avoid “prophet of doom” headlines as well. They could so often be an important source of information for the public of valuable health information and scientific understanding of crucial aspects of our lives. And many times they are. But they are also often responsible for purveying false or only partially true, and ultimately distorted, information. Some journalists are unable to interpret or present information contained in peer-reviewed articles accurately or in a more journalistic form, and some choose to rely for their information on people claiming to be experts whose work is itself inaccurate, and who may also have their own axes to grind.

There were two main wrong claims in the NY Times article. The first was the erroneous assertion that family planning is a solution to “many of the global problems that confront us, from climate change to poverty to civil wars”. On its own, family planning is not a solution to either climate change or poverty, though its greater use by those who have an unmet need for “family planning” would be beneficial and contribute to the solutions in both instances. As regards civil wars, I would be interested to learn whether there is any evidence whatsoever that the use of family planning reduces civil wars. I doubt such evidence exists. The claim is absurd. Similarly, I doubt there is evidence that “youth bulges”, that is, a high proportion of a country’s population being young, make countries more prone to conflict or terrorism.

The second wrong claim was support, indeed praise, for anyone who supports the use of contraception but at the same time condemns women’s need for safe, legal, induced abortion. Anyone who does so is not a friend to women, anywhere in the world. Abortion is an essential part of family planning, always has been and always will be, whenever contraception fails or people fail to use it, no matter how high contraceptive prevalence may be.

Family planning has had short shrift in recent years in development policy and funding. Yet contraceptive prevalence rates are also as high as they can get in many countries and rising in most others. To support this trend, family planning deserves more attention and more support in every country of the world. Family planning, and in that I include access to and use of both effective contraception and safe, legal abortion, is essential if women and men are to be able to control their fertility and decide the number and spacing of their children, if indeed they wish to have children.

We don’t need family planning to reduce HIV infection; we need safer sex and needle exchange programmes for that. We don’t need family planning to prevent the earth being devastated by climate change. We need environmental policies to be implemented post haste and a serious change in how we spend our riches and use the earth’s resources. There is no need to tout contraception as a cure-all or a panacea for all the world’s ills. It is valuable enough in itself that there should be no need to pretend it is more than it is.


[1] Russian government seeks to enact laws restricting abortion to increase birthrate. RHM 2011;19(38):219-20
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