UK Parliamentary Hearing on Population Dynamics in the Post-2015 World – urbanisation, migration, climate change and conflict – 12 March 2015

12/07/2015 Comments Off on UK Parliamentary Hearing on Population Dynamics in the Post-2015 World – urbanisation, migration, climate change and conflict – 12 March 2015

Proposed questions and responses from Marge Berer

  1. You suggested in your RHM editorial May 2014 that we need to start thinking very differently about ‘population’. What did you mean by this?

What I meant were several things: 1) that given the growing risk of disasters arising from climate change, Hanna Zlotnik, a long-time expert at the UN Population Division, said in 2011 in a conference in London about Population and sustainability issues that in 50 and 100 years from now, population growth and its consequences may no longer be the main population-related issue to confront but rather that huge numbers of people may be killed in natural disasters, reducing population levels enormously. Almost no one seemed to hear her. Consider for example just in the last few years the after-effects of the tsunami in Thailand, the tornado-related storms in the Philippines, the nuclear power station disaster in Japan  ‒ yet these are just the dress rehearsal.

2) To put it in another way, the future of human life on this planet is at stake. The planet will survive, but the question is: will we? Already, many species of animals are becoming extinct. On 6 March the Guardian letters page was all about threats to global food security. The meaning of sustainable development to me is about making changes that will ensure the future of human life beyond the next few generations. That includes in industry and economic production, food and energy production and consumption, and reduction in pollution and waste. Yet much of this is considered a minor irritant on the political agenda; only the Green Party and a few NGOs like Greenpeace take it seriously enough here in the UK, and the media give it far too little attention. It’s good that Alan Rusbridger has finally decided the Guardian will begin to do so, I hope it makes a difference. I believe these issues need to become a major focus of national and European Parliaments and the UN system.

  1. Can you expand on your comment that family planning did not save the world in the 1960s and will not do so again now?

I said this because I do not believe that reducing population growth by greater use of contraception is “the answer” to sustainable development. It is not. Fertility control is crucial for both men and women. Keeping fertility rates low in countries which have achieved low fertility is crucial. Like Britain. So why is our FPA getting almost no funding anymore? They are a shadow of what they used to be. Education for Choice had to close because it couldn’t get funding. So I recommend that you try to ensure the government prioritises funding for groups like them again.

Reducing fertility rates in countries with above replacement fertility levels, i.e. most middle-income countries, or high fertility, as in the poorest countries, is equally important. But it is also important to recognise that the total fertility rate globally by 2005 was already as low as 2.6, that is, near the replacement level of 2.1, and it has fallen further since then. In the more developed countries it was already well below replacement at 1.6 by 2005. And although in the least developed countries (which are only 18% of the global total) it was 5.0,[1] that is far lower there than it was even 20 years ago.

“Development is the best contraceptive” ‒ was the slogan of the global South at the first ICPD in 1974, because development was not being prioritised enough. So my second recommendation is definitely to support the delivery of contraception to everyone who wants it, but also to ensure women are given a choice of method and supported to use it because the drop-out rate is still high, and that targets and coercion should not be permitted. At the same time, contraceptive use alone will not take care of the environment and development, nor will it erase the problems of gross inequality that we face on the earth today, nor reduce poverty on its own.

Let me stress also that there are almost 44 million abortions globally every year which cannot be ignored. I consider abortion a legitimate health service for women, not a problem. But half of all abortions are still illegal and unsafe. That is unacceptable. So I have to ask why everyone is not more critical of those who promote contraception but are anti-abortion and of the target of getting 220 million women on contraception by 2020. I thought we had dealt with the risk of abuse arising from targets and incentives in the 1980s ‒ these gave family planning a bad name then and could do so again. It wasn’t just the focus of ICPD on sexual and reproductive health that took the focus away from family planning; it was coercive practices and the failure to ensure informed choice and consent that did it.

  1. Would you like to explain in a bit more detail your suggestion to ‘re-conceptualise’ family planning?

I said this because we still underestimate how much access to the means of fertility control has changed how people see having children. Most people want fewer children and a growing percentage want no children at all. With total fertility at less than two children, women spend only 1-2 years of their lives pregnant. Many women are postponing first births until their late 20s. Over 60% of women born in 1965 in England & Wales were childless at age 25. So the need to prevent pregnancy covers many years, starting in adolescence. The rest of the time, people are not planning their family, but managing their fertility. The phrase “family planning” is not what is going on. What is going on is the wish to have sex without fear of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections. If programmes were based on this fact, there would be far fewer unwilling mothers and fathers, especially among adolescents who, in many countries, are still not allowed to access contraception.

  1. In a footnote you highlighted some negative consequences of below-replacement fertility. Can you expand on this?

Below-replacement fertility is, in my opinion, a very good thing. Few countries put enough resources into jobs, housing, education for their young, health services, money for benefits for the poor, or pensions for older people. However, below-replacement fertility makes a lot of governments very nervous ‒ Russia, Iran, Turkey are examples. Countries see a growing population as a symbol of status and power among nations, necessary for economic growth, or for having enough men to fight wars, and so on. Racism prevents many low fertility countries from encouraging in-migration from countries with high fertility. Instead, countries try to increase birth rates by restricting access to safe abortion, contraception and sterilisation, as well as offering positive incentives, as in France. Global education on this issue and why below replacement fertility is a good thing for sustainable development and the environment is badly needed.

  1. What are the main obstacles to expanding family planning and sexual and reproductive health and rights laws/policies and services at a global level and in particular developing countries?

The main obstacle is misogyny, and the fact that so many men are unwilling to give up their power over women and over women’s sexuality and reproduction.

The second is the anti-choice movement. Abortion is a major method of fertility control: one in three women in Britain has had an abortion and yet we have a very high contraceptive prevalence rate. It’s past due time to stop treating abortion as less acceptable than contraception. Efforts to make even some abortions illegal should be buried in the history books.

The Vatican and the Catholic church are the world leaders in opposing safe abortion and family planning, and I believe they have encouraged anti-women fundamentalism and a conservative backlash against women’s autonomy among other conservative religious as well, serving as an example of how to gain political power. I have just been reading Good Catholics,[2] which is a history of the extent to which the Vatican and Catholic bishops in the USA have gained political power, not only to influence national politics but also to influence who stands for election, and who wins and loses. I think it should be required reading for politicians, and that the ethics of these actions must be challenged.

My last recommendation to you as Parliamentarians is to stregthen your own APPG, support the European Parliament’s SRHR group, who made an important commitment to safe abortion a month ago in Brussels, and try and get our Parliament to agree that sexual and reproductive health and rights are crucial for the wellbeing of the whole population.


[1] Prof. Hans Rosling. .

[2] Patricia Miller. Good Catholics: The Battle over Abortion in the Catholic Church. University of California Press, 2014.


These perspectives are spelled out in more depth in my editorial: The sustainable development agenda and unmet need for sexual and reproductive health and rights. Reproductive Health Matters 2014;22(43):4‒13.

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