Contraception, Climate, and Population Control

This week’s New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) carries an opinion piece (subscription required) pressing the concern that human-caused climate change should prompt a concerted effort to develop new methods of contraception and increase the ready availability of all forms of contraception worldwide.  About 222 million women in the lowest-income countries need family planning services, the author says.  About 40% of pregnancies (80 million out of a worldwide annual total of 210 million) are unintended, with similar rates in higher- and lower-income nations, it is said.  Past Malthusian fears about overpopulation had subsided with improved agriculture and a leveling, or even declining, fertility rate in many countries, but that appears now to have created a false sense of security, because the world’s population continues to grow, global warming and resource depletion are threatening sustainability of the ecosystem, and “naturalists” warn that half of all species living today may be extinct by 2100 because of human activity.  While the number of people the earth can support has been estimated at between 2 and 100 billion, the author prefers a more conservative “modern estimate” of 1.5 to 5 billion, as opposed to the current 7.7 billion.

Leaving aside the question of why the earth’s carrying capacity is a proper topic within the purview of the NEJM, the author says that currently available contraception is inadequate.  Sterilization “is not suitable” for people who want to have children, hormonal methods have side effects, and barrier methods are not reliably used.  (In case the reader wonders, abortion is not listed.)  Moreover, side effects notwithstanding, needing a prescription for much contraception limits availability and increases costs.  Development of newer methods, including some that would also protect against sexually transmitted diseases, could meet a large need, limit population “growth,” and have the further advantage of giving people more choices.

Unless one is fundamentally opposed to contraception on moral grounds, these suggestions may seem attractive on the surface.  Better, effective, preferably reversible, affordable, widely available, low-risk contraception would be welcomed by most people.  But the primary aim of this particular piece does not seem to be the well-being of individuals, but limiting the number of them overall.  One might object that pursuing limits on population is an invitation to tyranny, just in more sophisticated forms than one-child policies or forced sterilization.  One could not trust full reproductive freedom to “limit the excess population,” as Ebenezer Scrooge famously advocated.  Rather, controls would have to be instituted on who could have children, how many, and under what circumstances, not to mention trying to control what sort of people are brought into the world.  I do not think this is a farfetched concern.  After all, the NEJM writer thinks there are too many people already.  Might not someone (someone else, not the writer of the piece in question) think that some culling would be for the good of the ecosphere overall?  Getting back down to 5 billion from 7.7 billion would be a reduction of about 35%–an apocalyptic figure, to be sure.  I must confess that it would not entirely surprise me to see a future NEJM piece addressing population reduction.

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Mark McQuain
1 year ago

You beat me to this.

Rev Thomas Malthus, in his 1798 “Essay on the Principles of Population”, discussed both “positive checks” on population (starvation, disease, war) and “preventative checks” on population (abstinence, restricting marriage [reproduction] of the [less desirable] poor) to avoid the Mathusian Catastrophe of the population exceeding the food supply, causing a widespread, uncontrolled, reduction in the population. The author’s call for better contraception is a modern preventative check, since marriage is no longer culturally necessary for reproduction.

It is a very short leap from “there are too many people” to “there are too many of some unspecified undesirable people”. And that, I think, is the real issue in these Malthusian discussions.