Administration Sends Wrong Message on Birth Control to Developing Nations

By Samuelson, Robert J. | American Banker, July 26, 1984 | Go to article overview

Administration Sends Wrong Message on Birth Control to Developing Nations


Samuelson, Robert J., American Banker


One of the world's most intractable problems is population growth. Just how intractable it is was suggested by recent projections from the World Bank. The world's population today is abou 4.8 billion; by the year 2050, the World Bank thinks, it may reach 9.8 billion. Virtually all of the increase would occur in developing countries. The population of the major industrialized nations would grow from 1.2 billion to only 1.4 billion.

Projections being what they are, these probably won't be exactly realized. Conceivably, they might be off by a few billion. But they're essentially correct, and they emphasize the short-sightedness of the Reagan administration's plan to cut international birth control assistance to groups whose family planning programs include or advocate abortion.

More is at issue here than birth contro. We are destined to be surrounded by large, poor, and growing nations whose ambitions don't always coincide with ours. Expanding trade and advances in communications and transportation mena we won't be able to insulate ourselves from these countries. Learning to live with them and the inevitable conflicts is no small chore. The international debt crisis may be a prototype of the sort of conflict that arises.

The administrator's approach to birth control offers a graphic illustration of how we should not think about changes in our global environment. As the official American position before the United Nation's upcoming conference on population in Mexico, it will send precisely the wrong message to developing countries. If it actually leads to funding cutbacks -- and their extent is unclear -- it could cause more abortions and harsher government controls on couples' right to have children.

More important, though, it betrays fundamental flaws in American thinking. We are prone to see other's problems in terms of our own experience and our own domestic political needs. The administration's program reflects this parochialism. It derives from a political desire to please anti-abortion groups and a blinding faith in "free markets": If governments simply embrace correct economic policies, their economies will expand and birth rates will drop naturally.

All this is simplistic in the extreme. To appreciate this, you have to grasp the enormity of the population explosion. In 1950, only two metropolitan areas had populations exceeding 10 million: New York and London. By the year 2000, the United Nations estimates there will be 25, but only five will be in the "developed" world (New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Osaka, and Paris). The largest will be Mexico City (estimated population: 31 million) and Sao Paulo, Brazil (26 million).

And, unfortunately, this growth will contitue for decades, barring major wars or natural catastrophes. Even if birth rates declined dramatically tomorrow, past population growth assures future population growth. Between 1980 and 2000, according to the State Department, the number of adults of normal child-bearing ages (20 to 39) will increase 600 million in developing countries. In the developed nations, the jump will be 20 million.

When Americans consider other nations' problems, they're prone to fall into two traps. The administration fell into both. The first is thinking that what's good for us is good for everyone else.

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