Image RemovedCongratulations to Mother Jones for dedicating the cover of their May/June 2010 issue to the population crisis. I have worked in the population field for four decades, and since joining the movement in the late 1960s, when the issue was at the forefront of public concern, I have witnessed an alarming decrease in responsible reporting on population issues and the importance of addressing the dramatic growth we are faced with each and every day. So, thank you, Mother Jones, for being one of the few to bring the population issue back to the forefront of public discourse. We will never be able to successfully tackle the most pressing problems plaguing our planet – climate change, poverty, food and water shortages, and the energy crisis – without also addressing the population factor.

That said, I would like to make a few points with regard to the lead population article by Julia Whitty. First, the author states, incorrectly, that “Two hundred million women have no access whatsoever to contraception…” This is false and represents a common misunderstanding of the primary driver of the population problem. Many people think that the term “unmet need,” which is used to describe the estimated 215 million women who don’t want to be pregnant and are not using contraception is actually the phenomenon of unmet demand for contraception. It is not.

In fact, most of these women don’t want or intend to use family planning because: 1. they have heard it is dangerous, 2. their male partners are opposed, 3. their religion is opposed, or 4. they don’t think it will work because they think God determines how many children they will have. Many people in the population/family planning field do not know this information, let alone journalists.

In most countries, lack of access is a very minor reason for non-use. For example, in Nigeria, lack of access is cited by 0.2 percent of non-users who don’t want to be pregnant. This is important, since bringing about a major increase in contraceptive use can only be accomplished using communications to overcome these informational barriers. In addition, there are about 1.6 billion adults in the world who do not practice family planning because of societal demands for large families. Providing people with informed choice based on knowledge of the health and economic benefits of delayed and spaced childbearing is critical to addressing this major driver of population growth.

Having said this, I should make it clear that, as a former employee of two Planned Parenthood affiliates, I have a strong belief in the importance of an ample supply of contraceptive choices, delivered in a consumer-friendly way in the context of broad reproductive health care. As a number of distributions to my mailing list have indicated, I recognize there is a shortage of contraceptives in some countries (and a need for new contraceptive technologies), and I know that if those of us on the demand-creation side are successful, the unmet demand for family planning methods will increase.

I support increased funding for the provision of family planning medical services. My point in the above commentary is that the need goes beyond correcting a lack of access to contraception. Many policy makers and journalists think the only problem is a shortage of contraception, and that is far from true. Stating that those categorized as having an “unmet need” have “no access whatsoever to contraception…” is just not accurate, so it is reasonable to call the author on the statement. Better wording of that sentence would be “Two hundred million women who do not wish to be pregnant are not using contraception because of lack of family planning information or services…” I am not trying to denigrate service provision, but instead to raise the need for communication as central to making progress where the barriers to use of family planning are cultural or informational.

In the online version, Mother Jones linked the term “no access” to a page that equated unmet demand with unmet need. As any demographer can tell you, these are very different concepts, but many journalists and their readers do not know the difference.

My other concern about the article is that Whitty’s only description of those concerned about national population issues is that they are nativist/racist. There are, of course, some racists involved in population and immigration debates. However, their racist arguments are not condoned or supported by the mainstream population stabilization movement. Nor should they be.

However, we must not shy away from the issue of population stabilization in the United States simply because a few on the margin insist on making the debate about color or national origin. Diversity has made and will continue to make the US strong and vibrant. Yet, we must also pay close attention to our domestic carrying capacity and limit population numbers, as recommended by two Presidential commissions, if we are to have a healthy and prosperous future with some semblance of biodiversity remaining.

As exemplified by the population debate that is currently dominating the headlines in Australia, where population is mainly driven by immigration, there are legitimate concerns about limitations of water and other resources making national sustainability impossible if population growth continues at 2.1 percent a year ad infinitum (a population doubling time of just 33 years). Meanwhile, in the United States, our population is growing at about 1 percent per year. This may not sound significant, but will result in a doubling in only 72 years. We are currently at 309 million and already the third most populous nation on the planet.

The late Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, a liberal Democrat and the first African American woman elected to Congress from Texas, led a Congressional Commission calling for reducing legal and illegal immigration – the major drivers of our population growth – in order to protect the job security and wages of low-skilled, vulnerable workers. In this effort, she came up against the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business interests that favor high immigration in order to keep wages low and maximize profits. African American leaders like Clarence B. Jones, Scholar in Residence at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Institute at Stanford University, Frank Morris, former President of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, and attorney Leah Durant, Executive Director of the Institute for a Sustainable America, have been wrongly labeled as nativists by a few bloggers for following in Barbara Jordan’s footsteps. Approaching the US population issue not only from this economic point of view, but a domestic sustainability point of view as well, they advocate for family planning assistance to developing countries, as well as reducing legal immigration to a sustainable number.

There is a tendency in some media to assume that anyone concerned about limiting immigration is racist without looking at their motivations. This creates even greater stigma against the population field – in this case, by a magazine that at least had the good sense to bring the global issue of population out of the closet. There are also those who say that anyone concerned with global population issues must be driven by racist concerns. But as a driving factor in determining whether human civilization is sustainable, the population issue is too important to be ignored, and the name calling against those working toward true sustainability on the planet needs to stop.

Read Population the Last Taboo on Mother Jones

Post Carbon Fellow William N. Ryerson is President, Population Media Center and Population Institute