Birth con­trol can help the planet

Bangkok Post - - OPINION - PETER SINGER Peter Singer is Pro­fes­sor of Bio-ethics at Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity and Lau­re­ate Pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Mel­bourne. His books in­clude ‘Prac­ti­cal Ethics’, ‘Re­think­ing Life and Death’, and ‘The Life You Can Save’.

As Pope Fran­cis was re­turn­ing to Rome from the Philip­pines last month, he told jour­nal­ists about a woman who had had seven chil­dren by cae­sarean sec­tion and was now preg­nant again. This was, he said, “tempt­ing God”. He asked her if she wanted to leave seven or­phans. Catholics have ap­proved ways of reg­u­lat­ing births, he con­tin­ued, and should prac­tise “re­spon­si­ble par­ent­hood” rather than breed­ing “like rab­bits”.

Fran­cis’ “rab­bit” com­ment was widely cov­ered in the me­dia, but fewer re­ported that he had also said that no out­side in­sti­tu­tion should im­pose its views about reg­u­lat­ing fam­ily size on the de­vel­op­ing world. “Ev­ery peo­ple”, he in­sisted, should be able to main­tain its iden­tity with­out be­ing “ide­o­log­i­cally colonised”.

The irony of this re­mark is that in the Philip­pines, a coun­try of more than 100 mil­lion peo­ple, of whom four out of five are Ro­man Catholic, it is pre­cisely the Church that has been the ide­o­log­i­cal coloniser. It is the Church, af­ter all, that has vig­or­ously sought to im­pose its op­po­si­tion to con­tra­cep­tion on the pop­u­la­tion, op­pos­ing even the pro­vi­sion of con­tra­cep­tives by the gov­ern­ment to the ru­ral poor.

Mean­while, sur­veys have re­peat­edly shown that most Filipinos favour mak­ing con­tra­cep­tives avail­able, which is not sur­pris­ing, given that the Church-ap­proved birth-con­trol meth­ods men­tioned by Fran­cis are demon­stra­bly less re­li­able than mod­ern al­ter­na­tives. It is hard to be­lieve that if the Philip­pines had been colonised by, say, Protes­tant Bri­tain rather than Catholic Spain, the use of con­tra­cep­tion would be an is­sue there to­day.

The larger is­sue that Fran­cis raised, how­ever, is whether it is le­git­i­mate for out­side agen­cies to pro­mote fam­ily plan­ning in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries. There are sev­eral rea­sons why it is. First, leav­ing aside the “ide­o­log­i­cal” ques­tion of whether fam­ily plan­ning is a right, there is over­whelm­ing ev­i­dence to show that a lack of ac­cess to con­tra­cep­tion is bad for women’s health.

Fre­quent preg­nan­cies, es­pe­cially in coun­tries with­out uni­ver­sal mod­ern health care, are as­so­ci­ated with high ma­ter­nal mor­tal­ity. Aid by out­side agen­cies to help de­vel­op­ing coun­tries re­duce pre­ma­ture deaths in women is surely not “ide­o­log­i­cal coloni­sa­tion”.

Sec­ond, when births are more widely spaced, chil­dren do bet­ter, both phys­i­cally and in terms of ed­u­ca­tional at­tain­ment. We should all agree that it is de­sir­able for aid or­gan­i­sa­tions to pro­mote the health and ed­u­ca­tion of chil­dren in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries. The broader and more con­tro­ver­sial rea­son for pro­mot­ing fam­ily plan­ning, how­ever, is that mak­ing it avail­able to all who want it is in the in­ter­est of the world’s seven bil­lion peo­ple and the gen­er­a­tions that, bar­ring dis­as­ter, should be able to in­habit the planet for un­told mil­len­nia to come. And here, the re­la­tion­ship be­tween cli­mate change and birth con­trol needs to be brought into fo­cus.

The key facts about cli­mate change are well­known: Our planet’s at­mos­phere has al­ready ab­sorbed such a large quan­tity of hu­man-pro­duced green­house gases that global warm­ing is un­der way, with more ex­treme heat waves, droughts, and floods than ever be­fore. Arc­tic sea ice is melt­ing, and ris­ing sea lev­els are threat­en­ing to in­un­date low-ly­ing densely pop­u­lated coastal re­gions in sev­eral coun­tries. If rain­fall pat­terns change, hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple could be­come cli­mate refugees.

More­over, an over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of sci­en­tists in the rel­e­vant fields be­lieve that we are on track to ex­ceed the level of global warm­ing at which feed­back mech­a­nisms will kick in and cli­mate change will be­come un­con­trol­lable, with un­pre­dictable and pos­si­bly cat­a­strophic con­se­quences.

It is of­ten pointed out that it is the af­flu­ent coun­tries that have caused the prob­lem, ow­ing to their higher green­house-gas emis­sions over the past two cen­turies. They con­tinue to have the high­est lev­els of per capita emis­sions, and they can re­duce emis­sions with the least hard­ship. There is no doubt that, eth­i­cally, the world’s de­vel­oped coun­tries should be tak­ing the lead in re­duc­ing emis­sions.

What is not so of­ten men­tioned, how­ever, is the ex­tent to which con­tin­u­ing global pop­u­la­tion growth would un­der­mine the im­pact of what­ever emis­sion re­duc­tions af­flu­ent coun­tries can be per­suaded to make.

Four fac­tors in­flu­ence the level of emis­sions: eco­nomic out­put per capita; the units of en­ergy used to gen­er­ate each unit of eco­nomic out­put; green­house gases emit­ted per unit of en­ergy; and to­tal pop­u­la­tion. A re­duc­tion in any three will be off­set by an in­crease in the fourth.

In the “Sum­mary for Pol­i­cy­mak­ers” of its 2014 Fifth As­sess­ment Re­port, the In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change stated that, glob­ally, eco­nomic and pop­u­la­tion growth con­tinue to be “the most im­por­tant driv­ers” of in­creases in CO2 emis­sions from fos­sil­fuel com­bus­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion, an es­ti­mated 222 mil­lion women in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries do not want to have chil­dren now, but lack the means to en­sure that they do not con­ceive. Pro­vid­ing them with ac­cess to con­tra­cep­tion would help them plan their lives as they wish, re­duce de­mand for abor­tion, limit ma­ter­nal deaths, give chil­dren a bet­ter start in life, and con­trib­ute to slow­ing pop­u­la­tion growth and green­house-gas emis­sions, thus ben­e­fit­ing us all.

Who could op­pose such an ob­vi­ous win­win propo­si­tion? The only naysay­ers, we may sus­pect, are those in the grip of a re­li­gious ide­ol­ogy that they seek to im­pose on oth­ers, no mat­ter what the con­se­quences for women, chil­dren, and the rest of the world, now and for cen­turies to come.

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