Doctors have played a vital role in lowering mortality and increasing human life span and well-being. While representing a humanitarian success, this achievement has also contributed to a rapid increase in human numbers. In 1972, 52 physicians took responsibility for their role in this success and signed a call for action against overpopulation, through education, family planning, and empowerment of women. 48 years later, their call has still not been answered.
By Richard Grossman MD
Family planning could bring more benefits to more people at less cost than any other single technology now available….
– James Grant
Either we reduce the world’s population voluntarily or Nature will do this for us, but brutally.
– Maurice Strong
Two physicians who are concerned about human population just published an article titled “Doctors and overpopulation 48 years later”. It is based on an article that was published almost a half century ago.
The original “Doctors and Overpopulation” was signed by 52 physicians. The first paragraph states: “Many regard overpopulation as the supreme dilemma of our age….” It goes on to say that most people consider overpopulation to only be a problem of developing countries, but that Britain would soon be overpopulated. The population of the USA rose by 121 million, from 210 to 331 million, in those 48 years. Global population has doubled since 1972.
Our medical profession helped cause overpopulation by improving health so people live longer. Decreasing childhood mortality has had a huge effect in increasing population growth, but it is perhaps the most humane action in the history of medicine. The authors of “Doctors and Overpopulation” take some responsibility for the rapid growth caused by this success.
What could those doctors recommend to combat overpopulation? They list 5 actions, all of which are still relevant today: Convince governments of the seriousness of overpopulation; Increase family planning services, Including access to vasectomy; Keep abortion legal and available to all women; Empower women; Include population studies at all levels of education and use mass media to spread information on the subject.
One of the authors of the current article, Dr. John Guillebaud, was also one of the 52 original signers. Guillebaud is a family planning guru and retired professor of reproductive medicine in London. The other author, Jan Gregus, is a gynecologist and philosopher in the Czech Republic. He recently presented a paper at the World Congress of Bioethics on the ethics of small families.
Guillebaud and Gregus discuss 5 roots of overpopulation, starting with the decline in mortality and population momentum (the large number of young people who have yet to have their families). These 2 causes cannot be changed, but the other 3 can be. There are millions of women who want to control their fertility but don’t have access to reliable contraception; access to family planning services can help. Even more women and men are forced by custom and convention to have large families. Social norms in some societies force women to be mothers because that is the only role open to them. Education can help here—especially by non-traditional methods such as telenovelas. The Population Media Center has done an excellent job of using electronic media to educate and empower women and to show the advantages of small family size.
I strongly agree with Guillebaud and Gregus in condemning reproductive coercion. It was unnecessary in India and in China, but coercive programs there and elsewhere have done great harm not only to the affected people but to the movement to slow population growth.
They also talk about the effect of large international conferences, and lament the fact that the huge Cairo conference in 1994 “failed to articulate the threat of unremitting population growth on a finite planet….” Instead, that conference highlighted the importance of reproductive health services. It also promoted education of girls and women and supported “…childbearing needs to become a woman’s personal choice, and not her obligation or a matter of chance….”
Another conference, held last year in Nairobi on the 25th anniversary of the Cairo conference, followed the global trend of ignoring overpopulation. To quote Guillebaud and Gregus, “Despite… much evidence that unremitting population growth is one of the ‘upstream’ driver[s] of climate change… at the Nairobi population conference the word population was nowhere….”
Yes, there is a taboo against talking about population as a cause of environmental problems. In addition to climate change, the authors list 13 other global crises related to overpopulation—but you seldom see the media making this connection. They call for a “taboo-free talk”. Thanks, Drs. Guillebaud and Gregus; that has been the goal of Population Matters-USA for the past 25 years!
There is good news! Physicians have been slow to recognize the concept of overpopulation, and to acknowledge the connection between medical care and environmental problems. This article, “Doctors and overpopulation 48 years later”, was a step in the correct direction. Earlier this year the equivalent journal in the USA, Contraception, ran a similar editorial: “Family planning, population growth, and the environment.” I only wish that both articles were published where more people could read them.
Please visit www.population-matters.org for more essays from Richard Grossman about human population (don’t forget the dash in link, to distinguish his website from the British organisation). You can subscribe to receive these monthly essays by email while you are at the blog.