Rights and responsibilities in population policy

A robust account of human responsibility, applied to humanity’s economic and demographic decisions, is the missing link in environmentalists’ endeavors to save our planet. Contemporary humanity has been misled by promises of rights without responsibilities, win/win solutions, and individual success without discipline or concern for the common good. “Back to basics” should be our battle cry: rights balanced with responsibilities.

by Carl Wahren

Recently TOP published a blog on human rights and population policy which generated a lot of commentary. Its description of the evolution of thinking about population in the last few decades chronicled an unfortunate trend in global affairs: the move away from the necessary equilibrium between rights and responsibilities.

In fact, the men and women who pioneered family planning after World War II sailed under the all-important responsible parenthood” flag. There was a very strong focus on the aspiration that every child born would be a child with reasonable chances for having a decent life, with good nutrition and sufficient clothing, schooling, housing, and hopefully a future job.

Elise Ottesen Jensen, one of the founders of the International Planned Parenthood Federation in Bombay, India, in 1952, was my mentor. I can testify to how strongly she and her colleagues all over the world stressed the responsibility aspect of human reproduction. That also implied a multigenerational and holistic approach, looking at individuals and families as parts of communities, nations, and the future of the globe. Planned parenthood” implied serious, responsible thinking before conceiving yet another child. Women´s rights and men´s responsibilities were at the centre.

This book, published by the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) in 1992, contains a chapter about Elise Ottesen-Jensen and several other women. Carl Wahren was Secretary-General of IPPF between 1978 and 1984.

“Family planning” gradually gained ground as a concept because of its broader implications. “Planning” implied considerations at micro as well as macro levels. That is how demographic projections gradually were seen as important in Ministries of Finance and Planning. Hard-nosed economists, who could not care less about underprivileged women´s health, were open to policy arguments about national needs to expand infrastructure, food, schools, hospitals, job creation, arable land, and water availability. “Planning” was their language and made them receptive to discussion.

The UN’s International Conference on Human Rights in Tehran in 1968 was a rather modest-sized international gathering of experts, largely ignored by most governments and indeed by the media and public opinion. But it was important in identifying family planning as a human right. Specifically, the Proclamation of Tehran declared, “couples have a basic human right to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children.”

The first World Population Conference, held in Bucharest, Romania, from August 19 – 30, 1974, on the other hand, attracted massive public interest globally. Furthermore, 1974 had been declared World Population Year by the United Nations. Preparations nationally and regionally started already in late 1972, led by a highly respected former foreign minister from Mexico. The UN Population Commission played a central role.

Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim holding a press conference in Bucharest for the opening of the United Nations World Population Conference. Photo: United Nations.

As noted above, the meeting in Tehran had been a gathering of experts. Bucharest was a political conference of governments with almost all UN member states participating. Heads of State and ministers led the delegations. Many delegations, like the Swedish one, included key parliamentarians, often representing the actual government as well as the opposition. There were masses of journalists who stayed for the duration of the conference.

At the initiative of developing countries, I was asked to chair the very lengthy informal negotiations before the final adoption of the World Population Plan of Action. I can testify that discussions initially often reflected totally opposing views, on almost all major issues. But after a good week´s worth of oral confrontations in the drafting group (up to 90 participants), sometimes until midnight, a remarkable consensus emerged on the inextricable interlinkages between people, their numbers and consumption patterns, the environment, migration, rights and responsibilities, multigenerational equity, and women´s rights. In the end, only the Vatican abstained from the Plan of Action.

Bucharest benefited from the Stockholm Conference on the Environment held in 1972. But above all, people from all the different continents had to listen seriously to one another. They spent a lot of time in discussions, sometimes in small groups tackling one particular paragraph. Intercontinental links were established and some made new friends. In this gigantic learning process attitudes gradually changed. Let´s not forget, this was before modern social media and the easy spread of ideas and norms. Preparations for Bucharest, the conference itself and the pragmatic follow-up world-wide, created an impressive learning process, built on the necessary balance between rights and responsibilities.

The 109 detailed paragraphs of the Plan of Action on population and development were thus finally adopted. And during extensive follow-up by the UN and in regional meetings, we learnt that the impact of Bucharest was considerable at the national level. There were changes of laws, national policies and programmes were introduced, additional funding for family planning was provided. Some training and institution-building was initiated. Many good intentions were actually transformed into practical action.

The Second World Population Conference in Mexico City, in 1984, largely confirmed Bucharest. It noted progress, as well as very considerable remaining needs. It was noted with concern that close to another billion people had been added to the world population since Bucharest, mostly in the least developed countries. The international consensus was reaffirmed, although abortion now emerged as a highly politically divisive issue.

By combining provision of contraceptive methods and reproductive health services with mass media campaigns to establish small family norms, family planning programs in the three decades prior to 1994 achieved rapid fertility declines in many countries around the world. This greatly facilitated these countries’ economic development.

The key messages from previous world population meetings remained in the documents drafted at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994 – including that couples should decide their childbearing freely and responsibly. But the post-Cairo dilution of the “family planning” concept, described in our previous blog, has taken demographic issues, in particular continued population increases, off the Planning and Finance Ministers’ radar. And as we know, Ministers of Health are among the lowest-ranking members of most cabinets, with little or no say concerning national priorities.

That is the great disadvantage of the “sexual and reproductive health” concept that has come to dominate international family planning discourse. Not only is it sadly reductionist, it is politically disempowering. Since the reframing of procreation as a right divorced from responsibility, national fertility declines have slowed or stalled in poorer parts of the world. In the remaining high fertility countries, food and water insecurity is rising rapidly and wild nature is under accelerated assault.

Human rights have come to dominate public debates about family planning, but it is a truncated and incomplete view of human rights. The supposed right of parents to have lots of children prevails over those children’s rights to sufficient food and decent lives. The necessary counterbalance of responsibility in human procreation is largely forgotten. So are intergenerational equity and the devastating, rapidly-growing human impact on our environment and, indeed, on all other forms of planetary life.

Has Homo sapiens finally decided to go down in history as the most destructive, invasive species that ever lived on our planet?



Carl Wahren, a political scientist, has spent his professional life working on global issues such as sustainable development, water, food supplies, demographic dynamics, and the status and role of women. He was responsible for aid management and evaluation at the OECD, worked as a Secretary General of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) and as a consultant at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Through his work he has been involved in the three UN population conferences discussed above, as well as other international meetings.

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12 thoughts on “Rights and responsibilities in population policy

  1. All very well, but … Bottom line is that as long as irresponsibly large families can claim full HR benefits to all, it all comes to nothing. Responsibility without consequences is irresponsible, plain and simple.

  2. There’s a fairly defining essay in the most recent NPG Forum Paper on this topic, with it written by a woman whose family were 1920s immigrants to the U.S. But it all still comes down to the fact that while we have a DEREGULATED media in the U.S. (and sadly with the same media ownership globally) with that media–you know “all” those T.V. networks that are now, substantively, just one network–and now owned by people who want no discussion of these issues–and have the power, under deregulation, to ensure they aren’t part of the news cycle–nothing constructive will happen in ANY way. In contrast, all of media united a few years back to make bullying a hot-button issue and within days everyone everywhere was falling all over the need to stop all bullying! As anyone ever bullied knows, that’s important, but not nearly as important on a planet that scientists warn CANNOT solve climate change without addressing population! Yet, it did serve as an EXCELLENT DIVERSIONARY tactic to keep us distracted for the REAL issues!

  3. Rights and Responsibilities is the critical cultural element facing us today. People demand rights without consideration of the accompanying responsibilities: “I have the right not to wear a mask”….but no responsibility for infecting you with Covid 19. ” I have the right to carry a gun”…….but no responsibility to think before shooting you.
    “I have the right to incite people to insurrection with inflammatory words”…but take no responsibility for the resultant mayhem and death.

    What if, for each right legislatively conferred upon us, there were a concomitant responsibility required by law and punishable if not obeyed?

  4. Both Carl Wahren and I have been privileged to commit our professional lives to rights-based population policies and family planning programs, beginning in the 60’s. His Rights and Responsibility in Population Policy blog is very accurate in chronicling his historical evolvement at the UN Conferences in Bucharest and Mexico. Carl had leadership positions in structuring the adoption of documents that were ratified by the countries in attendance. The recent marginalization of the impact of population growth on all aspects of development, including the opportunities and choices couples have to choose pregnancies and family sizes, has been compromised As Carl rightfully notes, “the supposed right of parents to have lots of children prevails over those children’s rights to sufficient food and decent lives.” All the programs that have been successful have focused on the rights of children as well as their parents to health, education and better opportunities and choices. Where those rights have been denied, populations have increased four to five times in the last five decades.

  5. I agree that “sexual and reproductive health” (SRHR) is a slogan that has now become quite counter-productive. The Vatican/ Holy See, alongside a growing group of ultra-conservative delegations, will pounce on anything that mentions women’s rights, in case it includes “reproductive rights”. The argument is going nowhere.
    I am not persuaded that “we” can tell “them” to be more responsible!
    I propose two alternative approaches:
    A focus on needs rather than rights. People need access to family planning, for their own health and welfare as well as the future of their children.
    A new slogan of “children by choice, not by force”. Women and even young girls are being forced into marriage, and sex, with no choice about pregnancy and childbirth. If women could choose their pregnancies it is arguable that most of the issue would be resolved, although it would not be overnight.
    I also think that the value of the big conferences on population has run its course. I would suggest a resolution to the General Assembly instructing all the UN specialised agencies to contribute to family planning. That alone would make a big difference.
    I have published on this issue and am working on some new ideas. Contact me if interested.

  6. Human rights, human rights – where please do we leave the right of a child not to be launched onto a dying planet?
    The right not to suffer the pain, the fear, the hopelessness that comes with watching a band of out of control primates destroying everything, even though they had the means not to. The right to space and access to nature and to a relatively benign climate? As long as unborn children and other species are not granted rights you can write off the biosphere. I doubt very much that the runaway train that is climate change can be stopped so the only guarantee future children will have is that of a miserable life. Why can parents determine that giving birth to children is an experience that will be worth it for their offspring? What redress to children have against their parents’ baseless optimism?

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