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.
“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.
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.