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Toward a New Foreign Policy.

Sound population policies focus not so much on discouraging reproduction but rather on access to critical services that make reproduction health, y, safe, and intentional for all people. This requires universal access both to information and to a range of choices and means for planning pregnancy, supplemented by a broad range of services related to reproductive and sexual health and rights. (Contrary to some claims, this does not include U.S. funding for abortions overseas, which has been prohibited by law since 1973.)

The education of girls through secondary school and improvements in economic opportunities for women are also potential components of population policy. Policies with these objectives aid development by bringing women more fully into the mainstream of national and community life. The impact on demographic trends is substantial, because women who have completed high school tend to have fewer children and to give birth later in life than women who have not. Both effects reduce birthrates, improve maternal and child survival, and slow the growth of population.

The best population policies, and the ones the United States should pursue, are modeled after the Program of Action agreed to by representatives of all the world's governments at Cairo in 1994 at the International Conference on Population and Development. This agreement was remarkable among international accords for its consensus on goals and strategies related to population and development. It is appropriate for governments to be concerned about the stabilization of population, the representatives agreed, but not to require or induce their own citizens to make reproductive decisions based on this concern. The Cairo conference reaffirmed the previously established human right that decisions about the number, timing, and spacing of children belong exclusively to couples and individuals. All people should have both the information and the means they need to make reproductive decisions and to put them into effect in good health.

Demographic research overwhelmingly demonstrates that social policies advancing this right produce multiple bonuses beyond the health and related benefits they confer on mothers and their families. By allowing for the safe and effective prevention of pregnancies, these investments reduce reliance on abortion--a goal shared by both sides in the battle over abortion rights. And by giving couples and individuals--especially women--control over the timing of childbirth, such investments act powerfully to slow population growth.

The reality is that women in all parts of the world, in developing countries as well as industrialized ones, are participating in a demographic revolution. They seek to have fewer children, and to have them later in life, than ever before in human history. Men, too, are joining women in this aspiration. But perhaps because men do not bear children themselves and are less active in caring for them on average, in much of the world they lag behind in this shift. Part of the emphasis in population policy is in finding new ways of attending to the reproductive needs of boys and men, which includes improving their understanding of the needs of girls and women.

Already, globally, women have half the number of children--roughly three over their lifetimes--that they had in 1960. This average fertility would be lower still if not for the fact that an estimated 38 percent of pregnancies worldwide are not sought or desired. Among the goals of population policies are: to reduce the percent of unintended pregnancies as much as possible; to improve the conditions under which women experience pregnancy, childbirth, and the post-natal care of their children; and to advance the opportunities for women to take on challenges other than motherhood. There is no need to specify that population policies should actually reduce population growth; overwhelmingly, the right policies will achieve this as a demographic bonus to their primary objectives. These objectives are radical, for they amount to making women full partners in economic, social, and political life by affording them full rights and capacities over their health, their reproduction, and their destinies.

In Cairo, the world's governments devised a spending formula for achieving universal access to critical reproductive health services by early in the next century. Achieving this goal--worthy on its own terms and essential for a stabilized world population--would cost roughly $17 billion per year in current dollars, with developing countries contributing about two thirds of that amount, industrialized countries one third. Based on the size of its economy, the United States should be contributing about $1.9 billion to this effort; instead, it has reduced its support from about $667 million annually in 1996 to around $400 million in the current fiscal year.

Paying our fair share to help make basic family planning and reproductive health services universally available is only part of a new foreign policy approach to global population concerns. But it is a critical first step--and a profoundly environmental one for the multiple benefits it would yield in the 21st century and beyond.

Key Recommendations

* Policymakers and environmentalists should support the international consensus on population policy, which would improve the lives of women and their families while slowing both population growth and environmental degradation.

* Environmentalists should urge Washington to increase its population assistance to levels consistent with commitments made at the International Conference on Population and Development in 1994 and to restore funding to the United Nations Population Fund.

* Congress should resist additional restrictions on overseas family planning organizations.

By Robert Engelman, Population Action International

Robert Engelman directs the Population and Environment Program at Population Action International in Washington, D.C.
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Author:Engelman, Robert
Publication:Foreign Policy in Focus
Geographic Code:00WOR
Date:May 7, 1999
Words:907
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