Global Population Growth

January 16, 2015 – Volume 25, Issue 3
Can the planet support another 4 billion people? By Jennifer Weeks


A teeming street in New Delhi reflects the growth of India's population (AFP/Getty Images/Raveendran)
A teeming street in New Delhi reflects the growth of India's population, now 1.3 billion. The country is expected to surpass China as the world's most populous nation in about 2030. Population growth threatens economic progress in many developing countries, and demographers say Earth's population could rise to nearly 11 billion by 2100. (AFP/Getty Images/Raveendran)

The world's population, now about 7.2 billion people, could rise to nearly 11 billion or more by 2100, according to some estimates, with nearly all the growth in developing countries. Agricultural specialists worry about how the planet would feed 4 billion more people, and environmentalists say humans already are consuming natural resources at unsustainable rates. Expanding populations also create social pressure, especially in fast-growing nations that cannot generate enough jobs for their citizens. In some regions, notably sub-Saharan Africa, population growth is slowing progress toward key development goals, such as expanding education and improving maternal and child health. To address these challenges, wealthy donors are stepping up efforts to provide family planning to all who want it, and many advocates are calling for greater focus on women's rights, including the right to decide whether and when to have children. But the Catholic Church and other conservative groups say global population policy is too focused on birth control and instead should emphasize valuing and protecting life and raising people out of poverty.

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Public health groups and women's rights advocates in the Philippines celebrated last April when the nation's Supreme Court ruled that the government should provide free contraceptives for the poor.

In a nation where more than 80 percent of the population is Catholic, the church's strong opposition to all forms of “artificial” birth control had blocked efforts to pass family planning laws for more than 15 years.Footnote * 1 Contraceptives were legally available, but only to those who could pay for them, putting them out of reach for millions of Filipinos.

Then in 2012 President Benigno Aquino III signed a landmark bill requiring the government to provide free birth control for the poor and mandating sex education classes in public schools. Catholic leaders petitioned the Philippine Supreme Court to overturn the law, arguing that the law violated a provision in the nation's constitution protecting “the life of the unborn.”2 Philippine bishops contended that any form of birth control other than abstention amounted to preventing human life.3

But the court's decision last spring held that the law was constitutional. “A grateful nation salutes the majority of justices for their favorable ruling promoting reproductive health and giving impetus to sustainable human development,” said legislator Edcel Lagman, the law's lead author.4 (The law did not legalize abortion, which remains against the law in the Philippines.)

A billboard in Kenya's capital (AFP/Getty Images/Tony Karumba)
A billboard in Kenya's capital, Nairobi, funded by the U.S.-based group Catholics For Choice, promotes the use of condoms. Official Catholic Church doctrine calls such modern birth control methods unacceptable because in the church's view, they amount to preventing life. But most Catholics in developed countries, and many in developing nations, support the use of contraceptives. (AFP/Getty Images/Tony Karumba)

Development experts hope the law will help the Philippines curb population growth, which they see as critical to helping raise millions of Filipinos out of poverty. The country's population more than doubled in the past three decades, growing from 45 million to more than 100 million.5 A quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, and one-fifth of children below age 5 are underweight. Millions of Filipinos lack access to basic sanitary facilities, such as clean drinking water and modern toilets.6

The Philippines is not unique. Population growth threatens to undercut economic progress in many developing countries, including large nations such as India and Nigeria and smaller ones, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Contrary to experts' predictions a decade ago that the world's population would stop expanding this century, United Nations experts now call that scenario unlikely.

Last September U.N. and academic analysts projected that global population will rise from 7.2 billion now to 9.6 billion in 2050 and 10.9 billion in 2100, with virtually all of that growth expected to occur in the developing world.7

Rapid population growth slows development and makes it harder to raise the poor out of poverty. Governments in many fast-growing countries are straining to provide housing, sanitation, education and other services. A growing population also increases demands for land, water, energy and other natural resources. And studies show that fast population growth in low-income countries can promote wars, riots and other forms of instability.

People in the poorest, least-developed countries typically have large families for practical reasons: These countries usually lack welfare or social security programs for the elderly, so children are seen as sources of free labor and support for their parents as they age. And because many children die in infancy or in the first few years of life, often from preventable diseases, couples have large families to increase the chance that at least some of their children will reach adulthood.

As nations develop, these incentives change. Medical and public health improvements enable more children to reach adulthood, and parents eventually recognize that they do not need to have as many children. Birth rates decline from an average of six or seven children per woman to one or two.

Helping nations move through this shift, known as the demographic transition, is a central goal of international and national population policies. Reducing birth rates makes it easier for developing countries to provide health care and other services and frees up resources for infrastructure and other sectors that help generate jobs.

But some countries are moving through the demographic transition more slowly than others. In central, East and West Africa, women still average five to six live births during their childbearing years.8

“Only about 19 percent of women in the region are using effective contraception,” says Elizabeth Leahy Madsen, senior technical adviser with Futures Group, a global health consulting firm in Washington, D.C. In contrast, 63 percent of women globally, and up to 75 percent in wealthy countries, use contraception.9

Worldwide, some 225 million women have unmet needs for contraception, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit in New York that conducts research and public education on reproductive health and rights.10 That includes women who want to avoid pregnancy but are not using contraception.

Some are unable to obtain or afford it, but access is not the only obstacle. “Many women are worried about health impacts or side effects” says Leahy Madsen. “And women or their husbands may oppose family planning for religious or cultural reasons. People can have competing preferences: Women may not want to get pregnant and also not believe in using contraception.”

Reducing poverty and promoting global economic development are important humanitarian goals. And over time these policies can help poor countries become potential trading partners. Thus, wealthy countries provide more than $1 billion yearly in direct aid and through the U.N. to support family planning in low- and middle-income countries.

Global Population Projected to Be Older

Curbing population growth may also reduce violence and civil conflict. In a widely cited 2006 study, Norwegian political scientist Henrik Urdal found that risks of armed conflict, terrorism and riots or violent demonstrations were significantly higher in nations with a disproportionately young population — ages 15 to 24 — which is typical in fast-growing countries.11 The centrist Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington recently called rapid population growth a key factor threatening stability in many Middle East and North African countries.12

Environmentalists also raise concerns about whether the world can sustainably produce enough food to support nearly 11 billion people. “Food production has a bigger impact on the planet than any other single human activity when you add up water use, soil damage, loss of biodiversity and greenhouse gas emissions,” says Jason Clay, a senior vice president with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a coalition of conservation groups that works in more than 100 countries.

In a 2014 report the WWF estimated that the number of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish on Earth declined by more than 50 percent between 1970 and 2010 due to effects of human activities, such as land degradation, overfishing, overharvesting and climate change.13 “We are already living beyond the planet's carrying capacity,” says Clay. “And we will need to provide for 30 percent more people by 2050 who consume nearly twice as much per capita.” Consumption increases as nations develop and consumer income rises.

The United States is the largest single donor to global family planning and reproductive health programs, providing between $425 million and $715 million yearly over the past decade.14 But domestic politics, particularly disagreements over abortion, frequently spur controversy over these efforts.

In 1984 President Ronald Reagan imposed the so-called Mexico City Policy, which denied U.S. aid to organizations abroad that provided or counseled patients about abortion — even in countries where abortion was legal. The policy, which Reagan announced at a population conference in Mexico City, has been suspended and reimposed repeatedly over the past 30 years, based on presidents' positions on abortion.

As health and development experts, national governments and advocacy groups weigh strategies for managing population growth, here are some issues they are considering:

Will population growth level off by 2100?

When U.N. experts projected last fall that world population would likely reach nearly 11 billion by 2100, the announcement sparked debate. The United Nations has issued biennial reports on world population prospects since the early 1950s, but since 2011 U.N. demographers have used a new method for calculating their projections, leading some experts to disagree with the findings.

Before 2011 the U.N. had projected global population growth only through 2050, but in 2011 it estimated that population would reach 10.1 billion by the end of the century. In 2013 it raised that estimate to 10.9 billion and repeated the figure in an article published by U.N. and academic specialists in 2014.15

Previously, the U.N.'s Population Division had integrated population and statistics experts' opinions about trends in birth and death rates into the forecast. Starting in 2011 the U.N. developed its own projections of fertility trends, using data from around the world and probability to estimate which paths were more and less likely. The new models generated higher growth projections.

“We did thousands of simulations, country by country,” says Patrick Gerland, a demographer with the U.N. Population Division. “For each country some futures are more likely than others. Our goal was to show a range of possibilities with upper and lower bounds.” Gerland and his colleagues calculated that there was an 80 percent chance that world population would total between 9.6 billion and 12.3 billion in 2100. (The group's projection of 10.9 billion is roughly at the midpoint of this range.) The group estimated that there was only a 30 percent chance that world population growth would peak before 2100.16

But other forecasters reached different answers. Deutsche Bank global strategist Sanjeev Sanyal predicted in 2013 that world population would peak at 8.7 billion in about 2055 and decline to 8 billion by 2100. “This is obviously a radically different view of the world,” Sanyal wrote, arguing that the U.N. was overestimating how long it would take for fertility rates to fall in developing countries such as Nigeria.17

Sanyal predicted that the global fertility rate would fall to the “replacement rate” — or about 2.1 children per woman — by 2025, some 50 years sooner than the U.N. projected.18 The replacement rate is the level at which a couple has just enough children to replace themselves without increasing the global population. It is slightly above two to offset children who die in the first years of life.

However, Gerland argues that major demographic changes typically do not occur over large regions all at once. “Things don't happen in the same way at the same time everywhere,” he says. “Our work with probabilities tries to factor in variations from country to country.”

Population experts at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), a social science research center in Vienna, Austria, also say the U.N. estimates are too high. IIASA developed the probabilistic approach now used by the U.N., but the institute also considers additional factors.

Notably, IIASA experts say education is a key influence on fertility rates.19 When countries expand access to education, fertility rates decline and women can play greater roles in the economy, making them less likely to want large families.20

Because educational opportunities are increasing in fast-growing countries, IIASA's most-likely scenario projects an 85 percent chance that world population will peak at 9.4 billion in around 2070 and decline to 9.0 billion by 2100.21

Many experts emphasize that long-term population projections are scenarios of possible outcomes and should not be taken literally. “When you project out to 2100, you're definitely stepping onto thin ice,” says Carl Haub, a senior demographer at the nonprofit Population Reference Bureau, which conducts research and analysis on population issues in Washington. “The U.N., IIASA, and [other sources such as] the U.S. Census Bureau all have their own approaches, and most of us don't totally understand all the implications of differences between them.”

‘Modern’ Contraception Widely Used

Even when countries reduce fertility rates to replacement levels, he notes, their populations continue to increase for some time while a large cohort of young people — the first generation born after child mortality declines but while fertility rates are still high — passes through adulthood. Demographers call this pattern population momentum.

“You don't get steep reductions until members of that generation work through their childbearing years,” Haub says. “I don't think world population can stop growing before 2100. But in the U.N.'s mid-range projection, you're only adding about 10 million people every year by then [compared to 80 million now], so you're making progress.”

Can Earth support nearly 11 billion people?

For centuries observers have debated whether human population growth will use up Earth's resources. Today many environmental advocates warn that human activities are damaging land, forests, fisheries and other resources faster than they can recover. Skeptics counter that humans will find new ways to produce food and other necessities more efficiently or find technological substitutes for them.

Human activities increasingly impact the planet as the population grows, but other factors also play important roles. In the early 1970s two University of California professors, Paul Ehrlich (a biologist) and John Holdren (a physicist), developed an equation to describe human effects on the environment: I=P x A x T, where I stands for impacts, P for population, A for affluence (wealth), and T for technology.22

This formula recognized that as people become wealthier they consume more resources per capita. Technology can make the impacts worse if people demand resource-intensive goods, such as gas-guzzling cars or meat-centered diets. Or it can reduce humans' environmental footprint by making it possible to produce goods more efficiently.

Ehrlich and Holdren contended that humans were pushing up against fundamental ecological limits that could not be overcome through technological solutions.23 But many critics argued then and now that scientific advances could offset scarcity.

“Yes, pockets of the world face famine — usually in regions with corrupt, despotic governments. But overall, the world hasn't outgrown its ability to feed itself,” wrote American financial author and commentator Lara Hoffmans. “And while global population has grown, life expectancies keep increasing, quality of life keeps improving and per capita GDP keeps expanding.”24

Feeding a growing population is a serious challenge. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome has estimated that although world population is projected to grow by about one-third by 2050, feeding 9.6 billion people will require 70 percent more food, because people consume more meat as incomes rise, requiring more grain to feed livestock. Then-FAO Assistant Director-General Hafez Ghanem, now a scholar at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, has said the agency is “cautiously optimistic” that the challenge can be met, but only if nations boost agricultural investments and take steps to ensure that everyone has access to food.25

Ehrlich still contends that the depletion of Earth's resources will cause imminent disaster unless humans take radical action.26 In 2013, he and his wife, biologist Anne Ehrlich, wrote that “for the first time, humanity's global civilization … is threatened with collapse by an array of environmental problems” that could be triggered by anything from nuclear war to conflict over “increasingly scarce necessities.” To avoid this scenario, they called for cutting fossil fuel use and limiting population growth to 8.6 billion by 2050.27

The Ehrlichs cited work by the Global Footprint Network (GFN), a nonprofit based in Oakland, Calif., that annually measures the effects of human activity on the planet — including use of land, forests and fisheries and emissions of greenhouse gases, which cause global climate change — and compares them to the resources Earth can produce in a year. According to GFN, humans have been in “overshoot” since the early 1970s — using more resources than the planet can replace.

“We use more resources today than the Earth can regenerate, and we're adding more people every year,” says GFN President Mathis Wackernagel. “You can see the impacts of overshoot in depleted places like Haiti, and also in events like the Arab Spring,” which some analysts say was triggered in part by high youth unemployment and rising bread prices.

GFN calculates that most wealthy nations consume far more resources than they produce. For example, the group estimates that the United States uses nearly twice as many resources annually as it generates, and Japan consumes seven times what it produces.28 Wackernagel does not predict that world resources will run out at a specific point. Rather, he says, scarcity already exists in many places, especially for the world's poor.

“More than 70 percent of the world's population lives in nations that are consuming more resources than they produce and are middle- or low-income countries,” he says.29 “How will they afford to import supplies from abroad when their local resources are depleted? We should be redesigning our lifestyles to consume fewer resources, but we keep building the old economy instead of rethinking it.”

Bolivia is now promoting quinoa, a protein-rich grain that grows well in harsh climates (AFP/Getty Images/Aizar Raldes)
Bolivia is now promoting quinoa, a protein-rich grain that grows well in harsh climates, as one solution for growing global food needs. Agricultural specialists say continued population growth will exacerbate hunger problems if current food consumption rates and preferences, especially demand for meat, continue. Some experts call for overhauling the world's food system. Others advocate expanded use of genetically modified crops, but critics contend they are unsafe. (AFP/Getty Images/Aizar Raldes)

Some experts say that by drastically overhauling the global food system, food supplies could be doubled sustainably by 2050. A group led by Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, proposes five steps: Stop expanding onto uncultivated land; grow more on existing farms, using both high-tech and organic methods; use fertilizer, pesticides and water more efficiently; reduce global meat consumption; and reduce food waste. (According to Foley's group, an estimated 25 percent of food calories and up to 50 percent of total food weight worldwide are lost or wasted before they reach consumers.)

“We already know what we have to do; we just need to figure out how to do it,” Foley writes.30

The World Wildlife Fund advocates a similar plan, including specific steps such as using biotechnology to increase yields of major African food crops. “We need to focus on crops that are important there, like cowpeas and cassava, instead of growing more corn and shipping it there,” says the WWF's Clay. “These crops are quite productive, but they haven't been targeted by modern science.”

Some development experts and advocates contend that expanding the use of crops that have been genetically modified to increase their productivity and resistance to heat and drought should be a key strategy for feeding a growing world population. But critics argue that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are unsafe for the environment and human health.31 WWF's proposal for expanding food production includes marker-assisted breeding, an approach that does not involve transferring genetic material between species.Footnote *

Foley is open to use of GMOs but asserts that they have not significantly increased world food production yet — mainly because biotechnology developers have focused on crops grown in developed countries, such as corn, rather than those eaten in the developing world, such as cassava. “While [GMO] technology itself might ‘work,’ it has so far been applied to the wrong parts of the food system to truly make a dent in global food security,” he wrote.32

Clay sees progress occurring in many areas. “Two years ago, total aquaculture [fish farming] production surpassed total beef production worldwide,” he says. Raising fish requires significantly less protein and causes fewer harmful environmental effects than producing beef, although some forms of aquaculture are more sustainable than others.33

“Major corporations are pledging to support sustainable production of commodities like palm oil,” says Clay. “And we don't have to double production to get to our goal. We can do a lot by reducing waste. If we could eliminate food waste worldwide, we'd be halfway there.”

Is family planning a universal human right?

Since 1994 international family planning policy has promoted a woman's right to choose whether and when to have children. At the global conference where this new agenda was approved, 179 nations adopted a goal of providing universal access to a full range of safe, reliable and legal family planning and reproductive health services.

Life Spans Lowest in Developing Countries

But in 2012, the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) reported that the modern contraception needs of more than 220 million women worldwide were still unmet.

“This is inexcusable. Family planning is a human right. It must therefore be available to all who want it,” wrote U.N. Under-Secretary-General and UNFPA Executive Director Babatunde Osotimehin. “It is high time we lived up to that commitment and made voluntary family planning available to all.”34 The report marked the first time the UNFPA had explicitly called family planning a human right.35

Conservatives oppose this view, however. Calling family planning a human right represents “U.N. dominance over individual states' national sovereignty,” Janice Shaw Crouse, a spokeswomen for the Concerned Women for American Legislative Action Committee, a conservative advocacy group in Washington that works to “protect and promote Biblical values among all citizens,” argued in response to the UNFPA.36 Such a usurpation of national sovereignty amounts to “modern-day colonialism,” she said.37

Meanwhile, U.S. officials have been debating whether employers should be required to provide workers with health insurance that covers contraception at no cost — effectively declaring that all Americans should have free access to contraception. Catholic leaders and conservative legislators strongly oppose this policy.

“They don't have the authority under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution to tell someone in this country or some organization in this country what their religious beliefs are,” said then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, in 2013.38 The Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Hobby Lobby case last June that some types of employers could be exempted under religious freedom laws from covering contraceptives through their employees' health plans.39

Advocates of family planning contend that it empowers poor women by letting them choose whether and when to have children. “Creating societies where people enjoy basic health, relative prosperity, fundamental equality, and access to contraceptives is the only way to secure a sustainable world,” billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates wrote in his 2014 annual letter to supporters of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “We will build a better future for everyone by giving people the freedom and the power to build a better future for themselves and their families.”40

The Catholic Church remains opposed to abortion and all forms of birth control other than “natural” family planning. In 2013 Pope Francis reaffirmed the church's position, stating that human life “is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development…. It is not ‘progressive’ to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life.”41

Last April, the U.N. observer delegation from the Holy See (the government of the Catholic Church) said a strong focus on universal reproductive rights seemed “to treat fertility and pregnancy as a disease which must either be prevented or managed via government or outside assistance. While this may well reflect the concerns of certain highly developed countries … it certainly skews the population and development realities for the most part of the developing countries of the world, for whom other issues take greater priority.”42

Women wait to receive family-planning advice at a health center (AFP/Getty Images/Jay Directo)
Women wait to receive family-planning advice at a health center in Manila, capital of the Philippines. The country's Supreme Court ruled last April that a law requiring the government to provide free birth control for the poor and mandating sex education in public schools was constitutional. Development experts hope the law will help the country — which is more than 80 percent Catholic — curb population growth, which they see as critical to raising millions of Filipinos out of poverty. (AFP/Getty Images/Jay Directo)

Catholic leaders and organizations have traditionally supported action to help the world's poor and, more recently, to protect the environment, but do not advocate population-based strategies to achieve those goals. Instead, they contend, policies should focus on improving the lives of the poor and reducing consumption in wealthy nations.

“The global climate change debate cannot become just another opportunity for some groups — usually affluent advocates from the developed nations — to blame the problem on population growth in poor countries,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops stated in 2001. “Development policies that seek to reduce poverty with an emphasis on improved education and social conditions for women are far more effective than usual population reduction programs and far more respectful of women's dignity.”43

In practice, however, surveys show that most Catholics in developed countries and many in developing nations support the use of birth control.44

Critics argue that Catholic leaders and aid organizations that operate in developing countries retard progress toward reproductive health goals, such as providing wider access to contraception. “The Catholic hierarchy has lost the battle [on contraception] in the global North, but they are controlling it in the global South,” says Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., that advocates for Catholics who support personal choice on sex and reproductive health issues.

For example, in Kenya, which is about one-quarter Catholic, Catholic leaders have urged women to boycott a tetanus vaccination campaign sponsored by the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) because Kenyan bishops assert that the vaccine contains a hormone that suppresses fertility and is actually intended to sterilize women. The WHO, UNICEF and Kenya's health ministry all say the vaccine is safe, but the Kenyan parliament has asked for more testing in response to the bishops' claims.45

But O'Brien sees steps such as the Philippines' reproductive health law and Uruguay's passage of a 2012 law legalizing first-trimester abortions as signs that the Catholic Church's influence is starting to erode.46 “Those were real steps forward to democracy and reproductive health, and they may inspire other politicians to legislate for the common good,” he says.

Many other faith-based organizations also help deliver family planning and reproductive health services around the world. While some groups oppose abortion or specific contraceptive methods, most generally support the importance of access to a range of family planning options.

The United Methodist Church, for instance, states that family planning provides “priceless and countless” direct and indirect benefits, including smaller families, healthier mothers and children and reduced economic burdens on families.47

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*The Catholic Church defines all birth control methods as artificial except for the so-called rhythm method, or abstaining from sex when a woman is ovulating and likely to conceive.

*Marker-assisted breeding is a combination of traditional genetics and molecular biology. Scientists use molecular “markers” to find genes that are associated with a desired trait, such as heat resistance. Then they introduce that trait into new plant strains through selective breeding.


Malthus' Warning

In pre-industrial societies, survival — rather than rapid population growth — was a pressing concern. Families typically had large numbers of children, but many people died of infectious diseases such as cholera and measles.

It took more than 200,000 years for the world's human population to reach 1 billion, in 1804. At that time the Industrial Revolution was just beginning in England and spreading to the United States. New tools and techniques enabled farmers to produce larger quantities of food, while steam power made it possible to mass-produce textiles, machinery and many other goods.

English cleric Thomas Malthus viewed the growth that he saw in the early years of industrialization with alarm. In 1798 Malthus published his famous “Essay on the Principle of Population,” in which he argued that human population growth would increase faster than food supplies and other essential resources, leading to “misery and vice,” such as war, famine and disease.48

In the early 19th century, however, the idea that humans could ever become numerous enough to deplete Earth's resources would have seemed far-fetched. Thousands of people who moved from farms to cities found themselves living in overcrowded, squalid urban slums. But starting in the 1840s, public health movements in Europe and the United States began to address urban conditions, providing clean water, collecting garbage and eventually adopting regulations to reduce overcrowding in tenements. Over the next century, urban life gradually became healthier.

Life expectancy improved further as scientists developed the germ theory of disease. Before the 1860s little was known about what caused many kinds of sickness. Epidemics were attributed to many factors, including bad air, filth and personal sins. Cholera, a disease caused by contaminated water, killed thousands of people in London and New York between 1830 and 1860.49

In the 1860s French scientist Louis Pasteur showed that micro-organisms, which could be killed by heating, caused many kinds of food and drink to spoil. The heating process was named pasteurization in his honor.

Then, in 1876 German physician Robert Koch demonstrated that a certain bacterium caused a disease called anthrax in animals. Koch identified the bacterium that caused cholera in 1883. Other scientists used his methods to culture and identify agents that caused typhus, tetanus and plague, and later to develop antibiotics and vaccines against common infectious diseases.50

Growth in Developing Countries

Disease outbreaks continued to occur worldwide. One of the worst, a global flu pandemic in 1918–1919, killed an estimated 20 to 40 million people worldwide.51 But by the 1940s, immunization, safer food-handling, better sanitation and clean drinking water had greatly reduced epidemics and early deaths in industrialized countries. The 1928 discovery of penicillin, one of the first antibiotics, which could kill many harmful bacteria, was also a critical development.52

However, in much of Africa and Asia — continents that had been colonized by European powers in the 19th century and exploited for labor and natural resources — most people were desperately poor and lived in pre-industrial conditions.

After World War II Britain, France, Belgium and other colonial powers withdrew from their overseas empires. Dozens of countries in Asia, Africa and the Pacific gained independence. Leaders at the United Nations, created in 1945 to promote international cooperation, sought to help these nations develop and raise their people out of poverty. In 1946 the U.N. created a Population Commission to carry out demographic studies and advise the organization on population policy.

Buoyed by a global postwar economic boom, incomes in many developing countries rose over the next several decades. U.N. agencies, the World Bank and other multilateral development institutions and programs such as the U.S. Peace Corps spent millions of dollars to reduce poverty, hunger and disease worldwide. World population, which had doubled from 1 billion to 2 billion between 1804 and 1927, took only 33 years to add a third billion (1960) and 14 years to add a fourth billion (1974).

Although this rapid growth meant that fewer people were dying young, many experts worried that population would outstrip food supplies. In 1960 the Ford and Rockefeller foundations partnered with the Philippine government to found the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), an independent organization charged with developing higher-yielding strains of rice and new farming techniques. IRRI and other centers formed a network called the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which spearheaded the Green Revolution — a campaign to develop strains of rice, wheat and corn that were high yielding, responsive to fertilizer and disease-resistant.

The initiatives, led by American biologist Norman Borlaug, increased yields of staple cereals in developing countries fourfold in the 1960s and '70s.53

But environmentalists warned that these new methods only worked when farmers used large quantities of water, synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides, which many farmers in poor areas could not afford.54 And some scholars asserted that despite these tools, large-scale population growth would quickly exhaust Earth's resources, leading to catastrophe.

“In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now,” Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich predicted in his 1968 best-seller The Population Bomb. Ehrlich argued that the United States should lead by controlling its own population, “hopefully through changes in our value system, but by compulsion if voluntary methods fail.”55

The book made Ehrlich a media star, but many critics — including conservative politicians and economists, as well as some liberal scientists and advocates — argued that Ehrlich's predictions were exaggerated and alarmist. and did not sufficiently address social justice for the world's poor.56

In 1972 the Club of Rome, an international think tank, published another warning called The Limits to Growth, which used computer modeling to project how human activities would affect world resources. It concluded that if population growth and consumption continued on existing paths, a global economic collapse and millions of deaths could occur by 2030.57

Liberals embraced these predictions, but some prominent economists argued that societies would regulate pollution, and technological advances would lead to discovery of new resources.58 They also criticized the Club of Rome's models. MIT economist Robert Solow, who later would win the Nobel Prize in economics, called them “worthless as science and as guides to public policy,” arguing that they ignored normal ways in which markets responded to scarcity.59

Abortion Controversies

Although development experts viewed slowing population growth as a crucial step to reduce poverty, some powerful critics disagreed. In 1968 Pope Paul VI issued an encyclical that maintained the Catholic Church's ban on all forms of birth control short of abstention. A papal review commission had recommended lifting the ban, but the pope overrode the commission, fearing that changing direction would undermine the church's authority.60

Governments could help solve the population problem, the pope asserted, by “enacting laws which will assist families and by educating the people wisely.”61

U.S. population policy became sharply politicized in 1980 with the election of President Ronald Reagan, who strongly opposed abortion. In 1984 Reagan announced a new policy at an international population conference in Mexico City. It required all foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that received funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which manages anti-poverty and development efforts abroad, to certify that they would not perform, support or actively promote abortion in other countries — even if it was legal there and the groups used non-U.S. funds to pay for abortion-related activities. Congress in 1973 had already barred use of U.S. foreign aid funds to pay for abortions or coerce people into having abortions.62

Family planning advocates dubbed this policy the “Global Gag Rule” because organizations that received U.S. aid could not even talk about abortion. They argued that it was harmful because it cut aid to hospitals and clinics in developing countries that performed other important services, such as providing contraceptives and educating people about HIV/AIDS.63

The Cat Survival Trust (Getty Images/Barcroft Media/Mark Clifford)
The Cat Survival Trust in Welwyn, England, shelters more than two dozen threatened cats, including puma, lynx, Scottish wildcats and this snow leopard. The World Wildlife Fund estimated in 2014 that the number of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish on Earth declined by more than 50 percent between 1970 and 2010 due to the effects of human activities, such as land degradation, overfishing, overharvesting and climate change. (Getty Images/Barcroft Media/Mark Clifford)

For example, when Nepal's government decided to legalize abortion under certain conditions in 2002, the Family Planning Association of Nepal — which had received U.S. aid for nearly 30 years — had to refuse further U.S. funding so it could inform Nepalese women about abortion. “Whatever we decide, the women of Nepal suffer,” the group's director, Dr. Nirmal K. Bista, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2001. “Our colleagues all over the world face this same agonizing decision.”64

U.S. officials also sparred over the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), which some critics accused of supporting forced abortions in China as part of its programs there. China introduced a one-child limit per family in 1979 to reduce social and environmental pressures from rapid population growth. Reports soon emerged that some women in rural areas who refused to comply had been forced to have abortions or sterilizations.65

In 1985 Congress adopted the Kemp-Kasten Amendment, named after its sponsors Rep. Jack Kemp, R-N.Y., and Sen. Sen. Robert Kasten, R-Wis., which barred U.S. funding for any organizations that supported coercive family planning.66 Between 1985 and 2008 the United States determined 15 times that UNFPA was violating this restriction and withheld U.S. contributions, which had averaged nearly $35 million yearly between 1981 and 1985.67 All of these determinations occurred under Republican administrations except one in 1999 under Democratic President Bill Clinton (1993–2001). In that year, Congress denied the administration's funding request for UNFPA after the agency renewed programs that it had suspended in regions where coercive policies were alleged.68

During this time investigations by two NGOs and the U.S. State Department concluded that UNFPA was not supporting forced abortions or coercive family planning policies in China.69 But a 2001 investigation by the Virginia-based Population Research Institute — a nonprofit that works to “expose the myth of overpopulation” — concluded that UNFPA funds were supporting coercive practices in the county visited by the report's authors.70

Presidents Clinton and Barack Obama (2008-current) both waived the Mexico City Policy and determined that UNFPA activities in China did not violate Kemp-Kasten, while stating concerns about coercive population control in China. “These excessively broad conditions … have undermined efforts to promote safe and effective voluntary family planning programs in foreign nations,” Obama wrote in a memo waiving the Mexico City Policy.71

New Commitments

As abortion controversies roiled U.S. population policy, international thinking about population and development took a much broader turn. In 1994, delegates from 179 countries met at a conference in Cairo, Egypt, and endorsed an action plan that focused on improving health and expanding rights for people in developing countries, especially women, as a strategy for reducing population growth.

The Cairo action plan set five major goals to be achieved by 2015:

  • Provide universal access to a full range of safe and reliable family planning methods and services;

  • Reduce infant mortality rates to fewer than 35 infant deaths per 1,000 live births and child mortality to fewer than 45 deaths of children under age 5 per 1,000 live births;

  • Close the gap in maternal mortality between developed and developing countries;

  • Increase life expectancy at birth to 70 years or more; and

  • Achieve universal primary education and increase secondary and higher education for women and girls.72

These targets helped pave the way for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of targets for reducing poverty worldwide, adopted at the United Nations in 2000.73 The MDGs also addressed education, gender equality, child mortality and maternal health, along with other issues including poverty and environmental sustainability.

Over the following decade developing countries made significant progress toward these goals. But many women in the world's poorest nations still had trouble obtaining access to contraceptives and information about family planning. In 2012 the U.K. government and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation convened an international summit in London, where wealthy governments and NGOs vowed to provide access to these services for an additional 120 million women worldwide by 2020, a plan that would cost $4.3 billion.74

At the conference, participating governments, NGOs, foundations, research institutions and private organizations pledged $2.6 billion toward this goal. In 2013 (the most recent year for which data was available), donor governments alone provided $1.3 billion to support family planning in low-and middle-income countries — up nearly 20 percent over 2012.75

Advocates at the conference stressed what they saw as a need to offer many types of contraceptives and deliver them to hard-to-reach areas. “When you think about family planning from the perspective of the women who want to use it, everything changes,” said Melinda Gates, who announced that the Gates Foundation would double its investment in family planning to a total of more than $1 billion between 2012 and 2020.76

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Current Situation

Aging Populations

When wealthy industrialized nations think about population issues, they often worry that they are growing too slowly. In the United States, Canada, Europe, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, couples today have two or fewer children on average. As a result, their populations will only grow if they admit large numbers of immigrants. Another worrisome factor is the rising average age in these countries.77

Some observers worry that population aging will have negative social effects. In “graying” nations a relatively small number of workers must generate enough wealth to pay for health care, housing and other costs for a large number of older citizens. In Japan, where women average 1.4 children each, local governments are already struggling to provide services for older citizens.

Many of those elderly residents live in rural areas, often continuing to farm well into their later years. “In the countryside … more and more elderly people will be unable to drive, making it difficult for them to buy food and other essentials or to receive medical care,” The Japan Times commented in 2013.78 The paper suggested moving elderly people closer to social services and providing incentives to attract more women and young people into the labor force to generate tax revenues to help pay for those services.

China is grappling with similar issues, on a much larger scale. The nation's one-child policy has produced a severe imbalance between workers and retirees. By 2040 more than one-fourth of China's population will be 65 or older.79 And China is not as wealthy as countries like Japan or Norway, which have generous social programs for elderly citizens. China formally eased the one-child policy in 2013, but this step did not produce a quick baby boom, perhaps because many young Chinese adults are already struggling to care for aging parents.80

“Those who can't rely on their family to provide care may be dismayed to discover the appalling social provisions for the elderly,” Chinese journalist Lijia Zhang wrote after putting her 86-year-old father into hospice care. Such facilities, according to Zhang, can only accommodate about 1.6 percent of China's elderly. “An all-out war is needed. The government should build more affordable old people's homes; communities should build leisure centers and other facilities for the elderly and train community nurses to provide basic medical care.”81

But some experts also see social benefits from aging populations. “Elderly people tend to generate fewer carbon emissions from activities like driving than younger people, so aging societies are greener,” says Emilio Zagheni, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Washington.

Moreover, Zagheni notes, people are becoming healthier in general, and are not needing major medical care until later in life. “That means they can be productive members of the labor force for a longer period,” he says.

Leahy Madsen of Futures Group concurs. “Alarmism about aging in developed countries has been a bit overblown,” she says. “Aging countries generally have well-educated and wealthier populations. It's a fallacy to think that someone becomes a dependent overnight at 65.”

Population aging can also stimulate the economy if older citizens have saved money in bank accounts and stocks for retirement. These funds act as investments that drive economic growth. “And researchers have found that older adults are just as likely to support their grown children as to be a financial burden on them,” says Leahy Madsen. “Overall, it's much better to be an aging society than a fast-growing young society.”

U.S. Politics

With Republican now controlling both houses of Congress, sparring between Congress and the Obama administration over population issues may increase.

Early in his first term, Obama waived the Mexico City Policy and authorized U.S. contributions to the U.N. Population Fund. Anti-abortion politicians oppose both positions.

Last year the House approved a funding bill for foreign operations that reinstated the Mexico City Policy and denied funding to UNFPA.82 The Senate Appropriations Committee then approved an amendment, sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., that would have repealed the policy permanently.83 But the 2015 omnibus bill funding most federal programs, including foreign operations, eventually was approved without changing either policy.84

Family planning advocates say U.S. leadership on population issues is critical. “The United States is the largest single donor to family planning and reproductive health efforts, so it has a big role in setting agendas and framing issues,” says Jen Kates, director of global health and HIV policy for the Kaiser Family Foundation, which conducts research and analysis on health issues.

For 2015 Congress approved $610 million for global family planning and reproductive health issues, including $35 million for UNFPA — the same levels as 2014.85 In recent years the United States has provided about one-third of total world funding for these programs. Other major donors include the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Sweden and Canada.86

Restoring abortion-related limits on U.S. family planning aid would be harmful, Kates contends. “The United States has more-restrictive policies than other donor governments,” she says. “Other donors have to adjust to meet gaps that the United States does not fund and respond to fluctuations in U.S. funding levels.”

Legislators who support abortion-related restrictions on foreign aid typically argue that U.S. policy should promote the inherent rights of everyone, including those of unborn children. Many focus on countries such as India and China where forced abortions and sterilizations are alleged to occur. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has held multiple hearings on forced abortions abroad.

Chairing a 2013 hearing on “India's Missing Girls” (referring to female fetuses that are aborted because of a cultural preference for male children), Smith said, “By shining a light on what is happening in India, with its missing girls, we hope to move forward towards a world where every woman is valued and deeply respected because of her intrinsic dignity and where every child is welcome regardless of his or her sex.”87

O'Brien of Catholics for Choice does not expect major shifts in U.S. family planning aid immediately but predicts that it will be an issue in the 2016 presidential election. O'Brien also expects the Supreme Court's 2014 Hobby Lobby ruling to influence U.S. foreign policy in this area.88

“The default position will be to increase funding for religious groups that discriminate,” he predicts.

Beyond the MDGs

U.N. leaders and global development experts are finalizing new targets to succeed the 2000 Millennium Development Goals. The General Assembly will debate post-2015 goals this year and is expected to adopt a new set at a high-level summit in New York in September.

Sexual and reproductive health and rights were omitted from the original version of the Millennium Development Goals in 2000, although a target on increasing access to reproductive health was added in 2007, after several years of NGO lobbying.89 Now advocates focusing on these issues say the MDGs have produced mixed results.

“Maternal mortality has been cut roughly in half since 2000, with big variations from country to country,” says Françoise Girard, president of the New York-based International Women's Health Coalition, which works to protect women's and girls' reproductive health and rights in developing countries. “Girls' enrollment in primary schools has increased, but we don't know whether they actually stay in school or how much they learn. Women's political participation has increased significantly in countries that have set quotas.”

Last month the U.N. published a special report that draws on consultations with numerous governments, NGOs and advocates for family planning and women's rights about post-2015 priorities.90 The report emphasizes the need to protect human rights, including reproductive health and rights. It also calls for “zero tolerance of violence against or exploitation of women and girls,” and for ending child, early and forced marriages.91

Expanding women's rights and opportunities beyond 2015 will help slow population growth, experts say. “Improving education, especially for girls, is a basic goal that all countries should be focusing on,” says U.N. demographer Gerland. “Delaying marriage is a second goal that would complement improved education. All women should have a choice about when to marry. And they also should have a choice about when to have children and how many to have. The more those three conditions are met, the more progress we can expect toward moderating world population growth.”

Comprehensive sex education should also be included on the post-2015 agenda, Girard says. The proposed post-2015 agenda includes a goal of ensuring “universal access to sexual and reproductive health care services” including information and education.92

The Holy See and nations including Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Chad, Ghana, Honduras, Libya and Yemen have objected to this provision, which they view as undercutting national laws against abortion or Sharia (Islamic law) or parents' rights and religious freedoms. For example, negotiators for Honduras stated that references to concepts such as sexual health and reproductive rights did not “include or contemplate abortion or termination of pregnancy, nor accept them as a way for controlling fertility or regulating population.”93

However, Girard argues that sex education is a key tool for promoting girls' equality and protecting their health. “We have a huge cohort of young people in the world, today, but we are doing very little to teach them about their bodies, or about how girls can control their bodies and avoid unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases,” she says. “That whole area is key and has not been addressed.”

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Bending the Curve

Although population growth rates remain high in many developing nations, experts say that scenarios of nearly 11 billion or more people on Earth are not inevitable.

“There are many possible futures,” says the U.N.'s Gerland. “Extremely rapid change has occurred in countries like Bangladesh and Iran over one generation. But that kind of progress requires support from national leaders and local leaders, and also from societies.”

Iran reduced national fertility rates from 5.6 births per woman in 1985 to 2.0 in 2000 by providing free family planning services and contraceptives to married couples and encouraging couples to have small families.94 Last year, however, it banned abortions, vasectomies and other forms of permanent sterilization after supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called on couples to have more children.95

“National leaders in many sub-Saharan African countries need to perceive that population growth is a problem,” says Haub of the Population Reference Bureau. “A lot of them still don't see it that way. Ghana, Kenya and Rwanda are leaders, but their total fertility rates are still at around four children per family, and other countries aren't doing as well.”

Haub cites India, which is expected to surpass China as the world's most populous country by about 2030, as another key test case. India's total fertility rate is 2.4, but that number masks wide gaps between its wealthiest and poorest states. “State governments in India are very independent and have multiple political parties seeking power,” says Haub. “There is also widespread corruption and graft, which is a general drag on government's ability to get things done, such as delivering supplies to medical clinics.”

Wealthy nations also have important roles to play — for example, by following through on their commitments at the 2012 London Family Planning Summit, says Kates of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The summit's $2.6 billion funding target “has tremendous health implications for women and girls,” she says. “It will be very important to see whether [donor] commitments keep rising and we reach the goal.”

Girard of the International Women's Health Coalition sees support for women's rights as another important way to moderate population growth. “Strong, autonomous women's movements in developing countries are key to progress on women's rights, equality and health,” she says. “The underlying issue is how girls' lives are valued — whether they are fed and educated equally and given the opportunities for equal lives.”

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Should the Mexico City Policy be reinstated?


U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J.
Written for CQ Researcher, January 2015

Someday future generations of Americans will look back and wonder why such a rich and seemingly enlightened society, so blessed and endowed with the capacity to protect and enhance human life, could have instead so aggressively promoted death to children by abortion both here and overseas.

Abortion is violence against children and women. It is extreme child abuse.

Because we have a duty to protect the weakest and most vulnerable, the Mexico City Policy should be reinstated. First announced by the Reagan administration at a 1984 U.N. Population Conference in Mexico City, the policy simply requires that foreign nongovernmental organizations agree, as a condition of their receipt of U.S. federal grant money for family-planning activities, to neither perform nor actively promote abortion as a method of family planning. The three exceptions are cases of rape, incest and when the life of the mother is in jeopardy. The policy does not reduce funding for family planning.

Today, American population-control funding has become a vehicle for exporting the violence of abortion abroad. The United States annually provides hundreds of millions of dollars to radically pro-abortion organizations committed to undermining pro-life cultures around the world. The most recent government funding bill appropriates not less than $575 million for so-called population control.

Pro-abortion groups that refuse to comply with the Mexico City Policy do so because they are so ideologically wed to abortion that they insist on promoting and performing the killing of unborn children rather than accepting U.S. aid.

As humanitarians and as policymakers, we must affirm, care for and tangibly assist both women and unborn children. We must increase access to maternal and prenatal care, especially nutrition during the first 1,000 days of life — from conception to the second birthday.

Best practices to radically reduce maternal mortality must be life affirming — protecting both the mother and the child in the womb. We have known for more than 60 years what actually saves women's lives: skilled birth attendants, treatment to stop hemorrhages, access to safe blood, emergency obstetric care, antibiotics, repair of fistulas, adequate nutrition and pre- and post-natal care.

Expanding these measures will reduce deaths and injury to both mothers and children. No one is expendable. No one's life is cheap. The humane way forward is to reinstate the Mexico City Policy and provide foreign aid that respects and assists both women and their unborn children.


U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y.
Written for CQ Researcher, January 2015

Freedom of speech is one of our most sacred tenets, and we enthusiastically promote it in foreign countries to advance the cause of democracy. The Mexico City Policy, however, runs contrary to this founding principle.

By forcing health providers to choose between receiving U.S. funding or providing comprehensive health care to their patients, the policy muzzles free speech, limits civil society's participation in government and interferes with the doctor-patient relationship. The deafening silence caused by this ill-conceived measure lends a more appropriate name: the Global Gag Rule.

In short, the Global Gag Rule severely weakens the effectiveness of U.S. foreign-assistance funding by limiting our ability to partner with capable organizations. Service providers have reported that the cycle of stopping and later restoring their U.S. funding leaves clinics, patients, doctors and whole communities uncertain about how best to plan for future initiatives and serve women in need.

Instead, we should make it easier — not harder — to equip communities abroad with the tools necessary to achieve a better life in their society.

There is no evidence that the Global Gag Rule has reduced the incidence of abortion globally. In fact, studies show the incidence of abortion decreases when women have increased access to family planning services and supplies, such as contraceptives.

The status of women is a good indicator of a country's overall social and economic health, and I have traveled the globe and seen this phenomenon firsthand. Women in every corner of the world deserve full and consistent access to family planning and reproductive health services. This empowers them to make choices that enable healthier and more economically stable families.

That is why I reintroduced H.R. 2738, the Global Democracy Promotion Act, to permanently repeal the Global Gag Rule. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) would never again have to choose between free speech or U.S. assistance, nor would NGOs be barred from U.S.-supported programs abroad solely because they provide legal health services — including counseling services — with their own, non-U.S. funds. This legislation would not impact in any way the longstanding restrictions that prohibit U.S. funding from being used to pay for abortion services overseas.

It is simply bad policy for the United States to stifle free speech and prevent NGOs from empowering women, strengthening communities and enabling prosperity abroad. Let us end this debate once and for all by finally, and permanently, repealing the Global Gag Rule.

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1798–1928Industrialization boosts world population, and public health movements reduce deaths from diseases.
1798English cleric Thomas Malthus' An Essay on the Principle of Population warns about unlimited population growth.
1804World population reaches 1 billion.
1848England's Parliament passes the world's first modern, proactive, public-health law.
1876German doctor Robert Koch demonstrates that Bacillus anthracis causes anthrax. Using Koch's methods, other scientists isolate bacteria that cause such diseases as typhus and plague.
1928Alexander Fleming, a professor of bacteriology in London, discovers penicillin.
1946–1980Conservationists warn that population growth in developing countries could lead to famine.
1946United Nations creates Population Commission to research demographics and advise the U.N. on population trends and policies.
1960International Rice Research Institute created to improve food yields in developing nations.
1968Pope Paul VI issues an encyclical affirming the church's ban on all artificial birth control methods.
1972The Club of Rome, an international think tank, publishes “The Limits to Growth,” which projects that unregulated growth could lead to global economic collapse.
1973Congress adopts the Helms Amendment, barring use of U.S. foreign aid for abortions.
1979China announces a one-child-per-family policy to limit population.
1984–2000World leaders debate connections between population growth and development.
1984President Ronald Reagan announces the Mexico City Policy, barring federal funding for nongovernment organizations that provide or advise on abortion.
1993President Bill Clinton waives the Mexico City Policy, stating that it undermines efforts to promote safe and effective family planning in developing countries.
1994At an international conference in Cairo, Egypt, 179 countries adopt a 20-year action plan focusing on empowering women and meeting educational and health needs.
2000At the United Nations, 189 nations endorse the Millennium Development Goals, a blueprint for ending poverty by 2015 that promotes gender equality, empowering women and improving maternal health.
2001-PresentGlobal population growth rate moderates, but total continues to climb.
2001President George W. Bush reinstates the Mexico City Policy and expands it to other programs.
2003Bush commits $15 billion over five years to fight the global HIV/AIDS pandemic, averting an estimated 1.1 million deaths in Africa.
2008President Barack Obama waives Mexico City Policy.
2009Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich and his wife Anne reassert the central warning of his 1968 book, The Population Bomb, focusing on HIV/AIDS, rising food prices and disruption of agriculture due to climate change.
2011World population reaches 7 billion.
2012U.N. Population Division asserts that family planning is a human right.
2013China eases one-child policy.
2014U.N. demographers predict world population will reach 10.9 billion by 2100.

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Short Features

“People in high-income countries have a much better chance of living longer.”

Imagine that two babies are born on the same day — one in the tiny Mediterranean country of Monaco, bordering France, the other in the impoverished, desert nation of Chad in north-central Africa. The baby in Monaco can expect to live to nearly 90; the Chad baby, a bit beyond age 49.1

Life expectancy is the statistical average number of years a person can be expected to live, based on assumptions about death rates in a given time and place. It reflects how wealthy a population is and whether people have access to health care and basic services such as sanitation and clean water.

Many nations with long life expectancies are in Western Europe, Asia and North America. Compared with other areas of the globe, they have high income levels and strong social welfare programs ensuring at least basic services for most of their citizens.

Globally, life expectancy at birth is trending upward as nations develop their physical and social infrastructures and health conditions improve. Worldwide, a baby born in 1970 could be expected to live to about age 58; by 2013 that had risen to 71.2

But those averages mask many gaps. Women outlive men worldwide, typically by five or six years in developed countries and smaller margins in developing countries where maternal mortality is high. No one has definitively explained why women outlive men. Some experts believe women have inherent biological advantages, while others say men are more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors such as smoking and drinking.3

A nurse cares for an elderly woman (AFP/Getty Images/Toru Yamanaka)
A nurse from Indonesia cares for an elderly woman at a nursing home in Tokyo. In graying nations like Japan, foreigners are needed to make up for the shortage of younger workers. (AFP/Getty Images/Toru Yamanaka)

Even larger gaps in life expectancy exist among nations. From 1970 through 2013 life expectancy at birth rose from 71 to 79 in the world's most developed countries. In the least developed nations it rose from 44 to 61.4 “There is still a major rich-poor divide: People in high-income countries continue to have a much better chance of living longer than people in low-income countries,” said Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization.5

Gaps also exist within countries. In the United States, whites live about four years longer than African-Americans. Paradoxically, Hispanics live two to three years longer than whites, although their income and education levels average closer to those of blacks. Demographers believe low smoking rates, strong social networks and traditional diets may explain Hispanics' advantage.6

Differences even exist at the local level. Life expectancy in affluent St. Johns County in northeastern Florida is nearly 83 for women and 78 for men. But next door in less wealthy Putnam County, life expectancy is 78 for women and 71 for men. “It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure this out,” said Jeff Feller, chief executive of the WellFlorida Council, a regional nonprofit group that manages health programs in 16 Florida counties. “This [gap] is fueled by poor economics and a lack of access to health insurance and health coverage.”7

Pandemics, wars and political upheaval can dramatically affect life expectancy. In Russia, death rates increased from the 1960s through the 1980s, bucking global trends, because the bureaucratic Soviet health care system failed to meet public needs.8 Death rates spiked after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 and Russia plunged into an economic crisis. Already-steep alcohol abuse and smoking rates rose, and many Russians were unable to afford health care. Life expectancy for Russian men fell from 63 in 1990 to 58 in 2000.9 Although it improved over the next decade, it still is significantly lower than in many neighboring countries. A Russian male born in 2013 can expect to live to age 65, compared to 71 in Bulgaria and Hungary and 73 in Poland.10

In South Africa, the HIV/AIDS pandemic reduced life expectancy in the early 2000s by an estimated 26 years.11 The disease's effects were especially severe because President Thabo Mbeki (1999–2008) endorsed a widely discredited theory that HIV/AIDS is caused by poverty rather than a virus. Mbeki's government first rejected and later limited distribution of antiretroviral (ARV) drugs — a policy that Harvard University researchers estimated led to 330,000 deaths.12

After Mbeki left office, South Africa reversed its stance and developed the world's largest ARV program, with more than $3 billion in U.S. support from the President's Emergency Plan for AIDs Relief (PEPFAR), launched by President George W. Bush in 2003. Between 2008 and 2014, life expectancy in South Africa increased by nine years, from 52.2 to 61.2 years. (This life expectancy estimate is from the South African government and is markedly higher than the CIA estimate on p. 56.)13

Now, however, that progress could erode, as PEPFAR aid is redirected to poorer countries. But South Africa's health minister, Aaron Motsoaledi, predicted that his nation would remain committed to fighting HIV/AIDS. “From whatever angle you look at, it's cheaper to treat people early,” he said. “The treasury minister understands that. It's becoming easy for him to agree.”14

— Jennifer Weeks

[1] “Country Comparison: Life Expectancy at Birth,” World Factbook (2014), U.S. Central Intelligence Agency,

[2] “2014 World Population Data Sheet,” Population Reference Bureau, p. 13,

[3] See Christopher Middleton, “Why Do Women Live Longer Than Men?” Newsweek, Aug. 1, 2014,, and Hallie Levine, “Five Reasons Women Live Longer Than Men,” Health, Oct. 13, 2014,

[4] “2014 World Population Data Sheet,” op. cit.

[5] “Life Expectancy Rising, But UN Report Shows ‘Major’ Rich-Poor Longevity Divide Persists,” United Nations News Centre, May 15, 2014,

[6] Paola Scommegna, “Exploring the Paradox of U.S. Hispanics' Longer Life Expectancy,” Population Reference Bureau, July 2013,

[7] Michael A. Fletcher, “Research Ties Economic Inequality to Gap in Life Expectancy,” The Washington Post, March 10, 2013,

[8] Julie DaVanzo and David Adamson, “Russia's Demographic ‘Crisis’: How Real Is It?” RAND Issue Paper 162 (1997),

[9] Eugen Tomiuc, “Low Life Expectancy Continues to Plague Former Soviet Countries,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, April 2, 2013,

[10] “2014 World Population Data Sheet,” op. cit.

[11] Chuks J. Mba, “Impact of HIV/AIDs Mortality on South Africa's Life Expectancy and Implications for the Elderly Population,” African Journal of Health Sciences, vol. 14, no. 3-4 (July-December 2007), p. 201,

[12] Sarah Bosely, “Mbeki AIDS Policy ‘Led To 330,000 Deaths,’” The Guardian, Nov. 26, 2008,

[13] “HIV Drugs ‘Boost South African Life Expectancy,’” BBC News, Aug. 1, 2014,; Donald G. McNeil, “AIDS Progress in South Africa Is in Peril,” The New York Times, Aug. 25, 2014,

[14] Ibid., The New York Times.

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High population growth can impede economic progress, experts say.

As nations develop, their living conditions improve, death rates fall and many people who once may have depended on their children's help for survival realize they no longer need a large family. Birth rates eventually decline and the population stabilizes.

That process, typical of industrializing countries, is known as the “demographic transition,” and nations go through it it at different speeds. “A lot depends on whether national governments make population reductions a goal or pay no attention to the issue,” says Carl Haub, a senior demographer at the nonprofit Population Reference Bureau in Washington, which carries out research and public education on population issues.

Since the 1960s many developing countries have completed this transition within several decades. For example, between 1970 and 2013 Vietnam, Iran, Bangladesh, Qatar, El Salvador and Mexico all reduced total fertility rates from more than six children per woman to 2.2 or fewer.15 Many experts say reducing fertility rates is crucial for developing countries because money spent on housing, medical care and schools could instead be used to promote economic growth, such as by building factories, roads and ports and developing industries.

But today that transition has slowed or even stalled in many African nations. While most countries in northern and southern Africa have reduced fertility levels to 3.5 children or fewer, others in western, eastern and central Africa still average six children or more per woman. In Niger, South Sudan, Chad, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo — the continent's least developed nations — fertility rates increased between 1970 and 2013. Women in Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, still average 5.6 children each.16

“Sub-Saharan Africa is still following the classic demographic transition model, but it's taking a lot longer than other developing countries,” says Haub. “One problem is that many African women still don't have a lot of say in their households. Their authority is quite a bit weaker than in other countries.” Studies show that in societies where gender inequality and violence are prevalent, women have less access to birth control and control over their reproductive choices.

Women's attitudes also can reinforce high fertility rates. “Unless your country has basic social services that guarantee your security in old age, you have very little incentive to limit how many children you have,” says Françoise Girard, president of the New York-based International Women's Health Coalition, a nonprofit that works to advance reproductive health and rights for women and girls in developing countries.

“And if women don't believe they have other options,” Girard continues, “they don't see a role for themselves outside the home. Many families in Africa still invest in boys and keep girls at home because they don't see girls as worth the investment. Twelve-year-old girls in Africa can see what's coming, and it's crushing to hear them dread their future.”

But that situation is changing in many places, Girard emphasizes. As an example she points to her organization's affiliate in Nigeria, Action Health Inc.17 “They have mentored tens of thousands of girls to think of themselves as full participants in society, stay in school, fight back against harassment and violence and aspire to be leaders,” Girard says. “AHI also proposed a sexuality education program that was rolled out in all of Nigeria's public schools this year. They are reaching millions of Nigerian teenagers and teaching them what girls can hope for and how boys should relate to them.”

Elizabeth Leahy Madsen, a senior technical adviser with the Washington, D.C., consulting firm Futures Group, emphasizes that conditions vary widely across sub-Saharan Africa. “There is runaway population growth, but also some really bright signs,” she says. “In the 1980s and 1990s the rate of decline in fertility in Kenya was stalled, but new data show that contraceptive use there rose from 39 percent to 55 percent in just six years, which is a real success.”

As a region, sub-Saharan Africa is making steady progress toward many of the Millennium Development Goals, a set of targets for reducing poverty worldwide adopted at the United Nations in 2000. The goals include expanding education and improving maternal and child health. But high population growth can impede progress. For example, net regional enrollment in primary schools rose from 60 percent in 2000 to 78 percent in 2012. But during that period the population of school-age children grew by 35 percent. Armed conflict and declining aid for basic education also helped to bar millions of African children from attending school.18

“Making progress on these issues involves more than just putting [contraceptive] products on the shelf or reducing their cost,” says Leahy Madsen. “We also need to tackle deep-seated gender and cultural barriers and difficult conditions.”

— Jennifer Weeks

[15] “2014 World Population Data Sheet,” Population Reference Bureau, pp. 8–10,

[16] Ibid., pp. 7–8.

[17] For more information see “Bring Back Our Girls,” Action Health Inc.,

[18] “Steady Progress on Many Millennium Development Goals Continues in Sub-Saharan Africa,” United Nations, July 7, 2014,

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Conway, Gordon , One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed the World? Cornell University Press, 2012. The former president of the Rockefeller Foundation, an expert on global food needs, sets out an agenda for feeding a growing world population sustainably.

Sabin, Paul , The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble Over Earth's Future , Yale University Press, 2013. A Yale University history professor describes biologist Paul Ehrlich's debate with economist Julian Simon about how humans affect Earth's resources and shows what each scholar got right and wrong.

Taylor, Paul , The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown , Public Affairs, 2014. Drawing on Pew Research Center data, the center's executive vice president explores the effects of racial, social and economic shifts occurring in the United States.

Weisman, Alan , Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? Little, Brown, 2013. An award-winning journalist travels to more than 20 countries to assess how many people the planet can support and what limits people are willing to accept.


“The Dividend Is Delayed,” The Economist, March 8, 2014, Fertility rates in many African countries are falling more slowly than many demographers expected, preventing those nations from catching up economically with more developed nations.

Burkitt, Laurie , “China's Changed One-Child Policy Doesn't Give Baby Boost,” The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 7, 2014, One year after China relaxed its one-child-per-family policy, slightly more than 800,000 couples have applied to have a second child, well short of the 2 million births officials had hoped would offset the nation's aging population.

Dimick, Dennis , “As World's Population Booms, Will Its Resources Be Enough for Us?” National, Sept. 20, 2014, Population growth is stressing Earth's resources, but over-consumption and waste are equally harmful, National Geographic's environment editor contends.

Gerland, Patrick, et al., “World Population Stabilization Unlikely This Century,” Science, Oct. 10, 2014, p. 234–237, Demographers from the United Nations and several universities project that the world's population is unlikely to stop growing in this century, contrary to earlier estimates, and is likely to rise to between 9.6 billion and 12.3 billion by 2100.

Keating, Joshua , “Did Russia Really Boost Its Birthrate by Promising New Mothers Prize Money and Refrigerators?” Slate, Oct. 13, 2014, Russia's population has been growing slowly since 2009, after years of contraction following the breakup of the Soviet Union. The main drivers are immigration and modest gains in life expectancy, not government incentives for couples to have more children.

Kluge, Fanny, et al., “The Advantages of Demographic Change after the Wave: Fewer and Older, but Healthier, Greener, and More Productive?” PLoS One, September 2014, Population aging in developed countries may have unexpected positive effects, including longer life expectancy and reduced stress on natural resources.

Reports and Studies

“Housing America's Older Adults: Meeting the Needs of an Aging Population,” Joint Center for Housing Studies, Harvard University, 2014, The number of Americans aged 50 or older is projected to grow 20 percent by 2030, to 132 million, but the United States does not have enough affordable and accessible housing to meet older adults' needs.

“The Millennium Development Goals Report 2014,” United Nations, The U.N.'s latest report on progress toward the Millennium Development Goals says that despite progress, more action is needed, especially on improving maternal health and reducing child mortality from preventable diseases.

Cordesman, Anthony H., Chloe Coughlin-Schulte and Nicholas S. Yarosh , “The Underlying Causes of the Crises and Upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa: An Analytic Survey,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 4th edition, Aug. 21, 2013, A Washington, D.C., think tank finds that rapid population growth is worsening economic and social pressures that threaten the stability of many Middle East and North African countries.

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The Next Step


Carrington, Damian , “Earth has lost half of its wildlife in the past 40 years, says WWF,” The Guardian (U.K.), Sept. 30, 2014, Unsustainable levels of human consumption have depleted Earth's animal population by roughly 50 percent since 1970, according to the World Wildlife Fund and Zoological Society of London.

Gillis, Justin , “Restored Forests Breathe Life Into Efforts Against Climate Change,” The New York Times, Dec. 23, 2014, Environmentalists say signs of slowing deforestation and regrowth of rainforests indicate that humans can still reverse the environmental damages from global population growth.

McGrath, Matt , “Population controls ‘will not solve environment issues,’” BBC, Oct. 27, 2014, Researchers determined that large-scale population-control measures have no effect on environmental threats caused by population growth within the next 100 years.

Family Planning

Kweifio-Okai, Carla , “Family planning drive reaches millions of women and girls,” The Guardian (U.K.), Nov. 3, 2014, According to Family Planning 2020, a nongovernmental organization that promotes birth control, 8.4 million additional women in developing countries received access to contraceptives in 2014.

Plautz, Jason , “The Climate-Change Solution No One Will Talk About,” The Atlantic, Nov. 1, 2014, Political tensions surrounding the subject of population control often prevent world leaders from discussing the climate change-related benefits of expanding family planning services.

Schlanger, Zoë, and Elijah Wolfson , “How to Defuse the Population Bomb,” Newsweek, Dec. 18, 2014, Experts say expanding family planning services and women's reproductive rights is crucial to controlling population growth in developing nations with rapidly growing populations, particularly in Africa.

Food Supply

Arsenault, Chris , “Back to the future: Scientists want ‘rewilded’ crops to boost agriculture,” Reuters, Dec. 16, 2014, Scientists have recommended using biotechnology to make food crops more resistant to drought, diseases and pests.

Koba, Mark , “World may not have enough food by 2050: Report,” CNBC, Oct. 15, 2014, A food policy think tank says demand for food will outpace production by 2050 without major increases in production.

Swain, Marian , “There Aren't Plenty of Fish in the Sea,” Slate, Dec. 5, 2014, The rising importance of aquaculture and genetic engineering for meeting global demand for fish poses new challenges for commercial fisheries.

Life Expectancy

Gautam, Naik , “Global Life Expectancy Increases by About Six Years,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 18, 2014, Improvements in health care have led to falling death rates for infectious diseases and fueled a six-year global increase in human life expectancy since 1990.

Friedman, Uri , “The End of the Age Pyramid,” The Atlantic, June 28, 2014, Demographic forecasts show that by 2030 the global percentage of people age 65 or older could outpace the share of people younger than 15, due largely to increasing life expectancy and declining birth rates.

York, Geoffrey , “Population boom: 40% of all humans will be African by end of century,” The Globe and Mail (Canada), Aug. 12, 2014, The United Nations projects that rising child survival rates and life expectancy will cause Africa's population to quadruple to about 4.2 billion by 2100 — nearly 40 percent of the projected world total.

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Catholics for Choice
1436 U St., N.W., Suite 301, Washington, DC 20009
Advocates for Catholics who support personal choice on sex and reproductive health issues.

Global Footprint Network
312 Clay St., Suite 300, Oakland, CA 94607
Measures the environmental effects of human behavior, based on consumption of natural resources.

Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation
2400 Sand Hill Rd., Menlo Park, CA 94025
Seeks to increase public understanding of national health issues and the U.S. role in global health policy.

International Women's Health Coalition
333 Seventh Ave., Sixth Floor, New York, NY 10001
Works to advance reproductive health and rights of women and young people in developing countries.

Population Reference Bureau
1875 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Suite 520, Washington DC 20009
Educates key audiences around the world about population, health and the environment.

United Nations Population Division
2 United Nations Plaza, Room DC2-1950, New York, NY 10017
Produces demographic estimates and projections for all countries and advises governments on population and development issues.

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
3211 Fourth St., N.E., Washington, DC 20017
An assembly of Catholic Church leaders in the United States.

World Wildlife Fund
1250 24th St., N.W., Washington, DC 20037
Network of international conservation groups in 100 countries.

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[1] “Philippine Top Court Approves Birth Control Law,” The National, April 8, 2014,; population and religion data from World Factbook, U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, 2014,

[2] The 1987 Constitution of the Republic of the Philippines, Article II, Section 12,

[3] Floyd Whaley, “Bill to Expand Birth Control Is Approved in Philippines,” The New York Times, Dec. 17, 2012,

[4] “Philippine Top Court Approves Birth Control Law,” op. cit.

[5] “Amid Population Explosion, Birth Control Access Roils Philippines,” PBS NewsHour, Aug. 24, 2014,

[6] World Factbook, op. cit.

[7] Patrick Gerland, et al., “World Population Stabilization Unlikely This Century,” Science, vol. 346, issue 6206, Oct. 10, 2014, pp. 234–237.

[8] “2014 World Population Data Sheet,” Population Reference Bureau, pp. 7–8,, using total fertility rates by region for 2013.

[9] “World Contraceptive Patterns 2013,” United Nations Population Division, 2013, These numbers include women in relationships in which men use contraceptives.

[10] Susheela Singh, Jacqueline E. Darroch and Lori S. Ashford, “Adding It Up: The Costs and Benefits of Investing in Sexual and Reproductive Health 2014,” Alan Guttmacher Institute, 2014,

[11] Henrik Urdal, “A Clash of Generations? Youth Bulges and Political Violence,” International Studies Quarterly, vol. 50, no. 3, September 2006, pp. 607–629.

[12] Anthony H. Cordesman, “The Causes of Stability and Unrest in the Middle East and North Africa: An Analytic Survey,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, Feb. 13, 2012, For background see Kenneth Jost, “Unrest in the Arab World,” CQ Researcher, Feb. 1, 2013, pp. 105–132.

[13] “Living Planet Report 2014,” World Wildlife Fund, 2014,

[14] “The U.S. Government and International Family Planning and Reproductive Health,” Kaiser Family Foundation, August 2014, p. 3,

[15] Gerland, et al., op. cit.; “World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision,” U.N. Population Division, 2013, vol. 1, p. xv,; “World Population Prospects: The 2014 Revision,” U.N. Population Division, 2011, vol. 1, p. xvi,

[16] Gerland, et al., op. cit.

[17] James Pethokoukis, “The End of Global Population Growth May Be Almost Here — and a Lot Sooner Than the UN Thinks,” AEIdeas (American Enterprise Institute), Sept. 13, 2013,

[18] James Saft, “Investing for Peak Population,” Reuters, Sept. 11, 2013,

[19] Wolfgang Lutz, et al., “9 Billion or 11 Billion? The Research Behind New Population Projections,” Nexus, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Sept. 23, 2014,

[20] For example, see remarks of IIASA World Population Program Director Wolfgang Lutz at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Oct. 23, 2014,

[21] Lutz, op. cit.

[22] Holdren is now President Obama's science adviser and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

[23] Paul Sabin, The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble Over Earth's Future (2013), pp. 96–99.

[24] Lara Hoffmans, “7 Billion Reasons Malthus Was Wrong,” Forbes, Oct. 31, 2011,

[25] “2050: A Third More Mouths to Feed,” U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, Sept. 23, 2009,

[26] Paul R. Ehrlich, The Population Bomb (1968), p. xi.

[27] Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich, “Can a Collapse of Global Civilization Be Avoided?” Proceedings B of the Royal Society, Jan. 9, 2013,

[28] “Earth Overshoot Day 2014,” Global Footprint Network, updated Sept. 4, 2014,

[29] For 2015 The World Bank classifies nations with a gross national income (GNI) of $1,045 or less as low-income, and those with GNIs between $1,046 and $12,746 as middle-income. “Country and Lending Groups,” World Bank,

[30] Jonathan Foley, “A Five-Step Plan to Feed the World,” National Geographic, May 2014, For the analysis supporting these steps see Jonathan A. Foley, et al., “Solutions for a Cultivated Planet,” Nature, vol. 478, Oct. 20, 2011, pp. 337–342.

[31] For background see Jason McLure, “Genetically Modified Food,” CQ Researcher, Aug, 30, 2012, pp. 717–740.

[32] Jonathan Foley, “GMOs, Silver Bullets, and the Trap of Reductionist Thinking,” Ensia, Feb. 25, 2014,

[33] For background see Jennifer Weeks, “Fish Farming,” CQ Researcher, July 27, 2007, pp. 625–648.

[34] Margaret Greene, Shareen Joshi and Omar Robles, “By Choice, Not by Chance: Family Planning, Human Rights and Development,” U.N. Population Fund, Nov. 14, 2012, p. iii,

[35] “UN Calls Contraception Access a ‘Universal Human Right,’” CBS News, Nov. 14, 2012,

[36] For more information see

[37] Janice Shaw Crouse, “U.N. Declares Contraception Basic Human Right,” The Washington Times, Nov. 22, 2012,

[38] Leigh Ann Caldwell, “McConnell: Contraceptive Issue ‘Will Not Go Away,’” CBS News, Feb. 12, 2012,

[39] Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., decided June 30, 2014, For background see Kenneth Jost, “Religion and Law,” CQ Researcher, Nov. 7, 2014, pp. 937–960.

[40] Bill Gates, “2014 Gates Annual Letter,”

[41] Evangelii Gaudium, Nov. 24, 2013, sections 213 and 214,

[42] “Statement by Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations,” Commission on Population and Development, New York, April 10, 2014,

[43] “Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence and the Common Good,” U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, June 15, 2001,

[44] “Keeping Facts Straight on 98% of Catholic Women,” , Feb. 17, 2012,; Michelle Boorstein and Peyton M. Craighill, “Pope Francis Faces Church Divided Over Doctrine, Global Poll of Catholics Finds,” The Washington Post, Feb. 9, 2014,

[45] Abby Olheiser, “The Tense Standoff Between Catholic Bishops and the Kenyan Government Over Tetanus Vaccines,” The Washington Post, Nov. 14, 2014,

[46] “Uruguay Legalises Abortion,” BBC News, Oct. 17, 2012,

[47] “Maternal Health: The Church's Role,” United Methodist Church, adopted 2012, See also Sneha Barot, “A Common Cause: Faith-Based Organizations and Promoting Access to Family Planning in the Developing World,” Guttmacher Policy Review, Fall 2013,

[48] Thomas Malthus, “An Essay on the Principle of Population,”

[49] “Cholera,” Virtual New York,; “Cholera in Westminster,” Cholera and the Thames,

[50] “Germ Theory,” Science Museum (London),

[51] “The Influenze Pandemic of 1918,” Stanford University,

[52] “Discovery and Development of Penicillin,” American Chemical Society, 1999,

[53] For details see Gordon Conway, One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed the World? (2012), pp. 42–50.

[54] Bernhard Glaeser, The Green Revolution Revisited: Critique and Alternatives (2013), pp. 1–2.

[55] Ehrlich, op. cit., pp. xi-xii.

[56] Sabin, op. cit., pp. 20–61.

[57] Donella H. Meadows, et al., The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome's Project on the Predicament of Mankind (1972),

[58] Leonard Silk, “Predicament of Mankind,” The New York Times, April 12, 1972.

[59] Quoted in Sabin, op. cit., p. 91.

[60] Gerald Slevin, “New Birth Control Commission Papers Reveal Vatican's Hand,” National Catholic Reporter, March 23, 2011,; Elaine Tyler May, “How the Catholic Church Almost Came to Accept Birth Control — in the 1960s,” The Washington Post, Feb. 24, 2012,

[61] “Encyclical Letter Humanae Vitae of the Supreme Pontiff Paul VI,” (1968), section 23,

[62] Luisa Blanchfield, “Abortion and Family Planning-Related Provisions in U.S. Foreign Assistance Law and Policy,” Congressional Research Service, Jan. 31, 2014, pp. 3–4,

[63] For examples see “Access Denied: U.S. Restrictions on International Family Planning,” Population Action International, 2005,

[64] “Mexico City Policy: Effects of Restrictions on International Family Planning Funding,” hearing before the Committee on Foreign Relations, U.S. Senate, July 19, 2001,

[65] Susan Scutti, “One-Child Policy Is One Big Problem for China,” Newsweek, Jan. 23, 2014,

[66] “Kemp-Kasten Amendment Legislative History,” U.S. Agency for international Development,

[67] Luisa Blanchfield, “The U.N. Population Fund: Background and the U.S. Funding Debate,” Congressional Research Service, July 24, 2008, (funding levels on p. 8).

[68] “Funding Timeline,” Friends of UNFPA,

[69] Blanchfield, op. cit., pp. 18–19.

[70] “Coercive Population Control in China,” Population Research Institute, For information about the Population Research Institute, see

[71] “Mexico City Policy — Voluntary Population Planning,” Memorandum for the Secretary of State, Jan. 23, 2009,

[72] Lori S. Ashford, “What Was Cairo? The Promise and Reality of ICPD,” Population Reference Bureau, September 2004,

[73] Details at

[74] “London Summit on Family Planning,” Family Planning 2020, p. 4,

[75] “Donor Government Assistance for Family Planning in 2013,” Henry Kaiser Family Foundation, November 2014, p. 1,

[76] “Melinda French Gates remarks at London Summit on Family Planning,” July 11, 2012,

[77] “2014 World Population Data Sheet,” op. cit., pp. 8, 10-11. For background see Brian Beary, “European Unrest,” CQ Researcher, Jan. 9, 2015, pp 25–48.

[78] “Japan's Depopulation Time Bomb,” Japan Times, April 17, 2013,

[79] Alex Coblin, “China's Approaching Storm,” American Enterprise Institute, Oct. 28, 2013,

[80] Katie Holliday, “China To Ease 1-Child Rule Further, But Do People Care?” CNBC, Oct. 21, 2014,

[81] Lijia Zhang, “The Everyday Challenges of China's Ageing Population Demand Attention,” South China Morning Post, Oct. 27, 2014,

[82] “Appropriations Committee Releases Fiscal Year 2015 State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill,” House Committee on Appropriations, June 16, 2014,

[83] “Appropriations Committee Approves Bipartisan Shaheen Amendment Protecting Women's Health Care,” Office of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, June 19, 2014,

[84] “How Family Planning Fared in the Cromnibus,” Population Action International, Dec. 11, 2014,

[85] Ibid.

[86] “Donor Government Assistance for Family Planning in 2013,” Kaiser Family Foundation, November 2014, pp. 1–2,

[87] Chairman Smith's Opening Statement, “India's Missing Girls,” House Foreign Affairs Committee, Sept. 10, 2013, For background, see Robert Kiener, “Gendercide Crisis,” CQ Global Researcher, Oct. 4, 2011, pp. 473–498.

[88] Jost, “Religion and Law,” op. cit.

[89] “Making Reproductive Rights and Sexual and Reproductive Health a Reality for All,” U.N. Population Fund, 2008, p. 7,

[90] “The Road to Dignity by 2030: Ending Poverty, Transforming All Lives, and Protecting the Planet,” United Nations, 2014,

[91] Ibid., pp. 20–21, 23-24.

[92] Francoise Girard, “Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights and the Post-2015 Agenda: What's Next?” International Women's Health Coalition, Nov. 5, 2014,

[93] “Addendum to Report of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals,” NGOs Beyond 2014, Dec. 16, 2014,

[94] Farzaneh Roudi-Fahimi, “Iran's Family Planning Program: Responding to a Nation's Needs,” Population Reference Bureau, 2002, pp. 1–3,

[95] Jason Rezaian, “Iran's Baby Shortage Leads to a Plan to Ban Permanent Contraception,” The Washington Post, June 25, 2014,

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About the Author

Jennifer Weeks, author of this week's edition of CQ Researcher

Jennifer Weeks is a Massachusetts freelance writer who specializes in the environment, science and health. She has written for The Washington Post, Audubon, Popular Mechanics and other magazines and previously was a policy analyst, congressional staffer and lobbyist. She has an A.B. degree from Williams College and master's degrees from the University of North Carolina and Harvard. Her recent CQ Researcher reports include “Regulating Toxic Chemicals” and “Protecting the Oceans.”

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Document APA Citation
Weeks, J. (2015, January 16). Global population growth. CQ Researcher, 25, 49-72. Retrieved from
Document ID: cqresrre2015011600
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ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Jun. 22, 2018  Global Population Pressures
Jan. 16, 2015  Global Population Growth
Nov. 16, 2012  Changing Demographics
Nov. 21, 2008  Declining Birthrates
Jul. 17, 1998  Population and the Environment
Jul. 16, 1993  Population Growth
Oct. 26, 1984  Feeding a Growing World
Aug. 02, 1974  World Population Year
Nov. 24, 1971  Zero Population Growth
Nov. 01, 1967  Population Profile of the United States
Aug. 15, 1962  Population Control
Jun. 13, 1952  Overpopulation
Mar. 10, 1930  Population Problems
Abortion, Contraception and Reproductive Issues
Agriculture and the Environment
Climate Change
Global Issues
Maternal and Child Health Care
Population Control
Regional Political Affairs: Africa
Regional Political Affairs: East Asia and the Pacific
Wildlife and Endangered Species
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