Since the publication of Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb in the mid-1960s, the continued growth of the human population worldwide has been a major environmental and economic development issue. Every basic environmental science textbook has a chapter on the subject, as do most introductory volumes on environmental ethics. The literature on contemporary changes in human demography is now massive, and numerous academic institutes, environmental and women’s organizations, and international agencies wrestle with population topics.
The Christian voice on population, however, has been very limited and has largely rejected the importance of growing human numbers. With the exception of a handful of environmental and women’s advocates, most Christians have either had little to say or they have spoken out against international family planning programs.
Since Christians from affluent nations tend to limit their concern for sanctity of life to contesting abortion, they are poorly informed about the relationship of human demogra-
phy (the structure of human populations) to such problems as child mortality and environmental degradation. If we stop thinking about what happens to the child after his mother decides to carry him to term, we miss the question of whether he will survive to adulthood and what his quality of life will be like if he does.
We also need to recognize that in the United States and Europe a majority of Christians have medical services easily available, and can obtain family planning information from a personal physician. In contrast, in many regions with high population growth rates, maternal care is poor and what services there are may be crowded and understaffed. A woman who is not in good health and has a new baby is at a much-elevated risk for a problem pregnancy if she conceives again within the next year or two.
Where family resources are limited, poor birth spacing also threatens the newborn, who is more likely to suffer from malnutrition and childhood ailments. In the two-thirds world, younger children in large families are much more likely to die than their higher birth order siblings. Where families find they do not have all they need to care for their children, the girl child is often neglected. While her brothers are being fed, she may be eating scraps in the kitchen. While her brothers are going to school, she may be working at home, either adding to family income or helping to care for the new baby.
Although population growth is not necessarily related to environmental degradation, speedy demographic change without economic or technological adjustment may exacerbate environmental problems. In regions where most fuel is still harvested locally, population growth may encourage overcutting of timber and brush for firewood. The same is true for removal of vegetation cover by livestock. Both these processes denude watersheds and may result in secondary environmental devastation, including lowered water tables and increased floods and landslides.
Fuel wood shortages may also affect the quality of life and health of children. Unboiled water and uncooked food may harbor disease, while a mother’s long treks to find wood may leave small children unsupervised at home. Although landlessness is rooted in economic oppression and land tenure systems that prevent the poor from acquiring adequate agricultural acreage, speedy population growth often pushes landless families onto poor soils or steep slopes, where they cannot efficiently farm. The result is underfed children, soil erosion, and declining, rather than increasing, agricultural productivity.
The fast growth of many megacities has meant that pollution control and other environmental protection programs lapse as city boundaries expand. Burgeoning slums without adequate medical or environmental services are particularly problematic. If sewage systems are absent or ill-maintained, the effluent not only damages rivers and other bodies of water, but it may also contaminate drinking water supplies, putting large numbers of people at risk from water-borne diseases. Air pollution problems in ever-expanding cities not only make life unpleasant and increase global atmospheric degradation, they cause respiratory illnesses and other health impacts.
A CENTRAL QUESTION for a Christian response to human demographic change is, What sorts of population policies and programs are consistent with a completely pro-life ethic—not just an ethic that protects the unborn and infants, but an ethic that protects their parents, older siblings, and the environment as well?
On one hand, Christians should resist "radical" environmental arguments that see humankind as the worst thing that ever happened to the planet, especially when these arguments propose forcing women from the two-thirds world into contraceptive programs, or suggest that abortion on a massive scale is the only way to save the Earth. Before God, a child in Africa or China is not "worth" any less than a child in more prosperous Canada or Germany. We should never make personhood or the right to have a family contingent on economics, social class, or geography. Nor should we view children as a form of environmental catastrophe.
On the other hand, when Christians have opposed funding for international family planning programs (usually on the grounds that these programs forward abortion as a population regulation measure), they have made contraceptive technology unavailable to many couples for whom it is not otherwise available. Lack of medical services combined with narrow birth spacing and untimely pregnancy have killed many women and children in the poorer regions of the world.
As Christians, we should search for strategies that do not trade death from one cause for death from another. Modern contraceptive technology can improve birth spacing and reduce family size in ways that greatly improve the chances that each new baby will survive to adulthood, and that her mother will live to see her grow up. Many more couples throughout the world would voluntarily utilize family planning if they had access to appropriate educational programs and technologies.
Both population growth "paranoia" and fear of family planning as a potential "moral evil" can be very socially destructive. Heavy-handed, government-sponsored population regulation programs may politically coerce or even physically force women into abortion or sterilization clinics. At their worst, such programs leave women with permanent disabilities from quickly performed surgical procedures and, where family size is strictly limited, may result in selective abortion of female fetuses and abandonment of female newborns.
Not giving couples access to family planning, however, may also be coercive. A family may wish to delay childbearing until they are economically stable and may not be able to do so. A woman may already have a new baby and would much rather wait before taking on the difficulty of caring for another. A family may have moved from the country to the city and suddenly found there is no longer a collection of aunts and grandmothers available to help with child care. For many women worldwide, economic circumstances are a primary source of coercion. They would like to have fewer children and take better care of the ones they have, but they can’t.
ARE THERE ACTIONS Christians can take that preserve the sanctity of life and also help tackle population questions compassionately? Yes, and some very constructive activities are based merely on expanding the dialogue over population and family planning among Christians, or expanding missions and social service activities that already exist.
First, a completely pro-life stance suggests international funding for family planning should be increased, not decreased. If one agency or organization is morally objectionable, then an alternative way to provide assistance should be found. Pro-life activities should not cause the poor to suffer the loss of other medical services that are not related to abortion. If Christians do not approve of the ethical stances of international family planning organizations, they should sponsor their own.
Second, Christians should encourage the development of contraceptive technologies that are both more effective and present fewer health risks for women. Better contraceptive methods that do not require repeated visits to a health care center and are inexpensive and easy to use would aid families living in rural areas and those who live in urban slums with few clinics.
Third, Christians should be open to incorporating family planning into international medical ministry. One way to establish compassionate programs that protect the sanctity of life is to develop them ourselves. We need to investigate the "big picture" in international health care and educate ourselves about the realities of medical services, or the lack of them, for families in the nations of the South.
Fourth, we need to be realistic about women’s needs in social settings other than our own. The literature on human demographic processes indicates that where women are better educated, have good access to medical services, and have some degree of food or financial security, they will seek out family planning assistance and utilize modern methodologies. Women with more education, even in poorer regions, have smaller families.
Christians should recognize that greater equality for women in access to social services and education improves the quality of life, not just for women, but for their children as well. Churches and Christian organizations can easily take a major leadership role in areas such as women’s education and women’s health, which might superficially seem tangential to population issues but are actually basic to dealing with them.
Fifth, our patterns of economic expansion in the most industrialized nations have had massive global environmental impacts. We should not blast the world’s poor for cutting down rain forests if we are adding far more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than they are. The modern "explosion" of environmentally destructive human activities is not due to human numbers alone. If the South has had a population explosion, the North has had a consumption explosion. We need to take responsibility for our share of the damages.
Sixth, Christians can sponsor development programs that enhance the family rather than threatening it. International development programs have historically ignored the needs of women, even in regions where women are responsible for the majority of the agricultural production. Further, jobs in factories or mines that remove fathers from homes or require families to move from rural to urban areas may influence family structures in ways that are detrimental. Fatherless households may experience difficulties with child care and child support.
Seventh, churches in the two-thirds world and churches in the Euro-American industrialized nations should open dialogue on population and family planning issues. The best Christian response in one economic and cultural setting may not be the best Christian response in another. Those of us who live in the North need to understand not just the difficulties experienced by families in the South, but also their values, cultural traditions, and desires for a better quality of life.
We should open and extend our discussions of contraceptive ethics. Christian silence, or worse, confusion on population issues invites government control and intervention as well as the secularization of family values. Our voice is needed if humankind is going to cope with demographic change in a way that values both the beauty of humanness and the productivity and diversity of God’s creation. n
SUSAN POWER BRATTON is professor of religious studies at the University of North Texas and the author of Six Billion and More: Human Population Regulation and Christian Ethics (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992).