Population growth: women choose

For centuries, women have been denied the opportunities for personal advancement in the name of religion and tradition. Religious and cultural institutions where patriarchal attitudes were legitimised have had a deep effect on the role and status of women. Yet it is now women who are the key drivers in defusing what was once popularly called the ‘population bomb’. Everything has changed so much that choosing to have no children, or just give birth to one child, is for women just as convenient as choosing to bear two or three.

Globally, the fertility rate – the average number of children a woman gives birth to — is falling below the replacement level and this means nearly every country could have shrinking populations by the end of the century, based on the expectation that women will have fewer children. This does not mean the number of people living in these countries is falling, at least not immediately, as the size of a population is a mix of the fertility rate, death rate and migration. It can be a generation before changes in fertility rate take hold. Although fertility rates continue to fall the world population will continue to rise because the fall in fertility rates takes a while to show up, a phenomenon known as population momentum.

Falling fertility rates go hand-in-hand with better education and more career openings for women and the access to contraception and abortion. When more infants survive, fertility goes down and population growth draws to an end.

The more secure and prosperous people become, the lower will be their family sizes.

According to Wolfgang Lutz, of the Vienna University of Economics and Business, one reason for the fertility decline is women’s education:

The brain is the most important reproductive organ,’ he explains. Once a woman receives enough information and autonomy to make an informed and self-directed choice about when to have children and how many to have, she immediately has fewer of them and has them later.

Paid to reproduce

Some countries are so concerned about their shrinking populations and fear of the alternative – a policy of immigration – has led nationalist and xenophobic leaders to introduce policies that could only be described as a return back to an earlier time when women were viewed as baby-producing machines. Across Europe, governments have introduced benefits aimed at stimulating population growth, implementing baby bonuses for each new child and promoting ‘traditional family values’.

Victor Orban of Hungary is heavily investing in such things as cash loans to young married couples. Each time a child is born, payments are deferred. If the couple have three children within the requisite time frame, the loan is completely written off, otherwise they have to pay it back. Government IVF clinics will offer free treatment for all women who want them (just as long as they are under 40 and not lesbians). In Poland, the ruling Law and Justice Party introduced the 500+ policy in 2016, under which mothers received 500 złoty (£99) per child per month from the second child onwards, later expanded to include all children. Russia launched a one-off payment of £5,800 to families with two or more children, with Putin explaining that ‘Russia’s fate and its historic prospects depend on how many of us there are, it depends on how many children are born in Russian families.’

Sweden is one country that used a package of policies including childcare, flexible working conditions and generous maternity and paternity leave packages to reverse its population decline. But the increase to the fertility rate was marginal – just 0.2 children per woman.

As Wolfgang Lutz points out, ‘Once a woman is socialised to have an education and a career, she is socialised to have a smaller family. There’s no going back.’

Fertility rates

Just as the Catholic Church’s anti-contraceptive dogma was blamed for rises in population only to be punctured by women defying their priests, the argument switched to the Muslims, with its emphasis on strict traditional hierarchal gender roles, and it would be they who would go against the trend of smaller families. But then fertility rates in majority-Muslim countries such as Iran, Bangladesh and Indonesia fell, as well.

Now the blame for over-population has shifted to sub-Saharan Africa, suggesting that African high fertility rates with four or more births per woman will not buck the trend and cause over-population. But even here, there are signs of change in a growing number of countries.

Countries such as Nigeria which are struggling to make progress to provide education and employment opportunities and provide quality healthcare should be seen as the last hold-outs against the global triumph of small families.

International agencies found that over 20 percent of women in this region of Africa want to avoid a pregnancy but have their needs unmet by any family planning outreach. It results in almost 20 million — or 38 percent — of the region’s pregnancies each year being unintended. The World Health Organization estimates that globally 270 million women who want contraceptives have no access to them.

Practices such as early marriage, which is associated with an early start to child bearing, are common. In sub-Saharan Africa, approximately 38 percent of women are married by the age of 18. In Niger, three-quarters of girls marry by the age of 18. Child marriage denies girls an education which leads to a lack of ability to find work in later life and so handicaps girls’ decision-making power and their right to choose.

The gap between desired and actual family size suggests that women are not fully able to realise their reproductive rights. But choice can become a reality everywhere, including the African continent. In the past, women in Botswana would have seven children on average. Now they have fewer than three. It was accomplished by enabling women to control their fertility and reducing child mortality rates – moves that almost inevitably lead to them having fewer babies. When more girls attend school, a country’s adolescent fertility rates dip, more women wait until adulthood to have children and are armed with much more sophisticated knowledge-tools to make better decisions for their health and future offspring.

It took the UK 95 years to drop from a fertility rate of six children per woman to three, but it took Botswana only 24 years, Bangladesh 20 and Iran only ten years.


Blaming our environmental problems on population pressures is all too common among eco-activists and it has resulted in a sordid history of top-down population control programmes violating women’s reproductive rights with such measures as uninformed sterilisations. All women should have full access to contraception and safe abortion as part of overall health services. Family planning, however, is not the answer to our environmental problems. Babies and yet-to-be-born babies are not responsible for today’s environmental problems. Reducing population numbers will not stop climate change, nor rising sea-levels. Many environmentalists will cite the fallacious carrying capacity in their argument that we have too many people on the planet but the over-emphasis on individual consumption distracts from industrial and military consumption. Capitalism is the reason for ever-increasing resource depletion, CO2 emissions, waste and pollution. It should be held accountable, not the innocent victims of global warming.

More people bring more ingenuity, more talent and more innovation into the world. Every human born is not just an extra mouth to feed but also another pair of helping hands and an additional thoughtful brain. Yet we are being told by environmentalists that it means less for each of us. We get informed that we will need to radically reduce humanity’s carbon footprint on the environment by reducing our numbers, as well as changes to our lifestyles and that until the world’s population stops growing there will be an urgent need to squeeze people’s consumption.

Does pushing population growth down actually put the environment on a more sustainable path? And if so, what measures would the policy makers have to apply to actually bring about such a change?

The answer to environmentalists attracted to the over-populationist argument is that the birth-control campaigns are, in the end, just one more patriarchal attempt to control women’s reproduction, and that improving child survival rates, giving girls access to education, and empowering women to control their own reproduction (and that means allowing women themselves to make their decisions) are what will sustainably and non-coercively lower birth rates. Family planning and reducing family sizes, however, is not the answer to our environmental problems.

Environmentalist focus on population is mistaken and can lead to equally misguided action. Over-population is a thinly veiled misogynist racist myth that is accepted by both right-wingers and progressives alike. People who claim to be against genocide and eugenics push this myth with no sense of the irony. Those accepting the over-population argument obscure the more immediate causes of suffering under capitalism. Because of its short-termism, its unrelenting drive for profits, and international conflict, capitalism expresses a tendency toward planetary crisis, regardless of the total number of humans living on earth. The amount of waste and pollution under capitalism is enormous with its preponderance of the production and distribution of useless products, the wasted labour and the creation of mounting piles of garbage as a result of planned obsolescence and single-use products.

The concentration on so-called over-population confuses symptoms with causes, validating apologists for the system and perpetuating Malthusian anti-poor arguments. The central concept in the ideological armoury of capitalism is the idea that there isn’t enough to go around. Hence, we are confronted with the idea that there isn’t enough food, aren’t enough jobs, not enough housing, or we haven’t enough classrooms or hospital beds because there is a certain fixed amount of all these things. People who claim that population growth is the issue are shifting the blame from the rich to the poor.

Those who believe reducing the population to be an answer to global warming say very little about which policies would spare the planet many more billions of people, particularly when the existing trend is already towards smaller family sizes. We should forget all about prioritising population control and instead help each and every woman bear a child in good health whenever she chooses to have a baby. It might sound counter-intuitive for stabilising and lowering the population but giving women control over their lives and of their own bodies controls population growth. We need no more misanthropic pronouncements about too many people or that humanity has somehow exceeded the planet’s carrying capacity or that humanity is a parasitic species on the Planet Earth’s ecology.

Giving women control of both their lives and their bodies is what will control population growth. The best family planning and contraceptive is the empowerment of women.



Socialist Standard September 2020

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