The sole remaining superpower vs. the population bomb

Magazine: New Perspectives Quarterly (NPQ)
Issue: Fall 1994, Vol. 11, No. 4
Title: The sole remaining superpower vs. the population bomb

Author: ALBERT GORE JR. Vice President of the United States, Al Gore led the US delegation to the United Nations conference on population held in Cairo in September.

Washington DC--Once there were a few who suggested that population growth was not a problem. Now there is virtual unanimity about the need for all nations to address population and sustainable development on a priority basis.

If you were to draw a chart depicting the population of the Earth over time, it would show that roughly 200,000 years after the emergence of modern humans, population slowly began to rise with the agricultural revolution some 10,000 years ago. By the [alledged] birth of "Christ," the population had reached 250 million. When Columbus sailed, it was 500 million. When the Declaration of Independence was written, it was roughly one billion people. And by the end of World War II, when my generation was born, the world had reached a population of two billion.

In my 46 years, we have gone from a little over two billion to almost six billion people. And, if I'm fortunate enough to live another 46 years, I will watch the world's population almost certainly rise to nearly nine billion.

Or to put it another way, we are adding the equivalent of another Mexico every 12 months, and the equivalent of another China every 10 years.

If it takes 10,000 generations to reach a population of two billion, and then we move in a single human lifetime from two billion to nine billion, clearly that is a dramatic change.

It is not so much the empirical data that is disturbing; it is the foreseeable consequence of such rapid population growth that should instill in all Americans and in all nations a sense of urgency and resolve to address these unprecedented developments:

For the environment, rapid population growth often contributes to the degradation of natural resources, as does the pattern of consumption in the more stable and more prosperous developed nations.

Economically, population growth often contributes to the challenge of addressing persistent low wages, poverty and economic disparity. While there are certainly some circumstances where rapid population growth can meet unfulfilled demand for labor and become a positive factor, nevertheless, in the world in which we live today, it almost always holds wages lower than they would otherwise be.

At the level of the family, demographic trends have kept the world's investment in its children low and unequal, especially where girls are concerned.

For individuals, population growth, high fertility and lack of basic health services are closely linked to the poor health and welfare of millions of women and children.

Population pressures often put strains on hopes for stability at the international level. Look, for example, at the 20 million refugees the world is now attempting to absorb. It is impossible to say that rapid population growth is ever, by itself, the cause of instability in a society. But neither is it irrelevant to note that the nation with the highest population density in Africa last year was Rwanda. Or that the nation with the fastest rate of population growth in Africa was Somalia. Or that the fastest growing country in the world, Afghanistan, is on a trajectory that will double its population in only the next 10 years.

Common sense surely reveals that rapid population growth is unsustainable.

Obviously, the world must act. But in order to assure movement toward consensus, as I think we did in Cairo, we must recognize the necessity to deal sensitively with an issue rooted in deep moral, philosophical and religious differences--abortion.

Just about everyone in every corner of the world wishes to make abortion rare. That is America's aim, the aim of women's groups and the Catholic Church. Indeed, that is the aim of all involved in this issue, though it is pursued in different ways.

I believe that, when fewer women decide abortions are necessary, they will be less frequent. And when women rarely decide abortions are necessary, they will be rare. But, that is not the situation we face around the world today. There are 50 million unwanted pregnancies annually that result in more than 25 million abortions annually.

In fact, there are entire nations, like the Russian Republic (where quality contraceptives are not widely available) where the average woman has seven to eight abortions in her lifetime. And for a variety of reasons, there are more than 200,000 women worldwide who die each year from medically unsafe abortions. We cannot sweep these facts under the rug or pretend that they do not exist. Women deserve better.

The Clinton Administration believes that making available the highest quality family planning and reproductive health services can help to simultaneously reduce both population growth and the number of abortions. But we are well aware that views about abortion are as diverse among nations as among individuals. Today, 173 nations have laws setting forth the circumstances in which abortion is permitted, and setting forth the manner in which it is restricted.

We believe that decisions about the extent to which abortion is acceptable should be the province of each government within the context of its own laws and national circumstances, and consistent with previously agreed human-rights standards.

Respect for national sovereignty, however, does not imply neutrality on this issue. We abhor and condemn coerced abortions, whether the coercion is physical, economic, psychological, political or in any other way. We do not believe that abortion should be viewed as a method of family planning, although in countries where quality services are not readily available, it is today all-too-often used for this purpose. And we believe there is, as acknowledged by all participants in the debate, a different moral sensibility brought to a choice of the option of abortion as compared to the choice of other available options.

Let me be clear: Our administration believes that the United States Constitution guarantees every woman within our borders a right to choose, subject to limited and specific exceptions. We are unalterably committed to that principle. But let us take a false issue off the table: The United States has not sought, does not seek, and will not seek to establish any international right to an abortion. That is a red herring.

Our view is that the most effective way to reduce population growth and abortion is through a comprehensive global strategy that makes quality family planning and reproductive health information and services as widely available as possible, that promotes sustainable economic development, that increases literacy, that fosters women's health, that strengthens families, that focuses on the education and empowerment of women, and that improves child health and child survival--because when children survive, then the desire by parents for larger families is greatly diminished.

The real story of the Cairo Conference was the extent to which a new worldwide consensus has congealed around this more sophisticated, holistic, richer view. The whole point is to build a humane and comprehensive strategy on the foundation of universal human aspirations. Integration of population, the environment and development is an imperative for peace and national security, for human health and well-being, and for the quality of life on Earth. Our administration is determined to meet this need. Indeed, we are determined to help lead the way.

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