In October 1999, the human population of the world reached 6 billion.
Governments, scientific societies, and other organizations reacted
with celebrations, but also with concern. The population had doubled in
only 40 years, with most of the growth occurring in developing countries.
Experts predicted that at the current growth rate
of 77 million new people a year, the population would swell to 9 billion
by 2050, increasing requirements for food, water, and health care in
countries where basic necessities were already scarce.
Improvements in health care have extended life expectancies and reduced
infant mortality rates around the globe, allowing the birth rate to
outstrip the death rate in most nations. But despite these advances, much
of the world's population still lives in poverty, particularly in the
developing nations where population growth is most rapid. Malnourishment,
lack of clean water, AIDS and other diseases, overcrowding, and inadequate
shelter are very real problems for billions of people. In regions like
Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, lack of access to family
planning services, as well as cultural traditions that emphasize the role
of women as child-bearers, make large families the norm.
Developed countries like the U.S. are generally experiencing slow or no
population growth. But growth in other nations still affects them. In
today's global economy, the balance of people and resources in Asian and
African countries has far-reaching effects on the developed nations that
are their trading partners. Overpopulation burdens the environment with
increasing demands for timber and fossil fuels, driving up the price of the raw materials industrialized nations need
to import. And as forested land is cleared to support a growing
population, the world loses
a vital mechanism for atmospheric regulation: the forests that produce
oxygen and absorb carbon from the atmosphere, helping to slow global
warming. These dwindling forests
represent our greatest weapon against major environmental
trends like global climate change -- problems that affect everyone, in
developed and developing countries alike.
The relatively stable U.S. population also contributes more pollution
and consumes more resources, per person, than the exploding populations of
developing nations, so any population changes in the U.S. have a powerful
impact on global health. Although the U.S. population is only 4% of the
world total, it consumes 25% of the total resources, and produces more
carbon dioxide and garbage per person than any other nation. Other
industrialized countries also contribute far more per person to
environmental problems like climate change, ozone depletion, and
overfishing than do developing
Historically, the U.S. attitude toward population growth has varied.
From the inception of the international population assistance program in
1965, the U.S. supported efforts to control population growth by providing
family planning services and reproductive health information to women
around the world. However, domestic debates about abortion began to weaken
the long-term support that international population control policy had
enjoyed. The Reagan Administration suggested that population growth was a
neutral phenomenon, not cause for concern, and took a strong
stand against abortion, a service that was provided alongside family
planning in many clinics in developing nations. President Reagan cut
funding to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which
supported family planning programs in more than 70 countries, and to
international non-governmental organizations that performed abortions or
distributed information about abortion. Claiming that China's
one-child-per-family policy was associated with human rights violations,
Reagan also revoked grants to the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) until the
organization could provide assurances that the money was not being used to
fund coercive abortions in China. This reversal of policy took place at
the Second U.N. International Conference on Population in 1984, and was
called the Mexico City Policy.
In 1993, the Clinton Administration, which took a more neutral stance
toward abortion, lifted the restrictions and returned federal aid to these
organizations. Almost exactly eight years later, in January 2001,
President Bush affirmed his anti-abortion convictions by reinstating the
Mexico City policy, now also called the global gag rule. According to this
rule, foreign organizations that provide abortions or appeal to their
governments for abortion rights are denied U.S. funding, even if they
reserve U.S. money for family planning services only. U.S. donations to
UNFPA were declared off-limits for use in China, and the total donation
amount was reduced by the amount UNFPA chose to spend in China. The U.S.
remains, however, the single largest donor to population assistance
programs. Other industrialized nations joining this effort include Japan,
Germany, the United Kingdom, and the European Union countries.
A new CRS Issue Brief, Population Assistance
and Family Planning Programs: Issues for Congress (February
2001), chronicles these changes. It also describes an underlying debate
that influenced U.S. population assistance policy as to whether a rapidly
increasing population spurs its country's economic
growth, or impedes that country's ability to raise the standard of
living for its inhabitants. Debate also touches upon the issue of
abortion, particularly in China, where the one-child-per-family
policy implemented in 1979 has placed heavy social and financial pressures
on women who become pregnant for the second time.
The population trends of the next few years will have far-reaching
consequences. Ultimately, the industrialized and the developing nations of
the world must cooperate and share information, resources, and
a common vision to solve the problem of population growth.
Written by Heather E. Lindsay.