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Challenging pronatalism is key to advancing reproductive rights and a sustainable population

Updated: Feb 13

This article was first published by Nandita Bajaj and Kirsten Stade in The Journal of Population and Sustainability in December 2022 and can be read in full at

Abstract Social and environmental justice organisations have silenced discourse on human overpopulation due to fear of any association with reproductive coercion, but in doing so they have failed to acknowledge the oppressive role of pronatalism in undermining reproductive autonomy. Pronatalism, which comprises cultural and institutional forces that compel reproduction, is far more widespread, and as damaging to individual liberties as attempts to limit reproduction. The failure to recognise the enormity of pronatalism has led to the wholesale abandonment of voluntary, rights-based efforts toward a sustainable population despite widespread scientific agreement that population growth is a major driver of multiple cascading environmental crises. We examine the full range of patriarchal, cultural, familial, religious, economic and political pronatalist pressures, and argue that the reluctance to address population as a driver of the ecological crisis serves the very pronatalist forces that undermine reproductive autonomy. We posit that addressing overpopulation, and the pronatalism that drives it, must be central to international conservation and development efforts to elevate reproductive rights while also promoting planetary health.


Scientists are in general agreement that human population growth, as well as unsustainable production and consumption, are the main drivers of current levels of unprecedented and likely irreversible environmental destruction. Yet, notwithstanding widespread evidence of ecological overshoot, encompassing urgent concerns such as climate change, the biodiversity crisis, the depletion of soils and material resources, desertification and growing scarcities of fresh water (Rees, 2020; Bradshaw et al., 2021; Crist et al., 2022; IPCC, 2022), there is a tendency in both popular and academic circles to ignore, minimise and dismiss population as a factor in conservation (Bajaj, 2022). Although this tendency is rooted in concern over the history of population stabilisation efforts, which included coercive measures that violated women’s reproductive autonomy, it ignores the prevalence of efforts to advance reproductive freedom through voluntary family planning and contraception in the history of international population activities, as well as the overwhelming benefits of these efforts to women and the environment. It also ignores the extent to which coercive pronatalism – which comprises the social and institutional pressures to bear children – has been a far more pervasive and equally destructive force in women’s lives.In this paper, we begin by establishing the link between human population and environmental destruction, then outline the history of international interest and action toward addressing this link. We review how, since the latter half of the last century, a period of international investment in family planning intended to lower birth rates and stabilise population growth has transitioned to an era in which such efforts have been largely abandoned. Furthermore, we show how disparate forces converged at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, Egypt to cement the shift from a direct focus on family planning to a focus on the rights of women to choose the size of their families (Kopnina and Washington, 2016; Sinding, 2016; Kuhlemann, 2019; Coole, 2021). We discuss how the shift embodied in the Cairo Consensus fails to acknowledge that reproductive choice is strongly shaped by social and institutional pressures.We argue that these pronatalist pressures, driven by patriarchal, social, cultural, political, economic, religious and nationalistic agendas, constitute a form of reproductive coercion that is more widespread and impactful than the coercive population stabilisation efforts of the past and present that have played in the silencing of population discourse. We conclude by arguing that acknowledging and dismantling the many forms of pronatalism, which directly drive population growth, is key to both addressing the environmental crisis and elevating reproductive rights and self-determination.