Updated: Feb 6
Viewpoint by Nandita Bajaj* (Originally published November 3, 2022 at InDepth News)
ST PAUL Minnesota (IDN) — As global population fast approaches 8 billion, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem wants us to avoid what she calls “population alarmism.” A fearless advocate for reproductive rights, Dr Kanem has rightfully noted that reproductive coercion, whether in an effort to limit births or to promote them, is an egregious violation of individual rights.
But in her effort to dampen alarm about population growth, Dr. Kanem dismisses the mounting environmental harm resulting from that growth. She also dismisses the pronatalism that drives it, and its dire consequences for human rights. Although she notes the existence of policies designed to accelerate population growth, Dr. Kanem fails to acknowledge the pronatalist ideology at their heart, and how it undermines reproductive choice.
Pronatalism is the social bias towards having children, which results in unrelenting pressures experienced primarily by women. In fact, it is a globally pervasive form of reproductive coercion, reducing people to reproductive vessels for external agendas. In addition to being a source of reproductive injustice, it fuels population growth and has propelled the global population toward the 8 billion milestone.
Pronatalist pressures, overt and subtle, are driven by social, cultural, political, economic, religious, and nationalistic agendas.
Some of the most intense pressures to bear children come from family, where if a woman is unable or unwilling to bear children, she can be disowned, victimized by domestic violence, divorced, socially stigmatized, and economically marginalized.
Religious pronatalism is imposed through scriptural commandments to “be fruitful and multiply,” through stigmatizing childfree and childless people, and through restricting and spreading misinformation about contraception, abortion, and family planning services.
Political pronatalist pressure is related to wanting more taxpayers, or to grow the military, or to pursue nationalistic, ethnocentric, or xenophobic ends. These political motives result in abortion and contraceptive bans, baby bonuses and incentives for large families, and stigmatizing non-traditional life choices.
In fact, pronatalism is integral to our current growth-based economic system, which relies on constant population growth to continually supply new consumers. Nobel laureate Steven Chu appropriately called it a “pyramid scheme.”
This scheme is driving cascading ecological crises and mounting human suffering that will only increase as climate change and biodiversity loss accelerate. Due to the climate crisis, children born today and in the future will live “an unprecedented life,” facing many times more extreme climate-related events than previous generations.
According to the most recent report from UNICEF, almost half the world’s 2.2 billion children are already at “extremely high risk” from pollution and the impacts of climate change, which include massive food insecurity and loss of land area to flooding and sea level rise. Family, religious, political, and economic pronatalist pressures have become so internalized and normalized in the policy sphere that the reproductive “choice” UNFPA champions today barely has any meaning for most people around the world. Billions have little choice but to keep having more children.
In fact, social and institutional pressures that would force more childbearing are far stronger today than any impetus for family planning or concerns about population growth. Pronatalism is at the heart of unchecked population growth, which is occurring on the backs of those with the least personal or reproductive autonomy, who are most vulnerable to coercion.
In the past, reprehensible abuses such as forced sterilizations and other human rights violations were committed in the name of population control. But today, coercive pronatalism is the analogous threat. It’s a more prevalent, pervasive, and equally egregious form of population and reproductive control. It’s just being used toward the opposite end.
At their heart, arguments that population growth need not be feared are stemming from a place of paternalism, and ultimately of human supremacy. They ignore the anthropogenic mass extinction event unfolding today, and destruction of planetary systems from human expansionism.
As we approach the milestone of 8 billion human beings on the planet, more than 70% of the Earth’s land surface has been altered by human activity. At least one million species are facing extinction, and of the animal biomass on Earth today, 96% is composed of humans and the livestock we keep.
This hardly seems the appropriate time to dismiss “population alarmism.” On the contrary, it’s time to confront the pernicious influence of pronatalism on population growth, human rights, and the planet.
That’s why the upcoming International Conference on Family Planning in Thailand will shine a light on pronatalism and its impacts on population growth and social, reproductive, and ecological justice. Let’s hope Dr. Kanem, Elon Musk and pronatalist exponents everywhere tune in.
*Nandita Bajaj is the Executive Director of Population Balance. She co-hosts The Overpopulation Podcast, teaches the first-ever graduate course on Pronatalism and Overpopulation at Antioch University, and will speak about pronatalism at the International Conference on Family Planning 2022 in Thailand on November 16th, to be webcast here.
Image source: Population Media Centre
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