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People-count politics

International | World population is crossing the 6-billion mark, and population-control groups are pushing hot-button issues of "scarcity" and "choice" like never before

Issue: "Gunpoint evangelist," Oct. 9, 1999

With clocks around the world counting down to the end of the millennium, the population clock is counting up to a new world population milestone. Y2K, meet D6B. The Day of 6 Billion, in case it is not on your calendar, is October 12. By UN decree, it is the day world population will reach 6 billion. Promoters believe the new threshold is significant because population has quadrupled this century, and grown by 1 billion since 1960. In the absence of an accurate worldwide census, even UN demographers will parenthetically acknowledge that the 6-billion mark already may have been reached, or could yet be reached in coming months. But for organizations that promote family planning and abortion, as well as Al Gore acolytes from the environmental left, D6B is an opportune time to promote population-control themes. Those themes are amplified in a massive "State of World Population" report by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) released three weeks ahead of D6B. It calls reproduction "the greatest single health threat" to women of childbearing age in developing countries. Like-minded groups are marking the day, too. In London's Trafalgar Square on Oct. 12, International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) and two allies plan to send off 6,000 "environmentally friendly" balloons. IPPF says the balloons represent "the 600,000 women who die every year during pregnancy and childbirth." Family-planning and pro-abortion organizations see D6B as a time to promote increased use of contraceptives and to campaign for abortion. The groups are also targeting adolescents in the effort. Earlier this year, the population-control group Marie Stopes International sponsored a "6 billion and one" essay contest among British secondary schoolers. The winners, a 15-year-old from Manchester and an 18-year-old from Northern Ireland (both areas where the abortion debate in the United Kingdom is particularly heated), have already collected their prize: a tour of Marie Stopes family-planning clinics in Kenya and a chance to see the "population explosion" up close. Franca Tanza, a spokeswoman for Marie Stopes, said the tour did not include abortion clinics, since abortion is illegal in Kenya. She said that family-planning services offered by the organization include abortion "only where it is legal." But she acknowledged that Marie Stopes has been involved in promoting abortion in countries where it is illegal, like Kenya (see WORLD, Feb. 20). "We want to look at where family planning has failed," she said. Zero Population Growth just launched its own D6B essay contest. High-schoolers and college students are asked to write a treatment for a current television series-"on the subject of sprawl." Actors Chevy Chase and Joey Gordon-Levitt (from 3rd Rock from the Sun), along with Alexandra Paul (from Baywatch), will serve as judges to select a winning script. But all the hand-wringing about too many people, demographers say, obscures some of the century's great blessings. Population rates are at an all-time high because people are living longer, not because too many babies are being born. "Life expectancy has more than doubled this century," notes Nicholas Eberstadt, a Harvard population specialist and visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "It did not happen because people started breeding like rabbits, but because they stopped dying like flies." Misconstruing the population data could have important-even ominous-consequences. With fertility rates declining in all parts of the globe, and life expectancy rising everywhere (except sub-Saharan Africa, where the AIDS epidemic is driving the rate downward), over 60 countries are at or below "replacement rates." This means that in coming decades, these countries will face significant labor shortages and a declining working population to support a growing number of the elderly. The trend affects all the major industrialized nations, including the United States, Japan, and most of Western Europe. The only areas that are significantly above replacement rates are sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. Promoting contraceptives under those circumstances can backfire. Mr. Eberstadt will concede that greater prevalence of family-planning products has improved the health of women and children by allowing families to space children and to limit family size. But fertility quotas and contraceptive campaigns may go too far. "There is a tremendous worldwide trend toward lowering fertility," he said. "If you project what fertility decline that we have seen over the last 45 years continuing for 25 more years, we will get to a negative population rate." Mr. Eberstadt is not the only population guru to sound the alarm about what negative rates can mean. Antonio Golini, professor of demography at Rome University, has warned that his country's birthrate, which at 1.15 is already below replacement rate (see sidebar on next page), will produce a worker shortage, forcing Italy to look to immigrant labor to fuel its present economy. Jean-Claude Chesnais, of the National Demographic Studies Institute in Paris, voices cultural concerns. "Society cannot be successful without the presence of children," he said. Last year, American businessman Peter Peterson published Gray Dawn: How the Coming Age Wave Will Transform America-and the World, a sober look at how rapidly aging populations can foment the collapse of medical and social pension systems. UNFPA officials are having none of it. "With over 100 million births a year, there is no danger of a 'birth dearth,'" said Nafis Sadik, director of UNFPA, at a press conference announcing the world population report. The report's five chapters focus almost entirely on promoting contraceptive use, expanding women's rights, and creating gender equality. One short section covers the aging of world population. Much of the report deals with the reproductive-health needs of adolescents ("Young people have the same right to reproductive health as their elders") and calls for eliminating the "unmet need for contraceptives" by 2015. What is curious about the UN campaign is that it was hatched in the UNFPA, instead of the UN Population Division (UNPD), where the UN's chief demographers work. UNPD issued no manifestos leading up to D6B. UNPD operates as a branch of the UN Secretariat; the UNFPA is an "independent" agency operating under UN auspices, with close ties to nongovernmental organizations like IPPF and Marie Stopes. "UNPD is a bunch of good research nerds who want to stay away from the agenda of the UNFPA," said Mr. Eberstadt. UNPD demographers have three scenarios for population growth:

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