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In 1959, Margaret Sanger, the American pioneer of the birth control movement and the founder of Planned Parenthood, urged President Eisenhower to resist pressure from the “Roman Catholic hierarchy” to reject foreign aid programs supporting contraceptives. She went so far as to publish a letter to the editor of the New York Times and other major newspapers, urging the government to listen to the voice of the majority of American voters who believed that proper medical care including birth control and contraceptives were the right of people around the world.
Sanger was such an American stalwart that she not only managed to change President Eisenhower’s opinion, but eventually persuaded him to serve as President of Planned Parenthood.
One of the reasons Eisenhower changed his views was his serious concern for rising world population.
Yet, the world population was only three billion then.
In spite of the efforts of Eisenhower and Sanger, world population passed the seven billion mark in the autumn of 2011.
Some argue that population is not an issue for the United States because the country has a zero growth rate (not counting immigration). But we no longer live in an insular world. Our national policies have global influence.
Sanger and Eisenhower recognized this 50 years ago.
The Republican Party of today does not.
The recent kerfuffle over Obama’s decision to include free contraceptives in American healthcare plans has highlighted the retro policies of the Republican right wing. It appears that the Catholic Church is once again dictating the future of our planet. What century the Vatican lives in is anyone’s guess.
It would be interesting to conduct a survey to find out how many wives and daughters of right wing politicians use contraceptives. Studies of Catholic and fundamentalist Christian women have shown that an overwhelming majority uses birth control.
The trouble is, this is not just an issue of women’s reproductive choices and personal freedoms any more. It also is also an issue of our planet’s survival.
Nowhere in the debate on contraceptives is the word “population” even uttered. As if it were a taboo. Yet, it is evident that the most effective way we can reduce the human carbon footprint is through population reduction.
Polls show that a majority of Americans still support foreign aid for healthcare, including contraceptives. Why, then, has the U.S. government not done more for this cause? Because the Republican right wing has managed to undo the gains of the last half a century and taken us back to where America was in 1959. On his first business day in office, President George W. Bush signed the “Global Gag Rule” that was ostensibly against U.S. funds going towards abortion services in developing countries, but ended up removing access to comprehensive contraception and family planning services in at least 16 African countries. (The executive order was later repealed by President Obama.)
What conservatives gain by encouraging poor women to have more children is beyond me.
When I try to analyze their motivations, I end up going in circles. Here are some facts. The right wing generally only worries about rich people. Its tax policies are a case in point. The Mitt Romneys of the world even go so far as to openly confess that they are not worried about poor people. Why then would they want to multiply the ranks of the poor by refusing them free contraceptives and thereby inciting them to have more babies? By the same token, why would they want to refuse birth control to women of Africa or India and thereby encourage them to have more children?
Do the same people who want to build a wall to prevent all these poor brown immigrants from entering their country also want the same brown people to increase their numbers by billions?
It does not compute, unless you attribute sinister motives to these politicians, such as the desire to keep the poor populations around the world poorer by encouraging them to have more children? That sounds like a plot only a villain in a James Bond movie would conceive.
Newt Gingrich as a Dr No? The mind boggles.
Why has population policy been on the back burner? It is not just the right wing which has neglected this issue. Many liberals too believe that America has no right to tell the so called “third world” to reduce its birth rate. Just as they find it offensive to tell India or China to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, many liberals find it culturally insensitive to tell them to stop having babies.
So instead, the liberals are busy inventing technical fixes for the survival of our planet. Such as constructing energy efficient green buildings. Such as manufacturing electric cars. Or growing food in hydroponics ponds. Or desalinating water.
Many citizens of developing countries are under no illusion, however. During my recent travels in India, people constantly told me that they thought population was the sole culprit in the breakdown of infrastructure in their country; that the place was splitting at the seams because of demand for resources. The Indian government, too, states that even though it has made progress in reducing population, it has not yet reached a replacement rate or a negative growth rate.
It is imperative that countries like India should achieve a population growth rate equal to or less than replacement if they are to survive. If we are all to survive.
Or else the ice caps will melt, the oceans will rise, and earth’s climate will irrevocably change. The planet will run out of clean air, water, and eventually food.
A first step in mitigating these problems is to have free contraception easily available around the world. Obama is taking steps in that direction; by mandating that healthcare plans should provide free contraceptives to Americans and by removing the restrictions that George W. Bush’s administration put on foreign aid for contraceptives.
But more needs to be done. A study by the World Watch Institute shows that foreign aid for birth control has steadily declined since the advent of the Reagan revolution. This is clearly a result of the “moral majority’s” grip over the White House.
Planned Parenthood is one organization that is still fighting for the cause. We all need to join it.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. Visit www.saritasarvate.com