Children—Assets or Liabilities?
THE issue of family planning is closely linked to what is often called the population explosion. Throughout much of mankind’s history, population growth was relatively slow; the number dying was about the same as the number being born. Eventually, about the year 1830, the world’s population reached one billion people.
Then came medical and scientific advances that resulted in fewer deaths from disease, especially childhood disease. By about 1930, world population stood at two billion people. By 1960, another billion had been added. By 1975, another billion. By 1987, world population reached five billion.
To look at it another way, the number of people on the planet is presently increasing by about 170 people every minute. That adds up to some 250,000 people every day, enough for a sizable city. This means, too, that each year yields a population increase of over 90 million people, the equivalent of three Canadas or another Mexico. Over 90 percent of this growth is occurring in developing countries, where 75 percent of the world’s population already lives.
But why are governments eager to limit population growth through family planning? Dr. Babs Sagoe, Nigeria’s National Program Officer for the UN Population Fund, answers this question with a simple illustration that, he cautions, tends to oversimplify a complex and controversial situation. He explains:
‘Suppose a farmer owns ten acres [4 ha] of land. If he has ten children and divides the land equally among them, each child will have an acre [about half a ha]. If each of those children has ten children and divides the land similarly, each of their children will have only one tenth of an acre [0.04 ha]. Clearly, these children will not be as well off as their grandfather, who had ten acres [4 ha] of land.’
This illustration highlights the relationship between a growing number of people and a finite earth with limited resources. As the population grows, many developing countries are struggling to cope with present population levels. Consider some of the problems.
Resources. As the number of people increases, there are greater demands on forests, topsoil, cropland, and fresh water. The result? Populi magazine laments: “Developing countries . . . are often compelled to overexploit the national resources on which their development future depends.”
Infrastructure. As the population grows, governments find it increasingly difficult to provide adequate housing, schools, sanitation facilities, roads, and health services. Saddled with the double burden of heavy debt and diminishing resources, the developing nations are hard-pressed to cope with the needs of present populations, let alone much larger ones.
Employment. The UN Population Fund publication Population and the Environment: The Challenges Ahead states that in many developing countries, 40 percent of the work force is already unemployed. Throughout the developing world, more than half a billion people are either unemployed or underemployed, a figure nearly equal to the entire work force in the industrialized world.
In order to prevent these rates from worsening, developing countries must create over 30 million new jobs every year. The people who will need these jobs are alive today—they are today’s children. Experts speculate that massive unemployment may lead to civil strife, deepening poverty, and further destruction of natural resources.
Little wonder that more and more developing nations are striving to promote family planning. Commenting on what lies ahead, an editorial in the British medical journal Lancet stated: “The pressure of increase in numbers [of people], mainly confined to the poorer countries of the world, compounds enormously the task they face. . . . Millions will spend their lives uneducated, unemployed, ill-housed and without access to elementary health, welfare and sanitary services, and unchecked population increase is a major causal factor.”
Setting goals and instituting family planning programs on the national level is one thing; convincing the public is another. In many societies traditional views favoring large families are still strong. For example, a Nigerian mother responded to her government’s encouragement to cut down birthrates by saying: “I am the last of my father’s 26 children. All my seniors, including males and females, have between eight and 12 children. So, shall I be the one to have few children?”
Nevertheless, such a viewpoint is not as common as it once was, even in Nigeria, where the average woman gives birth to six children. Faced with rising prices, millions of people are hard-pressed to feed and clothe their families. Many have learned through experience the truth of the Yoruba saying: “Ọmọ bẹẹrẹ, òṣì bẹẹrẹ” (an abundance of children, an abundance of poverty).
Many couples understand the benefits of family planning, yet do not practice it. The result? The State of the World’s Children 1992, published by the United Nations Children’s Fund, said that approximately 1 pregnancy in 3 in the developing world during the year would be not only unplanned but unwanted.
Family Planning Saves Lives
Apart from economic difficulties, a major reason to consider family planning is the health of the mother and her children. “Pregnancy is a gamble and giving birth is a life-and-death struggle,” says a West African proverb. Every year in the developing world, half a million women die during pregnancy or childbirth, a million children are left motherless, and an additional five million to seven million women become handicapped or crippled because of childbirth-related health impairments.
Not all women in developing countries run the same risk. As the accompanying box shows, those most at risk are women who bear too many children too early, too frequently, or too late. UN sources estimate that family planning could prevent from a quarter to a third of these fatalities and could prevent millions of disabilities.
But would not the saving of millions of lives only serve to increase population growth? Surprisingly, many experts say no. “It might be thought,” states the 1991 Human Development Report, “that, if more children survived, population problems would get worse. Quite the reverse. Fertility tends to drop when parents are more confident that their children will survive.”
Nevertheless, millions of women, especially in poor societies, continue to give birth frequently. Why? Because their society expects it of them, because having many children increases the likelihood that some will survive, and because they may not know about or not have access to family planning services.
Yet, many women who have large families would not have it any other way. They consider each child a blessing from God.
[Box on page 6]
High-Risk Pregnancy in the Developing World
Too Early: The risk of death during pregnancy and childbirth among women from 15 to 19 years of age is up to three times higher than among women from 20 to 24 years of age. Babies born to teenage women are more likely to die, be born too early, or weigh too little at birth.
Too Close: The length of time between births greatly affects child survival. A child born less than two years after the mother’s previous child stands a 66 percent greater chance of dying in infancy. If these children survive, their growth is more likely to be stunted and their intellectual development more likely to be impaired. About 1 in 5 infant deaths could be prevented through proper birth spacing. Intervals of three or more years between births carry the least risk.
Too Many: Bearing more than four children increases the dangers of pregnancy and childbirth, especially if the previous children were not spaced by more than two years. After four pregnancies, mothers are more likely to suffer from anemia and are more prone to hemorrhaging, and their children run a higher risk of being born with disabilities.
Too Late: Women over the age of 35 are five times more likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth than are women from 20 to 24 years of age. Children born to older women are also more likely to die.
Sources: World Health Organization, UN Children’s Fund, and the UN Population Fund.