This was a busy week concerning sexual and reproductive health and rights where Bush's top adviser on HIV and AIDS tells us we are losing the battle against the virus, where The World Bank reminds us that governments are not living up their promises to support family planning programmes, and here in the UK the new head of The Science Museum says global warming will only be re-dressed if we get rid of a few billion people.

Since I don't believe anything any of Bush's experts say on anything (especially sexual health), and have always thought the Bank was just a little too self-validating and aggrandizing in its reporting back to the outside word, I'm stuck with the Head of The Science Museum Chris Rapley, and his draconian take on how to create a balance in this very unbalanced world. (Rapley, by the way, is quick to qualify his statement by saying he does not advocate genocide but investments in ways to reduce the birthrate such as improving contraception, education and healthcare.)

At the beginning of July, the UK-based Optimum Population Trust published a report called Youthquake about the escalating population problem around the globe. The report's author, Professor John Guillebaud, said: "No one is in favour of governments dictating family size, but we need to act quickly to prevent it. Worldwide, as this century progresses, those who continue to place obstacles in the way of women who want to control their fertility will have only themselves to blame, as more and more regimes bring in coercive measures."

With finite resources and finite political interest in their messages, is it time for sexual and reproductive health and rights advocates to be using the dreaded "p" word again? It seems a shame to go back to pre-ICPD language, but it may be a necessary compromise in order to reach out to the real policy makers and policy brokers around the globe who continue — as far as I can see — to take a polite, but not very political, interest in sexual and reproductive health and rights as a development issue. If we want sexual and reproductive health and rights on the development agenda, should we be placing it back in terms (and terminology) that actually matter to the architects of development?

In a decade or two's experience working in the press and communications offices for a number of reproductive health organizations, I was regularly reminded never to mention population. The fear was that we would be painted as "population controllers" by the anti-choicers. Globally, the stakes are getting a little too high to worry about criticism from minority groups, and it may be time for sexual and reproductive health organizations and activists to work with the allies that they do have, rather than in fear of — fundamentally inconsequential — detractors. A little bit of pragmatism and lateral thinking would not go amiss to spread the word a little further.

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  • suzanne-petroni

    I have to question what you expect to result from a renewed emphasis on population growth. 


    The population growth argument worked to get the issue on the policy agenda of many countries in the 1960s and 1970s, but ever since the religious right gained the ear of the White House in the early 1980s, this issue has – at least in the U.S. – become focused on reproductive rights.  ICPD didn't force that change; the right wing did.


    Even though many of us in the population/RH community have continued to point to the challenges of unsustainable growth as reasons to support international family planning, the opposition (which still determines policy for the White House today) won't listen.  No matter how much we try to stress the national security, environmental or economic costs associated with unsustainable growth, their so-called "moral" agenda has prevailed. So at least until we change the party in power and/or minimize the influence that the "family values" folks have in Washington, you can't talk all you want about population – it won't matter here. 


    In Europe, most governments have taken on the ICPD rights-based approach wholeheartedly, and have thankfully acted as counterbalances to the U.S. over the past several years.  Their support for SRHR has generally been quite strong, and remains so.  True, a few European policymakers' support comes from their concerns about population dynamics, but for most, it's not about "global population growth," but rather migration, aging, or unsustainable growth at the national or regional level in countries that they support.


    UNFPA and the World Bank have never shied away from population issues, and their support for these causes remains strong.  And UNFPA's budget continues to reach all-time highs.


    So just which governments or development agencies do you see being swayed by the same old arguments about population?