Pronatalism (and Male Dominated Monotheistic Religions) Keep Birth Control at Bay

By Donald A. Collins | 10 July 2013
Church and State

(Image by Md Faysal Ahmed from Pixabay)

As a birth control advocate since my last child (of three!!) was born in 1960, I have been often surprised and disappointed to find that efforts to offer modern methods of family planning and, in absence of contraception or when contraception fails, safe, early abortion services, frequently fall short.

As my op ed pieces on this site and elsewhere disclose, it remains my strong belief that the fierce opposition of most of the world’s major monotheistic religions, which are all male dominated, against providing women modern, safe, free and freely available family planning has been the principal driving engine in the rampant growth of world population. Human numbers have accelerated in the past century from 1.6 billion (1913) to 7.2 today, with 230,000 net new humans added every day. It is estimated that half the births of the last century were unintended.

Admitted, nothing is perfect in our increasingly imperfect world. Maybe that growing imperfection will provide the goad necessary to better provide the above birth control needs to all the world’s families.

But the continuing ignoring of this issue, made me especially intrigued by the article forwarded from that constant source of timely and accurate information Joe Bish at the Population Media Center.

I thought his latest offering worth full quotation. However, as you read this excellent material which argues that it is what the author calls “pronatalism” or perhaps what might be defined as “cultural birth bias”, there is sparse mention of my point, the powerful religious push to keep women pregnant and out of power. Holding back birth control is one sure way!

Bish begins his post with an essay written by Laura Carroll, the author of The Baby Matrix: Why Freeing Our Minds From Outmoded Thinking About Parenthood & Reproduction Will Create a Better World (2012).

Bish says, “I found it on Huffington Post and enjoyed the straightforward remarks Ms. Carroll had to offer around the ideas of pronatalism; she references Jonathan Last and Dave Foreman and quotes Dave Paxson as well.

“Below Ms. Carroll’s essay is the text associated with a multi-person interview produced by Resource Media, a non-profit that provides expert communications services, including re-framing contentious debates in ways that resonate with target audiences. The interview featured Los Angeles Times reporter Ken Weiss, author of the landmark series on population, Beyond 7 Billion; Carmen Barroso, Regional Director, International Planned Parenthood Federation/Western Hemisphere Region; Sandeep Bathala, Senior Program Associate for the Environmental Change and Security Program and the Global Health Initiative at The Wilson Center; and Kim Lovell, Director of the Sierra Club’s Global Population and Environment Program. While I could not directly embed the audio in this email, you can click through to listen. The interview runs about 55 minutes.”

Why We Deny the Realities of Population Growth

By Laura Carroll | 5 July 2013
The Huffington Post

On a recent trip to Mexico, I sat in the central square in Guanajuato watching a lively scene of children at play. Adorable as they were, I couldn’t help but notice how many of them had pregnant mothers with two or more children already in tow.

Scenes like this bring to mind the question of whether we have not only reached but already gone over a tipping point where the world’s finite resources will no longer support our growing population. Some “birth dearth” experts like Jonathan Last would say no, but others, like David Paxson, the President of World Population Balance, would say we are already long gone, and must — must — do something now to reduce births not just in the United States, but globally.

Of course people such as Mr. Last are apparently unable to read or have some kind of deep seeded mental disorder which keeps them from being influenced by the daily growing number of human fatalities from what one once called The Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse.

However, Bish continues [with the essay]:

To say “no” (e.g. to too many of us) is to deny the sobering realities of continued population growth. As evolved as humans are, one could argue that our ability to deny the truth is not so evolved. In fact, it could be one of the strongest forces that will lead us to our species’ demise.

As humans, we have evolved as social creatures, and have a need to belong. And to belong, we want to be seen as “normal,” as society defines it. These needs are reflected in our reproductive choices. Over generations, social and cultural conditioning has so strongly influenced us to believe that the human species is wired to want children. Our social evolution has bred staunch reproductive conformity, which did serve society at one time, but at 7+ billion and counting no longer does.

The current bedrock of social and cultural conditioning rests in pronatalism – a set of beliefs that is pro-birth, encourages reproduction and exalts the role of parenthood. Pronatalism promotes the denial of the realities of population growth today.

Over many generations we have been influenced to believe, and I stress believe, that having children is the natural progression in life, that it reflects our entry into adulthood, and represents our identities as men and women. We all live with the right to have children, whether we are ready to become parents or not, and to have many children as we want.

To step out of denial and face population realities means questioning pronatalist beliefs that don’t reflect reproductive responsibility today, and adopting post-pronatal mindsets that do. When it comes to biological births, one such mindset would put one’s obligation to our planet and the beings already on it first.

What if we made our first obligation to the planet and those already here, and that means not just humans, but as conservationist Dave Foreman calls them, “wild things” (all other living beings on earth)? In Paxson’s words, it would mean we have come to terms with “the fact that a person’s biological right to have children must be mediated by his or her social responsibility not to have too many.” It would mean we would understand and act on the reality that the world needs to reduce biological births.

As paleoanthropologist Louise Leakey so rightly puts it, as humans we have evolved to “have the tools and the technology to communicate what needs to be done.” To move past pronatalism and the denial it creates to a post-pronatal society will not only promote population stabilization but bring new meaning to the word humanitarianism.

We have an obligation to leave future generations as healthy a planet as possible. And the most powerful thing we can do to this end is reduce our reproduction. Seen in this way, having fewer offspring is not the selfish, but the selfless, act. Having fewer, not more, biological offspring can be seen as the true humanitarian act because it ultimately lessens the suffering of people already here and the world’s natural environment.

When we choose not to have children or to limit the number we do have because we’re mindful of the impact of each child on the planet’s resources, we show our loyalty to the future of our world… and to the continued evolution of our human species.

Ok, again, let’s put the monotheist religions on the stand. How many times has a Catholic Pope or Archbishop counseled fewer children be birthed by his women. Hey, they believe that even a Virgin could do it!!

The articles cited continue:

“It’s Not (Just) About the Numbers

By Cat Lazaroff | 27 June 2013
Resource Media

The planet is growing more crowded every day. In 2011, according to United Nations projections, we surpassed seven billion people. Projections at the time forecast passing another astounding milestone – nine billion – by mid-century.

Less than two years later, revised estimates put the world at closer to 9.6 billion by 2050, with most of the growth happening in developing nations like Nigeria – a country already hard-hit by climate change, water scarcity, and other environmental issues.

There are complex connections between population, access to reproductive health services, and human rights. Ahead of World Population Day (July 11), Resource Media assembled a diverse group of speakers to help illustrate how those connections affect communities around the globe.

Our webinar featured Los Angeles Times reporter Ken Weiss, who explored some of the connections between population and the environment last year in his landmark series on population, Beyond 7 Billion; Carmen Barroso, Regional Director, International Planned Parenthood Federation/Western Hemisphere Region; Sandeep Bathala, Senior Program Associate for the Environmental Change and Security Program and the Global Health Initiative at The Wilson Center; and Kim Lovell, Director of the Sierra Club’s Global Population and Environment Program.

You can watch the webinar below. (Click the lower right corner for a full screen view.)


We didn’t have time to get to all the questions we received; here are responses from a couple of our speakers to questions we missed:

1. What resistance to family planning do you encounter, and how do you resolve these issues?

Response from Sandeep Bathala, The Wilson Center

“Resistance to family planning stems from insufficient knowledge about contraceptive methods and how to use them, as well as fear of side effects and other health concerns. In some cases women also are afraid of opposition from their husbands, partners, or families. The comprehensive sexuality education offered by most PHE programs, which typically includes a component on communicating with your partner (or mother-in-law), help alleviate some of these obstacles to seeking voluntary family planning methods.”

Response from Kim Lovell, Sierra Club:

“I’ve seen resistance to family planning come in a variety of different forms, depending on the culture and the context.

“In India in 2009, we met a very young woman named Pinky who already had multiple daughters. She wasn’t using family planning because she wanted to keep having children until she had a son. In a culture where women marry into their husband’s families and men stay to take care of their parents in old age, a son was necessary social security. In this context, elevating the status and earning power of women and changing culture norms so that women can take care of their own aging families is the only pathway I see to increasing family planning acceptance and usage.

“In many countries around the world, resistance to family planning comes from a belief on behalf of politicians, religious figures, and others that sex is for procreation and a woman’s value is based on her childbearing abilities. Thus, the thinking goes that family planning encourages women to be ‘promiscuous’ and/or engage in sex outside of marriage, for pleasure, or for any other reason she may see fit, which is threatening to these groups. I believe these beliefs to be harmful to women, their autonomy, and their sexual health – the solution I see, again, is elevating the status of women through increased access to education, economic opportunity, and power in one’s family and community. How often are men questioned for having sex outside of marriage, without the intention of procreating, or simply for pleasure?

“I’ve also seen resistance to family planning come as a backlash to population control programs that incentivized or forced family planning on women. At one agency I visited with Sierra Club in India, the company changed hormonal contraceptive packaging to read ‘birth spacing pills’ rather than ‘birth control pills’ to increase receptivity among women/in a culture where memories of fertility control are still fresh. The solution to this problem, of course, is to ensure that family planning provision is entirely voluntary, with no exceptions. The ability to make this decision for one’s self a fundamental human right, as outlined at the ICPD in Cairo in 1994, and a variety of other international agreements since.”

2. If tackling reproductive health and environmental issues together is such a good idea, why are there so few examples of projects that combine the two?

Response from Kim Lovell, Sierra Club:

“In my experience, many women’s rights activists are resistant to incorporating an environmental message/component in their work because of a) a past history of population control in the name of environmental/resource conservation that folks are afraid of hearkening back to, b) a belief that the rights and health of women are the only justifications needed to provide family planning, and c) that talking about fertility, population, or family planning as linked to climate and the environment places blame on women in high fertility regions for the climate impacts caused by those of us in the developed, low fertility world.

“But on the other side, environmental activists don’t want to talk about family planning and population EITHER because they already feel their issue to be controversial and a bit of a hard sell, and are resistant to adding another contentious issue (family planning = sex!) to their cadre of challenging conservation and climate asks. While I understand these concerns from both sides, I believe we would make greater progress in family planning, climate mitigation and adaptation, and development if the added benefit of integration were recognized.”

Response from Sandeep Bathala, The Wilson Center

“First, I think there are actually more PHE [population, health and environment] projects than we realize. In some cases, these integrated efforts are just not called population-environment programs even though they are working to meet the health and livelihood needs of populations while ensuring the sustainability of the environment upon which they depend.

“In addition, it has always been a challenge to get donors and development workers out of their silos and buy-in to integrated programs. That is one reason why the Environmental Change and Security Program works to bring people from different sectors together.

“More peer-reviewed research demonstrating the effectiveness of the PHE approach is needed to make the case for integration, but at least two articles have documented proven results:

“An Environmental Conservation article found that integrating family planning information, advocacy, and service delivery with coastal resources management yields better results than single-sector models that provide only family planning or coastal resources management services. You can read a synthesis of the article on our blog.

“Second, a case study in the Mount Sinai Journal of Medicine found that an integrated program in Nepal led to a significant increase in the use of both contraceptives and improved cookstoves. Stay tuned for our upcoming film on this project.”

Yes, admittedly the power of the maternal instinct is huge, but the flow of adequate funds into family planning to meet the demand from women has always been way behind the amounts needed. With over 40 million abortions occurring yearly around the world, we are clearly not doing enough, even though wonderfully effective NGOs such as Population Services International, Pathfinder International, DKT International, Ipas, FHI360, Marie Stopes International, and countless others have joined governmental funds from many countries without yet meeting the demand. Far too little funding and far too many religious zealots are primary culprits.

I agree that the concept of the power of pronatalism as expressed above provides interesting other reasons for the huge glut of fertility that has overtaken our planet, but we should never underestimate the power of male dominated monotheistic religions as a central power player in this phenomenon.

The state of the world is dire. Simply understanding that for the rest of the world to live as well as we here in the USA would require several more Earths to occupy might get the population issue the attention it deserves. Call it the perception that we need to do what is necessary to survive. But then maybe we will have to have an apocalypse to make the point for those who might survive. As the number of us hits 10 or 11 billion by 2100 that scenario will likely occur.

Former US Navy officer, banker and venture capitalist, Donald A. Collins, a free lance writer living in Washington, DC., has spent over 40 years working for women’s reproductive health as a board member and/or officer of numerous family planning organizations including Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Guttmacher Institute, Family Health International and Ipas. Yale under graduate, NYU MBA. He is the author of From the Dissident Left: A Collection of Essays 2004-2013.

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