From bodily autonomy back to family planning

By Jan van Weeren | 20 April 2021
The Overpopulation Project

A Somali refugee stands inside a tent with her baby in Dollo Ado, Ethiopia. (Credit: Eskinder Debebe, United Nations Photo / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In its recent report State of World Population 2021 the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) highlights bodily autonomy as a universal right. Of course, nobody in a civilised society would object against this position. However, by limiting the notion to the domain of gender-based violence and harmful practices such as child marriage, female genital mutilation, reproductive coercion and virginity testing, UNFPA misses a fundamental aspect of bodily integrity: the individual’s right to live a liveable life. The absence of sexual violence and oppression is a necessary but not a sufficient condition to fulfil that right. Given present and future hardships in many countries, UNFPA should prioritize new international family planning programmes aiming at birth control through voluntary choice, backed up by information and outreach regarding the costs of overpopulation in poor as well as rich countries.

There are two fundamental reasons that people have governments. The first is material security, protecting one’s possessions, be it your house, land, cattle or money. The government should warrant that nothing is taken from you against your will, neither by your countrymen nor by a foreign power.

The second and maybe the most important reason is the protection of your physical integrity. This is not only a matter of preventing you from being molested or even killed; the government should also intervene if your health is threatened by disease or the actions of others, e.g. by air, water or noise pollution. Your physical integrity is also at stake if you live in a situation of water or food shortage or malnourishment. In such cases, the government is expected to make an all-out effort to save you from starvation.

UNFPA’s report is titled “My body is my own: claiming the right to autonomy and self-determination”. It focuses on “bodily autonomy”, thus continuing the course of former reports in which women’s “freedom of choice” was highlighted, while reproductive responsibilities have been neglected. This course was set out in 1994 with the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. Its resulting Programme of Action became the steering document for UNFPA, and after all these years it still is.

Actually the Cairo conference meant a paradigm shift. The original goal of reducing global population growth by promoting family planning was replaced by the individualistic goal of women’s empowerment, generally denoted as “sexual and reproductive health and rights” (SRHR). It is argued that this paradigm shift was primarily a consequence of an extraordinarily effective campaign undertaken by the international women’s movement and supported by the United States and the Holy See.

The new UNFPA report points out that bodily autonomy is intertwined with the right to bodily integrity. However, bodily integrity is not just a matter of enabling people “to live free from physical acts to which they do not consent” (p.7). It is much more than that. It is the right to live in an equitable and habitable environment in which the basic necessities of life are available, such as nutritious food, clean water and natural areas to enjoy, rich in other species. It is a fundamental task of any government to secure these necessities and take appropriate measures to maintain a balance between these necessities and the people needing them. This becomes even more obvious when we consider having children – then we also need to think about the future, and the world the kids will inherit.

If not a global government, the United Nations acts to co-ordinate intergovernmental collaboration and negotiate humanitarian commitments. 193 nations co-operate “in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights” (UN Charter I.1.3). One of these rights is bodily integrity as defined above.

The UN should be well aware of the fact that the bodily integrity of many is in jeopardy right now. According to UN projections, two regions are forecast to have much larger populations in 2100 than they had in 2020. The population of north Africa and the Middle East is forecasted to increase by 75%, while the population of sub-Saharan Africa is expected to triple. This would imply a necessary tripling of all the resources and the infrastructure which already lacks 52-64% of the necessary investments (130 to 170 billion dollars each year).

Food security is seriously at stake in these regions and the situation is worsening, as can be concluded from the fourth annual Global Report on Food Crises. It will become more and more difficult to cope with food insecurity and malnutrition in a situation of rapidly growing populations. The precariousness of this situation is confirmed by the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation report The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020. Reversing earlier improvements, since 2014 the number of people affected by hunger is increasing. The prevalence of undernourishment in Africa was 19.1 percent of the population in 2019 (more than 250 million undernourished people); it was 17.6 percent in 2014. If the rate of increase persists, undernourishment will rise to 25.7 percent of Africa’s population by 2030.

With a rapidly growing population and an increasing trend of food shortages, it would be wise for UNFPA not just to focus on women’s sexual freedom, but to return to programmes aiming at family planning and birth control. Key themes include sexual education for all, prolonged education for girls, promotion of family planning and small family norms, economic independency of women, postponed time of marriage, and especially improved availability and use of contraceptives. This broader view will help secure bodily integrity of present and future generations.

Jan van Weeren is secretary of the Dutch foundation against overpopulation.

Reprinted with permission from Frank Götmark – Project leader of The Overpopulation Project (TORP); Professor, Animal ecology and Conservation Biology, University of Gothenburg.

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