A look at the environmental consequences of family planning budget cuts
This year the Earth’s population will hit seven billion, and this number will climb to nine billion by 2050, according to United Nations (UN) reports.
Even though the United States will produce fewer children than developing nations, our growth will have disproportionately detrimental environmental impacts. By the time Americans hit age 16, it’s not unusual for iPods, camera phones and personal cars to be added to the list of needs that includes food and shelter. In fact, according to the Sierra Club, the average American child uses as many resources as 35 youth in India.
As we move forward into an increasingly populated future, contraception, sex education and birth control services may help slow population growth. Yet despite evidence that family planning offers environmental as well as social benefits, the conservative House of Representatives nearly cut funding for Planned Parenthood during the heated budget showdown on Friday, April 8.
A policy rider was originally proposed barring the nonprofit from receiving federal funding, according to Lupe Rodriguez, director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood Mar Monte (PPMM). After a successful lobby on behalf of family planning, the federal budget passed on Friday, April 8 without the controversial amendment.
But despite the victory, Planned Parenthood representatives say the threat of cutbacks remains. “We expect conservative members to continue pushing to include the proposal to bar Planned Parenthood from receiving any federal funds in upcoming budget proposals,” says Fran Linkin, Santa Cruz spokesperson for PPMM, which operates clinics in 29 California counties.
This week the Senate will consider restructuring Title X—a federal grant program that helps fund family planning services offered by groups like Planned Parenthood. Nationwide, Title X organizations prevent an estimated 973,000 unintended pregnancies each year, according to the Washington D.C.-based Guttmacher Institute, which works to advance sexual and reproductive health issues. If Title X funds were cut altogether, Linkin estimates that 65,000 individuals stand to lose services at PPMM, impacting one fourth of its patients. The restucturing is not expected to defund Planned Parenthood, but will include severe cuts to Title X.
Family Planning Footprints
Though the media has given little attention to the environmental impacts of family planning, recent analysis from the New York, NY-based Population Council shows that birth control and education help reduce our human footprint.
“The United States is one of the few rich countries still growing,” says John Bongaarts, distinguished scholar at the Population Council. “And since the average American consumes more natural resources like oil and water, the more rapidly the U.S. population grows, the more serious global environmental problems become.”
In February, just hours after the House of Representatives sent the first round of family planning cuts to the Senate, which responded with a veto, Bongaarts presented his research on population growth at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington D.C. His analysis shows that family planning can help reduce the number of unwanted and unintended pregnancies in the United States.
“We might reduce unwanted pregnancies from 15 percent to 5 percent with access to family planning and better information in schools,” says Bongaart. He adds that, currently, 35 percent of pregnancies in the United States are unintended or unwanted—a higher number than is currently found in most other developed nations, where contraception is more easily obtained.
At the global level, a lack of family planning may cause populations to skyrocket faster than previously predicted. The UN projects that fertility rates will stabilize and decrease after numbers hit 9.5 billion—this is based on low levels of childbearing in Southern and Eastern Europe, and an assumption that women in other geographic locations will eventually have fewer than two children, on average. Yet Bongaart argues that fertility rates may not decrease without family planning options, at least not in many regions.
“If contraception and family planning options aren’t available, we could hit 10 or even 11 billion by , and this will put a much larger strain on environmental resources than we are currently feeling,” he says. In contrast, he has found that, with massive investments in family planning, the Earth’s population might grow more slowly than analysts predict, and peak at 8 billion. This may be due to the additional life options made available to women by family planning programs.
Even when family planning programs support the option of having a large family, they often still result in overall reductions in population growth. “When women are granted access to comprehensive education about sexuality and family planning health services, and are afforded the support and resources to make the best decisions for themselves and their families, they often voluntarily choose to limit their childbearing,” says Linkin. “Planned Parenthood does not strive to limit childbearing, but rather empower women to make their own decisions about family size.”
Reducing the rate of population growth has two environmental benefits: it eases the strain on natural resources, and allows for sustainable city planning.
“The environmental benefits come from having fewer people, less pollution, and lower consumption of water, food and oil,” says Bongaart, “but slower population growth also makes it easier for economies and human communities to plan and execute growth.”
When population growth is rapid, cities collapse into cycles of urban sprawl. Slower growth facilitates urban redevelopment projects, which create more compact cities. With the extra time, solar power and rooftop water harvesting can be integrated into homes and offices, and mass transit systems can be designed, replacing cars.
Because cities in the United States use a lot of resources, cuts to national family planning programs may also have more far-reaching, global environmental repercussions.
According to the Sierra Club, the United States contains 5 percent of the world’s population but consumes 22 percent of fossil fuel resources. We create 24 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, and use 33 percent of papers and plastics.
In many communities, the typical family uses 176 gallons of water a day. In contrast, many African families use five gallons a day. In Australia, where living standards are high, many homes use only 35 gallons, according to a spokesperson from the Santa Rosa-based Post Carbon Institute.
From farm to tabletop, food is also trucked farther in the United States. Each year, a single long-haul truck can release five tons of the particulate-forming air pollutant nitrogen oxide. Finally, to bring produce home from the market, the average American uses 500 plastic bags a year, according to the Surfrider Foundation. These don’t biodegrade and usually can’t be recycled.
This is why the proposed budget cuts have raised concern in the environmental sector as well as the public health and women’s rights communities. “There are a lot of people who argue [that] population growth is the single most important problem facing the human race. If you mess with family planning, you are messing with the planet,” says Kevin Collins, the chair of the Santa Cruz County chapter of the Sierra Club.
As for the future of family planning in the U.S., if the Senate approves cuts to Title X this week, there may be a Presidential veto, says Rodriguez. In the meantime, Americans will continue reproducing.