What was the most transformative invention of the past 1,000 years? The printing press? Penicillin? The Internet?
Here’s my candidate: modern contraception.
For the first time in human history, women don’t need to spend decades wondering if their lives are about to be transformed, disrupted, or even possibly ruined by unplanned pregnancy. And, although men don’t get pregnant, we play a role and need to take responsibility.
Innovations related to sanitation and general public health triggered the population explosion some 200 years ago. While we still face daunting challenges due to population growth, it is important to note that the global fertility rate has dropped by 50 percent over the past few decades. This simply couldn’t have happened without birth control pills and other contraceptive methods.
Birth control pills can work quite well. But we humans are far from perfect. One study of women using the Pill—99 percent of whom were high school graduates—reported that participants missed taking an average of 4.7 pills per month. Properly used, birth control pills are an excellent way to prevent unplanned pregnancy. But, in the real world, 9 percent of women using them will get pregnant within one year. Condoms can also be effective, but it’s no secret that many men fail to use them consistently.
There’s another way to prevent pregnancy that is 20 times more effective than birth control pills. It’s called LARC, which stands for long-acting reversible contraception. LARC includes intrauterine devices (IUDs) and implants—both of which address our all-too-human inconsistency.
A pilot program in Colorado, funded by the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, resulted in a 40-percent statewide drop in the teen birth rate and 35 percent fewer abortions between 2009 and 2013. Legislative high jinks resulted in a 2015 failure to fund continuation of the program. A key opponent, State Sen. Kevin Lundberg, wildly and falsely claimed that LARCs could be responsible for Colorado “stopping a small child from implanting.” Lundberg has no healthcare training, but he did co-found the Christian Home Educators of Colorado.
Fortunately, wiser heads have since prevailed. Gov. Hickenlooper signed this year’s budget—which provides $2.5 million for LARC funding—into law on April 27.
A 40-percent reduction in unplanned births in the U.S. could well put us on the pathway to zero population growth, based on recent trends. LARC can make that happen.
We don’t need a miracle. We just need common sense to prevail. Which may be a miracle of sorts in these crazy times.
Dr. Bruce Bridgeman was an internationally renowned neuroscientist whose interests ranged from music to cycling to sailing to population challenges—and were exceeded only by his good-heartedness. As a dedicated member of ZPG/Population Connection, Bruce kindly invited me to speak to his UC Santa Cruz class. A former student aptly described Bruce as “the quintessential scientist . . . you will be utterly fascinated by his view of the world.” He made our world a better place and will be missed.