Fifty years ago, the United Nations officially recognized family planning as a universal human right. This landmark declaration was established in the Proclamation of Tehran drafted and adopted by the International Conference on Human Rights (ICHR) in 1968. As Article 16 of the Proclamation states, “The protection of the family and of the child remains the concern of the international community. Parents have a basic human right to determine freely and responsibly the number and the spacing of their children.”
That same year, Dr. Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, and the book’s success led to the founding of Zero Population Growth, or ZPG (which became Population Connection in 2002). The organization’s message, radical for its time, placed population growth as a major concern on the radars of not only millions of Americans but also governments around the world. ZPG’s initial mission, simpler than Population Connection’s today, focused on encouraging couples to have fewer children due to the environmental consequences of rapid population growth.
The first decade of ZPG coincided with numerous milestones: Roe v. Wade and Eisenstadt v. Baird (which legalized birth control for all people, regardless of marital status); the first Earth Day; the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Title X Family Planning Program in the United States; and the establishment of the UN Population Fund and World Bank by the United Nations. Under the cumulative effects of these advancements, U.S. birth rates dropped precipitously. The country’s total fertility rate would reach 1.74 births per woman in 1976, the lowest in its history and less than half the peak rate of the Baby Boom. The public had gained a newfound appreciation for not only the importance of reproductive health and the environment, but also for how both are intimately linked to human population growth.
“Family Planning as a Human Right”
In 2018, Population Connection celebrates “Family Planning as a Human Right,” the theme of this year’s World Population Day. Population Connection celebrates a half-century of grassroots advocacy and K-12 education around population issues, and the half-century of global progress that has been made since the ICHR.
We must also acknowledge, however, that fulfilling the ICHR’s vision for “Family Planning as a Human Right” remains a very distant reality. The global landscape has evolved considerably since 1968, and not always for the better. An estimated 214 million women in the developing world do not want to become pregnant but aren’t using modern contraception, due to a variety of social, religious, and financial barriers. Continued growth of the human population and unsustainable consumption accelerate and exacerbate climate change and its effects, destabilizing economies and ecosystems and disproportionately deteriorating the quality of life for the communities that are already most vulnerable. Today in the United States, even the most basic of reproductive rights and services are under attack as science and facts have become contentious partisan subjects.
In keeping pace with the times, Population Connection has likewise matured since 1968, in more ways than just the new name. We recognize the paramount role of family planning in moderating population growth, and the intrinsic value of empowering individuals through education to make their own informed choices. Increased access to family planning directly reduces unintended pregnancies, abortions, and infant and maternal mortality. Once women possess the autonomy over their own bodies to safely have as many or as few children as they wish, the rest falls into place: population growth goes down, standard of living goes up.
Accordingly, we’ve centered reproductive rights as more than just a secondary concern, peripheral to population growth, but rather as the focal point behind several interconnected issues, population growth being but one of them. Following the framework established at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, the need became evident to address population issues primarily from the lens of justice, human rights, and voluntarism. As Population Connection embarks on its next half century, the urgency of ensuring access to reproductive healthcare for all, and the path we must take to get there, remains more clear-cut than ever. “Family Planning as a Human Right” is an important means to an end for stabilizing population growth, of course, but it is an admirable and noble endeavor in its own right as well.