Maintaining Human Rights in Family Planning Policy as Depopulation Fears Rise

Human rights have been at the heart of the family planning movement for more than half a century, although family planning programs have not always lived up to the human rights commitments to which governments subscribe publicly. The right of couples to control their fertility was first codified in the Tehran Declaration of 1968, who noted that:

“Parents have the fundamental human right to freely and responsibly determine the number and spacing of their children.”

However, 1968 also brought us the book, The population bomb which has fueled fears of widespread famine and social unrest due to rapidly increasing human populations, especially in the Global South. In the wake of such alarmist rhetoric about the economic and environmental impacts of rapid population growth, many countries have adopted coercive family planning programs in an attempt to sharply reduce fertility. These policies have often led to human rights violations, including forced sterilizations and abortions.

Partly because of these abuses, the family planning community recommitted itself to rights-based approaches at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD). The ICPD Program of Action (PoA) reaffirmed the rights of couples to choose the number and spacing of children articulated for the first time in Tehran, while also noting that these rights also belong to individuals. In addition, the ICPD Program of Action called on governments to provide high quality reproductive health programs that respect human rights.

Principle 8 of the ICPD Program of Action bed (in part):

Reproductive health care programs should provide the widest range of services without any form of coercion. All couples and individuals have the fundamental right to decide freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children and to have the information, education and means to do so.

This principle, and the broader ICPD PA, have been integral to the development of international family planning policy over the past quarter century.

Sub-replacement fertility goes mainstream

Due to economic development, changing social norms, and improved access and quality of reproductive health care, global fertility rates (TFRs) have dropped dramatically since the ICPD, from about three children per woman in the early 1990s at 2.3. today. In addition, many countries have gone through the demographic transition, with fertility often below replacement level (about 2.1 children per woman). Over 90 jurisdictions around the world had fertility rates below 2.1 in 2021, including the United States, China, Russia, Japan, Brazil, Germany, France, United Kingdom and Turkey .

As the world’s population will continue to grow in the coming decades due to population dynamics and still high fertility rates in sub-Saharan Africa, depopulation is beginning to replace overpopulation as the dominant paradigm of global demography and is a phenomenon that the family planning community needs to prepare. In a sign of changing times, last November the Wittgenstein Center, a leading demographic research consortium, held its first, but certainly not the last,depopulation conference.

Governments are increasingly taking note of these fertility trends, particularly in the Americas, Europe, and Asia where many countries are experiencing below replacement fertility. To combat low fertility, many governments adopt public policies aimed at increasing birth rates, often referred to as pro-natalist policies. These reforms include: increased parental leave, childcare subsidies, one-time or recurring cash bonuses, subsidized housing or loans, and tax breaks. While many of these policies may increase fertility, they are generally insufficient on their own to raise fertility to replacement level or the number of children desired by couples. Moreover, since many of these policies were implemented relatively recently, it is unclear whether they will be able to sustain increases in fertility over the long term.

Will human rights be protected as governments fight depopulation?

Some governments dissatisfied with the results provided by pronatalist economic and labor policies restrict access to family planning services, which goes directly against the commitments made at the ICPD to provide a wide range of methods without coercion. In 2021, Iran passed a law drastically reducing her family planning program, which was once widely celebrated for its impacts on development and gender equality. The new law prohibits public health care providers to provide free contraceptives, as well as voluntary sterilization. In China, some local governments limit access to vasectomies– a very common method of birth control for Chinese couples – in response to central government concerns about population decline. Repressions of access to pronatalist family planning services exist even in Europe. In 2017, Poland launched a demand for women to receive a prescription in order to access emergency contraception – a policy out of step with its counterparts in the European Union. This reform was adopted as part of a broader pronatalist push by the Polish government, which included cash bonuses to parents.

Efforts to limit access to contraceptives are not universal – on New Year’s Day, France has expanded a program provide free contraceptives to women and girls under 25. However, France, with a TFR of around 1.8 and net immigration, faces fewer immediate challenges from population decline than many of its European peers.

As population decline replaces population growth as the central demographic concern vexing policymakers in many high- and middle-income countries, more governments are likely to adopt pronatalist policies. But given the evidence suggesting the limited effectiveness of tax or labor reforms in producing significant or sustained increases in fertility rates, policies that restrict access to family planning services may become increasingly tempting.

The ICPD enshrined the ability of individuals and couples to freely choose the number and spacing of their children as a fundamental right, while imposing on States the obligation to provide high-quality, evidence-based family planning services. rights. Without efforts to reaffirm the centrality of human rights in family planning, the painful lessons of the past, where demographic goals took precedence over the preferences of couples and individuals, risk being repeated.

Sam Sellers is a practitioner/researcher interested in environmental demography and human-environment interactions. The opinions expressed here are his own.

Sources: European Commission, European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, Financial Times, France24, Population Reference Bureau, The Guardian, The Korea Herald, The Washington Post, The Wittgenstein Center for Demography and Global Human Capital, United Nations Population Fund .

Photo credit: Woman holding a sign that reads ‘WOMEN’S RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS’ during a protest against Polish abortion laws. Image reproduced with the kind permission of CameraCraft,

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