Paul R. Ehrlich & Anne H. Ehrlich, The Population Explosion, 1990.

Connections and Solutions: I

Let's return now to questions we introduced in Chapter 1. Why haven't more people demanded action to end the population explosion? Why aren't newspapers filled with articles on demographics: how many people there are and where they are, birthrates, death rates, and age compositions? Why doesn't virtually every evening TV news program contain stories on these topics, or on the social determinants and consequences of childbearing decisions, or on the whys or wherefores of using contraceptives, as well as their availability and efforts to develop new and better ones? Why doesn't every schoolchild learn the history of the population explosion as the most important, astounding, and far-reaching event of the twentieth century? Why do even scientists like us, trained to deal with population/resource/environment issues, find it takes constant effort to realize that the habitability of Earth is rapidly decaying? Why is it so hard to see the connections between population pressures and other aspects of the human predicament? [186]


A major reason lies in the evolutionary history of our species, which has profoundly shaped every human being's general view of the world.1 First of all, biological evolution made us primarily "sight animals." Thirty million years ago, our ancestors were jumping around in trees. Judging the distance to the next branch by sight is much more efficient than doing it by smell or hearing. Natural selection favored those of our ancestors with good vision, and sight is now our dominant sense. Our perceptual systems only take in perhaps a billionth of the possible stimuli that are "out there," and they give emphasis to those detectable with the eyes. Thus litter in the landscape impresses us much more than a thin film of (to us) odorless, flavorless poison on our fruit; if we had become primarily taste/ smell animals like dogs, our concerns would be very different.

A second thing that our biological evolution did for our sensory systems was design them to respond strongly to "events": the charge of a lion, the snap of a breaking branch, the appearance of an attractive potential mate. In order to make these important occurrences stand out, evolution also seems to have made our minds perceive the environmental backdrop as constant.

Most of us have experienced a startling demonstration of the suppression of change in the environmental backdrop against which our lives are played out. If you see a friend regularly, he or she seems unchanging. So does the person you greet in the bathroom mirror every morning. But if you find a picture taken of yourself and your friend twenty years ago, what a shock you have. Can you ever have looked so young? What about those clothes!

These features of our nervous system were all very useful in the old world that humanity once inhabited. In that world, there was no reason to clutter the mind (which after all evolved as a tool for keeping us alive and maximizing our reproduction) with extraneous "meaningless" information. Why need an australopithecine or a Roman emperor notice whether the climate was changing? Neither could cause a change, and neither could do anything about one if it occurred. Better to keep one's [187] mind clear to detect the stealthy approach of a leopard or the passing of an attractive individual who might prove to be a good mate.

Furthermore, our evolutionary history prepared us primarily to survive as individuals in small groups. If some members of a group behaved inappropriately, they were often the ones to suffer starvation or be killed by a predator. If inappropriate behavior by an individual threatened the group, he or she was eliminated.2 The existence of other groups, except for nearby friends or enemies, was unknown.

In the last few decades, however, humanity has entered a brand-new world -- one in which slow-developing changes such as climate alteration and population growth are muchjpreater threats to most people than stalking predators. With its unprecedented increase in numbers, humanity has become the dominant organism on the planet, one capable of changing Earth dramatically. As a result, a survival premium has been placed on being able to detect "gradual" trends taking place on a time scale of decades. In addition, inappropriate behavior by groups now can threaten all of humanity -- as exemplified by the assault on the global environment launched by the industrialized nations or Brazil's treatment of the Amazon rain forest.

But human beings, besides tuning out gradual trends, do not easily recognize the need to adjust their ways of life to accommodate the needs of more than five billion fellows, most living thousands of miles away. That all people must change their behavior to permit everyone on the planet to lead a decent life is not a notion evolution has prepared us to accept readily. It is not surprising that Homo sapiens has brought its old mind into the new world. After all, biological evolution would require many thousands of generations to adjust the old perceptual apparatus to new situations, and world-scale problems have appeared only in the last one or two generations.

So, if society is to come to grips with the population explosion and the other elements of the greatest crisis it has faced in historic times, it will have to do so through cultural evolution. Cultural evolution consists of changes in the body of non-genetic information that is passed from person to person and [188] generation to generation. Cultural information, unlike the genetic information coded into the DNA of human beings, can be altered very rapidly -- well within a single generation in the modern world, sometimes within a week.

Cultural evolution must be harnessed and directed so as to amplify people's awareness of the gradual environmental changes that so threaten our civilization. Somehow we've all got to learn that a fluctuating but continually climbing line on a graph measuring the concentration of a colorless, odorless gas in the atmosphere may represent an enormously greater threat to our children's security than all the world's terrorists put together. People must learn to perceive in columns of population statistics an increasingly certain death knell for their way of life.

It's tough to override a legacy of billions of years of biological evolution and tens of thousands of years of cultural evolution. We know that from personal experience. Our 1966 visit to India was featured at the opening of The Population Bomb, because it was in India that we most readily perceived the population problem directly. The seriousness of the problem in rich and poor nations was already clear to us from analysis of statistical trends, but in India the symptoms were acute enough to impress themselves directly on nervous systems specialized to respond to sight. (To say nothing of sounds and smells quite sufficient to register on our less well-developed auditory and olfactory apparatus.)

In short, India's overpopulation appeared to us, as first-time visitors, as "news." Visits to India, Bangladesh, or central Africa might give others a feel for the direction in which the world is moving, although people less accustomed to looking at graphs with squiggly lines might wrongly conclude that the locus of the population problem resides mainly with the poor.

Making the population connections therefore isn't all that easy, because people are basically designed not to pay attention to the factors that are related to population growth, or to that growth itself. Population growth, climate change, faltering food security, the loss of stratospheric ozone, increased acidity of rain, the extermination of populations and species of plants [189] and animals, and various other signposts collectively pointing toward global collapse are all trends too gradual for human beings to perceive easily and are not obviously connected to one another. Worse yet, most of them are difficult or impossible to perceive directly, even when attention is called to them.


So the first part of dealing with the human predicament must consist, quite literally, of changing our minds. By moving to a directed cultural evolution, to what has been called "conscious evolution,"3 we believe that can be done. In schools and through the media, people should be taught or reminded of the selective nature of their perceptual systems and their inadequacy for registering many ominous trends. People can be trained to have "slow reflexes" as well as quick ones; they can learn to react to the continual expansion of human numbers as adaptively as to a car swerving into their lane.

Although getting these ideas incorporated into schools and the media would take a major effort initially, it could be done with relatively minor changes. In first grade, instead of reading "See Spot run," children might read "See the corn plant grow in the sun." Better yet, they can grow vegetables in the classroom and be shown what happens when the plants don't get enough water. This is one way to start building the background necessary to understand the world food situation and the threat to it inherent in global warming.

Population issues could be introduced early and often, with explanations of the limits to agriculture and the difficulty of T feeding too many people. The importance of small families can be discussed, and happy, successful families in classroom stories and films should never be shown with more than two children.4 It is critical that the importance of personal behavior in both creating and solving global dilemmas be shown early.

Newspapers already have business sections that contain graphs and columns of numbers that deal with the state of the economic system. Why shouldn't they also have an environment page, recording critical demographic statistics and the state of ecosystems on which the entire economy depends? [190] Carbon-dioxide and methane futures are a lot more important than financial and commodity futures (and clever entrepreneurs may even learn to make money on them!). Similarly, TV news programs could add reports on indicators of environmental health -- just as they now have detailed reports on the Dow Jones averages. This has already started in the San Francisco Bay Area, where several local TV stations now have regular environmental reports.


If our society wakes up to population -- environment trends that now threaten civilization, what actions should be taken? The answer is embodied in the I = PAT equation: we must reduce all three sources of impact. But because of the time lags involved, first priority must be given to achieving population control. We deliberately use the term "population control" rather than the more euphemistic "family planning." Family planning all too often means planning to have too many children, but spacing them more evenly. In Costa Rica, for example, all married women are informed about family-planning services, and 90 percent of them have used contraceptives at some time;5 family planning clearly is available, as a result of excellent work by the Asociacion Demografica Costaricense, and yet the average completed family size is 3.5 children and the nation's growth rate is 2.5 percent (doubling time twenty-eight years). Similarly, in Rajasthan, which has the fastest-growing population in India, 97 percent of women who refuse birth control are well informed on family-planning programs. The trouble is that family planning focuses on the needs and desires of individuals and couples; population control focuses on the needs of societies as well. Of course, population control need not be coercive; indeed, it is probably more effective in the long run if it is not.

Redoubling existing efforts to bring population growth to a halt and begin a slow decline through humane programs is imperative. Overpopulation contributes directly to global problems such as climatic change and makes their potential consequences much more dire. Civilization must plan and carry [191] out as rapidly as possible a population program that will result in a number of people that Earth can support in reasonable comfort primarily on income. The prospects of trying to deal with the dislocations caused by climatic change alone (to say nothing of other elements of the human predicament) in a world inhabited by 8 to 12 billion people are daunting indeed.

Remember what would happen if, by a birth-control miracle, India achieved replacement reproduction around 2025. In that case, India's population would continue to grow until almost the end of the next century, and when it stopped India would have about 2 billion people. Picture what monsoon failures would mean to 2 billion Indians! Imagine what might happen if they shared the Indian subcontinent with 300 million Pakistanis and 300 million Bangladeshis, and two of the three nations were well armed with thermonuclear weapons. There would be ten times as many people as now reside in the United States jammed into the subcontinent, which has an area slightly more than half the size of the "lower forty-eight" U.S. states. It would not be a situation conducive to international tranquillity.

In 1985, more than forty world leaders, representing more than half of Earth's people, signed a "Statement on Population Stabilization," which said in part:

Degradation of the world's environment, income inequality and the potential for conflict exist today because of over-consumption and overpopulation. If . . . unprecedented population growth continues, future generations of children will not have adequate food, housing, medical care, education, earth resources, and employment opportunities.

The group, which included the heads of state of China, India, Bangladesh, Egypt, and Kenya, implicitly urged the United States to turn away from the disastrous Reagan policies on population:

Recognizing that early population stabilization is in the interest of all nations, we earnestly hope that leaders around the [192] world will share our views and join us in this great undertaking for the well-being and happiness of people everywhere.6

In a similar vein, in 1987 the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future1 (often called the "Brundtland Report," after Gro Harlem Brundtland, Prime Minister of Norway and chair of the commission) stated:

Present rates of population growth cannot continue. They already compromise many governments' abilities to provide education, health care, and food security for people, much less their abilities to raise living standards. This gap between numbers and resources is all the more compelling because so much of the population growth is concentrated in low-income countries, ecologically disadvantaged regions, and poor households.

While the need for population control is finally becoming clearer to some of those in power, achieving it is as difficult as ever. Indeed, the longer we dillydally, the harder it will be. For one thing, limiting family size goes against the evolutionary grain. We are products of four billion years of natural selection, descended from ancestors who, generation after generation for billions of generations, outreproduced other members of their populations.8

The population problem is rooted in one of humanity's greatest triumphs -- overcoming natural controls on population size: predators, starvation, and disease. Controlling death went entirely with the evolutionary grain. But now we face a crying need to pay heed to the other side of the demographic equation, and to do it fast. We know it can be done, because virtually no human population is reproducing up to its biological potential today, and many are stringently restricting their reproduction. To one degree or another, most couples limit their childbearing -- they pay less and less heed to the "maximize your reproduction" message engraved in their genes -- in part because there's much less danger that their children won't survive to reproduce.9 Cultural evolution clearly can override [193] biological evolution: a population explosion to the point of a population crash -- a catastrophic decline caused by high death rates -- is not humanity's inevitable destiny.


The first task is to convince people in both rich and poor nations of the need to have fewer children -- and then help them to follow through. In most rich nations, changing attitudes on family size isn't such a formidable challenge. Average birthrates in those nations are only slightly above death rates (15 and 9 per 1,000 respectively), and most populations, like that of the United States, are already below replacement reproduction. In Europe and Japan, completed family sizes average 1.7 children, and many European nations are in the 1.3 to 1.5 range. Indeed, a few nations -- Denmark, Austria, Italy, West and East Germany, and Hungary -- have reached ZPG and are slowly shrinking. So once the significance of the I = PAT equation is understood, things could progress rather rapidly.

Nearly all European nations are below replacement reproduction, despite some of them having "family allowances," small income supplements for families with dependent children. Canada also has a family allowance, yet its fertility is virtually identical to that in the United States. All that's needed to bring average family sizes down to 1.5 or below in most rich countries -- so as to speed population shrinkage -- is a slight reduction in current birthrates.10

Probably the desired changes could be accomplished by simply establishing public education programs explaining the reasons for a goal of "stop at two." Ultimately, of course, an ideal society would have a population-size goal that could be achieved by small adjustments in average family sizes. Merely expressing on news programs the sort of concern commonly shown when rates of inflation or unemployment go up might be sufficient. It would also be helpful if the President and other prominent politicians frequently showed awareness of demographic trends -- and expressed concern if birthrates didn't remain satisfactorily low.

In the United States today, the goal ought to be a [194] completed family size of about 1.5 (that is, a reduction of 0.4 from the current 1.9). That would take us to the level of many European nations, hardly an impossible goal. Ideally, some people who do not particularly want to have children would remain childless, a few couples who are especially good at nurturing offspring might have as many as four, and the majority would have one or two.

For the moment, however, the need is so severe that a "stop at two" program should be launched for simplicity's sake -- and because too many couples might decide that they are especially good at nurturing offspring! A little leadership two decades ago probably could have moved the nation further toward that goal. But Richard Nixon largely ignored the findings and recommendations of the National Commission on Population Growth; he, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter all supported family-planning assistance to poor nations, but neglected the overpopulation of the United States. Ronald Reagan not only undermined America's security by dismantling much of the laboriously built apparatus for environmental protection, he also turned back the clock on progress in population control.

In 1984, the Reagan administration made the United States a laughingstock at the United Nations' Population Conference by taking a Maoist position on population control. Chairman Mao's famous phrase "Of all things, people are the most precious," widely used at the first Population Conference in 1974, is usually misinterpreted as a call to maximize the numbers of the precious. And the old-time Communist position was that what counted was the economic system; if that was right, population size would take care of itself. Ronald Reagan, with his usual grasp of reality, had our delegation take the same position in 1984 (except, of course, for his choice of economic system!). Fortunately, that position was ignored by everyone else, including the Chinese -- who had long since done their arithmetic and instituted strong measures of population control.

But Reagan's irrational position was translated into action when his administration withdrew funding from the International Planned Parenthood Federation in 1985 and in 1986 [195] ended all American support of the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), because those organizations supported the right of women to have abortions, even though, because of the American government's concerns, they didn't fund abortion activities directly.

Eight years of Ronald Reagan did untold (and still largely unrecognized by Americans) damage to United States policies and prestige. George Bush started out with much more promise, since unlike Reagan he is informed on population issues.11 Bush headed a special Republican Task Force on Population and Earth Resources when he was a member of the House of Representatives. In 1973 he wrote:

Today, the population problem is no longer a private matter. In a world of nearly four billion people increasing by 2 percent, or 80 million more, every year, population growth and how to restrain it are public concerns that command the attention of national and international leaders. . . . It is quite clear that one of the major challenges of the 1970s . . . will be to curb the world's fertility.12
Those words were penned when George Bush was U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Now the world is well over 5 billion people, there are 95 million more every year, the world's fertility was not curbed in either the 1970s or the 1980s, and Bush is a world leader. But there is no sign yet that the population problem will "command his attention." Ten months into his administration, Bush vetoed a bill to restore U.S. population assistance programs, a sad capitulation to the Republican lunatic fringe. Worse yet, Reagan's retrograde domestic population policies may be difficult to reverse entirely because of his appointments to numerous federal benches and the Supreme Court -- and George Bush himself encouraged that court in its assault on Roe v. Wade.

So we face an uphill fight in the United States if the nation is to move rapidly toward population shrinkage with government encouragement. A lot of citizen pressure will be required to overcome the effective counterpressure of well-organized groups fighting to end women's right to safe abortions and to [196] restrict the dissemination of contraceptive information and devices. (At the end of Chapter 12 we list some organizations that you might join to help keep this from happening.)


That the United States can reduce its birthrate to below its death rate should not be doubted. One need only look at Italy, a Roman Catholic nation, which has an average completed family size of 1.3!13 Italy reduced its birthrate through illegal abortion when the importation and sale of contraceptives were prohibited. Now contraceptives are available, abortion is legal, and the abortion rate has fallen. But in the United States the abortion issue is one of the hottest and most politically divisive. It has also become counterproductively mixed up with issues of population size. For example, antiabortion groups have vigorously attacked Senator Timothy Wirth of Colorado, one of the most honest and knowledgeable politicians in the country, for including the need for population stabilization in his bill to deal with global warming. We therefore need to take a closer look at the abortion problem.

Let us say at the outset that we believe that the key to population control ultimately is contraception, not abortion. When safe, easy-to-use contraceptives are available to all sexually active people, abortion should become much less of an issue.14 The best solution to the problem in the United States is to increase usage of contraceptives and reduce today's dis-gracefully high abortion rate. We say "disgracefully high" because abortion is a crude, relatively dangerous method of birth control, even when legal and conducted under medical auspices. Facing the decision can be difficult psychologically for a woman (although there are no data indicating any lasting effects for most women).

Most important, abortions are deeply offensive to a sizable minority of Americans. That offense is partly based on a belief that has no biological basis, the idea that "life begins at conception." Life, of course, is a continuum, and a sperm or an egg is not even a tiny bit more or less "alive" than a fetus or an adult human being.15 If all forms of human life were entitled to equal protection under the law, then most teenage boys [197] would be committing murder several times a week by killing large numbers of sperm. Society, fortunately, defines an individual's beginning legally, not biologically. In many ways, the historic legal definition of^ersonhood beginning at birth serves society well, although advances in medical technology will continue to introduce complications.16

What would happen if the United States banned abortion but made no effort to increase people's knowledge of and access to contraception? Our sex-obsessed society might at first glance seem bound to condemn many poor women to death at the hands of quack abortionists and many more teenage children to bearing children of their own. Huge social costs then would be added to the environmental costs of not further lowering the birthrate. But a more dispassionate analysis casts some doubt on this view.17

Let's suppose for a moment that a series of Supreme Court decisions effectively reverses the historic 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, the decision that in essence made abortion available nationally on demand.18 First of all, that would not make abortion illegal; it would simply permit individual states to pass laws restricting or outlawing abortion. Since both pro- and antiabortion forces are morally committed to the battle, the conflict would simply be refocused on the fifty statehouses.

It is not clear what the results would be. When Roe v. Wade was passed, twenty-seven states already had liberal abortion laws; four essentially permitted abortion on demand, and California and a few others came close. At that time, only 15 percent of Americans favored an unrestricted right to abortion. Today, roughly half of all Americans feel that a woman has a right to an abortion if she wants one, and an overwhelming 80 percent think she has that right in the case of rape or incest, if there is a high probability that the baby has a birth defect, or if carrying the fetus to term would endanger her life. In other words, attempts to get antiabortion laws passed in state legislatures might be much less successful than it would appear at first. In states with initiative processes, pro-choice propositions might often prevail. Even in largely Catholic Massachusetts, a referendum to stop funding abortions for poor women with tax monies was trounced in 1986.

It seems most likely that battles at the state level, taking [198] place over decades, would end up with a checkerboard of state laws ranging from complete prohibition to abortion on demand. But all in all, one might expect a return to the pattern of the late 1960s, in which women of means crossed state lines or went to Mexico, Europe, or Japan to have abortions, while poor women were left with riskier alternatives. Today, of course, Canada would also be an option.

But many other changes will have improved the chances even of poor women to obtain abortions if they are outlawed again. In the late 1960s, there were some eight hundred agencies involved in reproductive counseling and related activities; today there are 4,400. Most counseling agencies provide other services besides abortion. They, would still be in business and, within the limits of state laws, continue providing support and advice to women with unwanted pregnancies. In states where abortion remained legal, many more agencies would probably be opened, offering inexpensive abortions to women who could afford the air or bus fare to reach them. In the reproductive field, they would fill the sort of niche that Nevada long filled for divorce and gambling. And, of course, women's groups almost certainly would give support to their sisters in need, even where it was illegal. Many of their members believe as fervently in the right of women to control their own bodies as "pro-life" people believe abortion is murder.

Furthermore, surreptitious abortion would be much simpler to do and more readily available than in the 1960s. It would be more acceptable (remember, half the population would approve), so both pregnant women and those who aid them would be less in fear of social ostracism, prosecution, conviction by juries if prosecuted, or condemnation by professional societies. Illegal abortions would be much less likely to come to the attention of even zealous authorities. The safer, easier vacuum method would greatly reduce the number of bungled abortions, which in the past often led to the exposure of illegal operations.

In addition, new home pregnancy-testing kits can alert women much earlier to their pregnancies and permit them to make use of abortifacient drugs such as RU 486, already approved in Catholic France. In combination with another drug, [199] RU 486 now is 96 percent effective in the first six weeks. If that drug (which can be used in the privacy of the home with no help) is not approved for sale in the United States or is made illegal, then the problem becomes another law-enforcement attempt to suppress an illegal drug -- something our society has been notoriously unsuccessful in doing, even when most of the public approves of the attempt.

There is little doubt that if abortion is outlawed, everything else being equal, the abortion rate will drop a little and the birthrate will rise. The very fact of breaking a law or the trouble and expense of travel will deter some women. Similarly, there will be some rise in the death rate of women, partly because there will be more childbearing (and childbirth is more dangerous than abortion) and partly because there will be more bungled abortions and more risky postoperative bus rides. More children will be born with birth defects, since even if drugs more advanced than RU 486 came into common use, they still might not be useful in the later stages of pregnancy when various defects can be detected. And, finally, there will be the far-from-negligible added costs to society of both law enforcement and support of the additional unwanted children.

On the other hand, there would also be some lifting of the burden from the minds of those in the antiabortion movement who sincerely believe that, as long as the procedure is legal, they are made accomplices in murder. Although we disagree with that view, there is some benefit in giving more peace of mind to a substantial minority in our population. Sadly, though, that peace would be bought primarily by visiting hardship, suffering, and, in some cases, death on poor women -- a trend that has already begun with the July 1989 Supreme Court decision allowing states to outlaw abortions with public funds or in public facilities.

It should be obvious that the only sensible solution to the abortion dilemma is to eliminate unwanted pregnancies. Accidents do happen, of course, and no doubt always will; half of the abortions occurring in the United States in the late 1980s apparently were results of contraceptive failures; the other half were necessitated by a failure to use birth control. Clearly, the U.S. abortion rate could be substantially reduced by wider use [200] of contraceptives -- as well as by many people switching to more effective contraceptives.19 This is particularly true for the appalling rate of teenage pregnancy, which accounts for over a quarter of the abortions. Teenagers in many European countries are as sexually active as American kids, but their premarital pregnancy and abortion rates are much lower -- because they have been informed about and use contraceptives.

Many people in the right-to-life movement unfortunately have also been active in preventing the teaching of sex education (including information on birth control) in public schools; some have even worked to restrict the availability of contraceptives to the public -- tactics that surely are counterproductive to their stated goal of stopping abortions. Instead, we hope that at least some antiabortion activists will shift their efforts to ensuring that condoms are available in every high-school bathroom and that every American not only has access to contraceptives but knows how to use them.


The birth-control pill has been available in the United States since 1960; except for sterilization, it is the most effective contraceptive method available. Mechanical methods such as condoms and diaphragms are quite effective also, especially if used carefully. The use of condoms also is important in controlling the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS; fortunately, their use has been rising among unmarried people in the United States. Less effective (but far better than nothing) means such as sponges and spermicidal jellies and foams are for sale in any drugstore (spermicides also appear to provide some protection against the AIDS virus).

Intrauterine devices (IUDs) must be emplaced by medical personnel, but they are very effective and can remain in place for years with only an occasional check. Unfortunately there is no doubt that some IUDs have been unacceptably risky, and the new generation of them should be used with great care until their safety can be properly evaluated.

Some newer contraceptives are being tested in other countries, and a few are being introduced in the United States. The [201] most promising new methods are the long-term injectable steroids (essentially the same compounds as provided in the pill, but not requiring a daily dose) and the under-skin slow-release steroid implants. These long-term applications give protection against an unwanted pregnancy for periods of from six months to three years. Possibilities for the more distant future include "immunizations" against sperm and methods that suppress sperm production in men.

Feminists have sometimes complained that contraceptive research has been biased toward putting all the responsibility for birth control on women. Nevertheless, methods that seem to work on males (other than condoms) have been developed, but they have been plagued with very severe side effects. That is not the case, however, with sterilization. Vasectomies are safer procedures than tubal ligations, and thus allow the male to assume the risks (in this case minimal) of contraception.

Unfortunately, the prospects for developing new birth-control methods in the United States are not bright. Deaths and other serious problems associated with the use of some IUDs (notably the Dalkon shield) in our lawsuit-minded society have led to withdrawal of the challenged devices and others as well from the market, because the companies producing them were losing money on them -- or feared they would lose money on them if new problems arose. Not only were the lawsuit settlements and awards costing millions, but use rates dropped in response to publicity about the problems. This occurred following news about linkages of the pill with heart attacks and cancers (the latter largely unfounded) in the 1970s, and again when the problems arose with the IUDs. The lawsuit threats and prolonged testing requirements have also had a chilling effect on research on new and better contraceptives in recent years, bringing it almost to a halt in this country. That RU 486 was developed in France was no accident.20

One should not take the difficulties with contraceptive devices lightly. There is a pressing need to develop safer, more convenient, more accident-proof methods of contraception. At the same time, the risks of using various forms of contraception must always be weighed against the costs of unwanted pregnancies (including the risk of death in childbirth). The [202] calculations are not simple, especially because the psychological costs and benefits of having (or not having) children are subjective and difficult to account for.

Unquestionably, the public should be fully informed about the relative risks and costs of birth prevention and raising a child so that they can make sensible choices. The joys and satisfactions of parenthood are many; but the costs are also high in a modern society. Most people know that their choice of family size will directly affect the parenting rewards their children can look forward to.

In developed nations like the United States, dealing with the population component of the human predicament is largely a matter of providing adequate public education and access to the means for controlling reproduction. The greatest need today is for better understanding of the urgency of population reduction, as well as for reducing individual impacts on our battered planet. All of this could be facilitated by leadership at the top, which has been absent for almost a decade in the United States.

The challenge in developing countries is considerably more complex, as we'll see in the next chapter.


1. This issue is dealt with in detail in R. Ornstein and P. Ehrlich, New World/New Mind (Doubleday, New York, 1989).

2. Killing of individuals deemed dangerous was standard practice in Eskimo groups until very recently; it is still deemed a social remedy in nations as disparate as the U.S. and the People's Republic of China.

3. R. Ornstein and P. Ehrlich, New World/New Mind, gives a long series of suggestions on how to achieve conscious evolution.

4. A technique for promoting small families that is already widely in use in China and India.

5. W. Wisbaum, "Costa Rica Battles High Fertility Rate," Popline, May-June 1989.

6. New York Times, Oct. 20, 1985.

7. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford. The excerpt that follows is from p. 95.

8. Remember, the essence of natural selection is differential reproduction; the winners leave more offspring than the losers.

9. Maximizing reproduction ordinarily means having the maximum possible offspring survive to be reproductive adults in the next generation. This is not necessarily achieved by a woman starting childbearing as early as possible and having a maximum number of births as close together as possible. Such behavior is known to increase risks to the mother's health and life and can reduce the total production of offspring over her lifetime. Having too many children too early and too close together jeopardizes the survival of the children to reproductive age; infant and child deaths in such families are consistently much higher than among children in well-spaced families -- even among the rich and well fed.

10. A further reduction in Austria, Luxembourg, West Germany, and Italy, which have TFRs of 1.4 or less, should not be necessary.

11. PRE discussed the issue with him personally a couple of decades ago when Bush headed the special Republican Task Force on Population and Earth Resources.

12. The quote is from the foreword Bush wrote to Phyllis Piotrow's World Population Crisis: The United States Response (Praeger, New York, 1973). The entire document shows Bush's sensitivity to the issues, and in particular to the taboos against discussion of population issues.

13. Italy's population has not yet started to shrink; its birthrate is 10 per 1,000 and its death rate 9. But it will soon join West Germany and Hungary in "negative population growth" if its average completed family size stays this low.

14. It seems unlikely to us that in the foreseeable future abortion (legal or illegal) will totally disappear as a backup to contraception in rich nations. Much of the present need, however, might be met primarily by an abortifacient pill such as RU 486. The problem of abortion in poor nations is much more complex, especially where women resort to it clandestinely as a means of avoiding children their husbands desire. Greatly reducing abortion in poor nations while achieving population control may be much more difficult than in rich nations.

15. If you've had some biology, you'll remember that sperm and eggs are the haplophase of the human life cycle, where each cell contains just one set of chromosomes. From zygote to adult, we are in the diplophase, and most cells contain two sets of chromosomes, one received from the sperm and one from the egg. We're very impressed by the diplophase, since that is the phase that all antiabortionists, biologists, attorneys, and politicians are in. If people were like mosses, however, it would be the start of the haplophase that we would consider the "beginning of life." The dominant part of a moss's life cycle, the phase of the familiar moss plant, is the haplophase. Debates over the sanctity of human life often become just plain silly because the debaters know so little of elementary biology.

16. Personally, we agree with the old saying "Life begins when the kids leave home and the dog dies."

17. The section that follows leans heavily on the work of our Stanford Law School colleague John Kaplan, one of the most thoughtful legal analysts of social problems. See, in particular, his excellent "What If the Supreme Court Changed Its Mind?," Stanford Lawyer, Fall 1988.

18. A first step in that direction may have been taken in the Court's July 3, 1989, decision upholding a Missouri law which forbade the use of public funds or facilities for abortions and placed restrictions on doctors' ability to do late abortions. The main effect of this decision will simply be to make getting abortions much more difficult for poor women, while not affecting women who come from the classes represented by the justices who were in the majority.

As Richard Cohen put it in The Washington Post Weekly, July 10-16, 1989, "It is not surprising that the indifference Ronald Reagan showed the poor during his presidency would become a fixture of his Supreme Court. Every molehill of an obstruction -- every form to fill out, every permission slip needed, every bus that has to be taken to another state -- is a mountain to the poor." Further changes in abortion laws may be made by the Court before this book appears.

19. S. Henshaw and J. Silverman, "The Characteristics and Prior Contraceptive Use of U.S. Abortion Patients," Family Planning Perspectives, vol. 20, p. 4 (July-August 1988).

20. After thi« section was written, a brilliant and comprehensive overview of the situation in the U.S. regarding the development and deployment of new contraceptives appeared: C. Djerassi, "The Bitter Pill," Science, vol. 245, pp. 356-61 (July 28, 1989).