May 24, 2024

‘Contraceptive revolution’ needed to curb population growth

NEJM features plea for more funding

A leading fertility researcher has called for “a new contraceptive revolution” in the New England Journal of Medicine. Deborah J. Anderson, of Boston University School of Medicine argues that the world has too many people and that new methods are needed to curb population growth.

Although the food scarcity that Paul Ehrlich predicted no longer seems to be a problem, she says that the planet’s carrying capacity is only 1.5 to 5 billion people. Since world population has already reached about 7 billion and will continue to rise to 10 or 11 billion by the end of the century, we are facing an emergency.

A number of contraceptive methods have helped keep population from growing, but the array of choices is still too small for everyone’s needs. “More accessible, effective contraception choices are needed to ensure that all children are planned and wanted. Such an advance could significantly reduce population growth to meet realistic goals for sustainable development.”

Dr Anderson feels that there is little zest for research into new contraceptives compared to its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s.

By the end of the 20th century, however, the mood had changed. The fertility rate had peaked in 1962 and was declining, although projections showed that population growth would not level out until at least the middle of the 21st century. Apocalyptic consequences of overpopulation had not materialized, and the agricultural Green Revolution promised engineered crops and other resources to keep pace with population growth. Activists voiced concern about coercive and antifeminist aspects of contraception. Funding for contraception research from government and private institutions plummeted, and pharmaceutical companies and international agencies with innovative contraceptive methods in clinical trials stopped their programs.

She contends that

New contraceptive discoveries could improve the health and well-being of women and their families and could help to further reduce and stabilize human population numbers globally, offering an additional step toward rebalancing the planet and preserving its natural treasures for future generations.

Oddly enough, she does not address the problem of falling population in most developing countries, notably Japan, Korea, Russia and a number of  other European countries. Is her proposal aimed mostly at sub-Saharan Africa, where most of the world’s population growth will take place?

A critic of Anderson’s proposal points out that the gap between 5.5 billion and 7 billion is too wide for mere contraceptive methods to bridge:

[Anderson] thinks there are too many people already.  Might not someone (someone else, not the writer of the piece in question) think that some culling would be for the good of the ecosphere overall?  Getting back down to 5 billion from 7.7 billion would be a reduction of about 35%–an apocalyptic figure, to be sure. 

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge

On a different note, Dr Anderson was the recipient of the IgNobel Prize for Chemistry for her a 1985 publication in the New England Journal of Medicine that found Coca-Cola kills sperm.

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