A new report from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) warns that government policies aimed at raising, lowering or maintaining fertility rates can erode reproductive and human rights and says the goal should be to advance gender equality and the quality of life.
"There is a serious danger that rights will be undermined," Natalia Kanem, the UNFPA's executive director, told reporters last week in New York during a press briefing on the report, which was released on Wednesday. "That is already happening in some places."
As the world's population hits eight billion, the 2023 UNFPA State of World Population report says human reproduction is neither the problem nor the solution to many of today's big problems — including climate change, the pandemic, conflicts and economic uncertainty — that fuel concerns about overpopulation and underpopulation.
Instead, it calls for public investments to ensure "equitable access to quality education, employment, health coverage and social protection," so that the bodies of women and girls are not treated as "instruments to enact population ideals."
The report's authors found that only 56 per cent of women are able to make their own decisions over their sexual and reproductive health and rights.
The UNFPA's report includes data showing there is substantial anxiety in the general public about population after surveying 7,797 people across eight countries (Brazil, Egypt, France, Hungary, India, Japan, Nigeria and the United States).
The most common view was that the world's population was too large and the fertility rate too high. It also found that the more exposure people had to the media and conversations about population, the more likely they were concerned about population numbers, the fertility rate and immigration.
"The question isn't whether the human population is too large or too small," Kanem said. "The question is: Can everyone exercise their fundamental human right to choose the number and spacing of their children?
"Sadly, the answer is a resounding no."
Overpopulation and underpopulation policies
The report cites cases of where population targets set by governments are pushing people toward reproductive choices they may not otherwise make.
In Uzbekistan, for example, doctors have spoken to the international media about pressure to use sterilization to reduce the population rate, with the government arguing that poorer patients can't afford more children.
In India, some states proposed a two-child policy in 2021, including incentives for sterilization and penalties for those who exceeded target family size.
South Korea, which has the world's lowest birth rate, is now offering families payments and other benefits to anyone who gives birth to a child.
United Nations experts say these policies generally don't work in the long term.
"Such measures will not help in any meaningful way to reverse fertility trends," said Michael Herrmann, senior adviser of economics and demography to the UNFPA.
Herrmann told the press briefing that demographic changes might cause some of the challenges the world faces, but "manipulating population numbers" isn't the solution, as these measures often only serve to incentivize people to have children earlier, not more of them.
Fertility rates distract from solutions
Kanem said women in less-developed countries are often blamed for having too many children, while women in developed countries are blamed for having too few.
"This fallacy holds the wrong people to account," she said.
"The countries with the highest fertility contribute the least to global warming and suffer most from its impacts."
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According to Kanem, focusing only on fertility rates distracts from solutions such as reducing carbon emissions and consumption in wealthy countries.
The report also said most experts today agree that "population changes are normal, and population sizes are neither good nor bad; what is needed are resilient systems that can respond to the needs of a population, no matter what its size."
That includes advancing gender equality overall. In high-fertility countries, the report said, "empowerment through education and family planning" will lead to economic growth.
Conversely, in aging, low-fertility countries that are concerned about labour shortages, gender parity in the workforce is considered the most effective way to improve productivity and income growth.
Responsibility of taking care of children
In Canada, where the fertility rate is low, some experts say the solutions that best tackle economic concerns are through supportive government policies.
"Some of the responsibility of taking care of children needs to be taken off women's shoulders," said Marina Adshade, an economics professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
Adshade said policies that require or encourage more men to take parental leave; more flexibility for both women and men at work; and affordable child care would all make a big difference.
"It's just simply not going to work if you're just repeatedly telling women that they have to make sacrifices for the greater good," she said.
For a generation of young people, the choice to not have children is rooted in a lack of policies that support a future generation.
In 2019, Emma Lim, a fourth-year student at McGill University in Montreal, launched a movement called #NoFutureNoChildren — a pledge to not have children until the Canadian government took serious steps to fight climate change.
So far, she's sticking by it, saying her reluctance isn't limited to climate-change policies.
"We have a cost-of-housing crisis. We don't have a very strong financial future. When you add climate change ... it just doesn't look like a promising world," Lim said.
This echoes the UNFPA report, which states that family planning without "improving the low status of women and girls around the world will likely have only a limited impact on broader economic and social development."