The Papal Encyclical: Taking Umbrage

06/18/2015 11:38 am ET | Updated Jun 18, 2016
Shutterstock / Hector Conesa

I have never met Pope Francis, so I do not take it personally, but when I read the long awaited papal encyclical on climate change and the environment ("Laudato Si'," or "Praise Be to You"), I confess to taking a little umbrage. While I heartily applaud his call to action on climate change, I was struck, and personally so, when he writes that, "Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate."

Hmmm. I am sure there are those who "can only propose a reduction in the birth rate," but among serious proponents of family planning, I do not know of anyone who believes that the challenges of chronic hunger and severe poverty can be addressed by contraceptives alone. To the contrary, they believe, as I do, that improved access to contraception must be an integral part--albeit an essential one--of a larger effort to improve health and well-being in the developing world.

Rather than acknowledging that expanded access to contraceptives might improve the lives of women and their families in the developing world, the Pope's encyclical insists that "demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development." Fully compatible? The church leaders in Rome might benefit from reading a report that my organization, the Population Institute, released this week. It is titled "Demographic Vulnerability: Where population growth poses the greatest challenges." The report identifies and ranks the 20 nations that face the greatest demographic challenges with respect to hunger, poverty, water scarcity, environmental degradation, and political instability. Countries in the top ten include South Sudan, Somalia, Niger, Burundi, Eritrea, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Sudan.

The report explains how projected population growth poses an enormous challenge to these countries. They are, without exception, struggling against great odds to alleviate hunger and eliminate severe poverty. Significant progress has been made in reducing global hunger, but most of the gains have occurred in countries with relatively low fertility. Where fertility rates remain high, the battle against hunger is far from won.

In some areas of sub-Saharan Africa, the number of malnourished children is actually on the rise, as is population. The Population Reference Bureau projects that the population of Burundi, which sits atop IFPRI's 2014 Global Hunger Index (GHI), will increase 154 percent by 2050. The population of South Sudan, which also ranks very high for hunger, is projected to rise by 236 percent. And these projections assume that fertility rates in these countries will continue their historic decline.

Similarly, while we have made great progress in reducing severe poverty, particularly in emerging economies, progress has been slow in countries where population growth rates remain high. The population of Niger, which ranks first in the UN's 2014 Multidimensional Poverty Index, is on course to increase by 274 percent during the next 35 years. The population of Mali, which ranked fourth for poverty, is expected to increase by 187 percent.

Expanded access to contraceptives alone will not adequately respond to the challenges that these countries face. Hardly. Even with a relatively sharp increase in contraceptive use and a corresponding decline in fertility, the populations of these countries will, in all likelihood, continue to increase for several decades to come. As highlighted in the Population Institute's report, expanded access to contraception must be accompanied by investments in the education of girls and the empowerment of women. Child marriage practices, which are still prevalent in many parts of the developing world, need to be curtailed, and the U.S. and other donor nations need to expand agricultural assistance. In water-stressed countries, investments in water conservation and infrastructure are urgently needed. In developing countries that are heavily deforested, like Haiti, support for reforestation is needed. In countries where governance is poor and corruption is widespread, civil society must be strengthened.

The Pope's encyclical stresses that something must be done to address economic inequality and that waste of food should be curtailed. Amen. But, please, Your Holiness, make it possible for every woman in the world to be able to decide for herself, free from coercion, how many children to have and when.

Reproductive choice is not just a moral imperative, it's a human imperative. Without expanded access to modern methods of contraception, maternal and infant mortality rates in the developing world will remain unacceptably high, and many women and their families will never escape from poverty.