27 January 2009

Facts and fallacies in the population debate

By John J. Carroll, S.J.
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:36:00 09/05/2008

Perhaps former senator Francisco Tatad should check his facts before rushing into print. In an article criticizing a paper signed by 26 economists of the University of the Philippines (UP) in support of the Reproductive Health Bill, President Ferdinand Marcos’ former minister of public information wrote: “… [T]he economists reportedly claim that 57 percent of Filipino families have nine children or more. The statistic reads like one of those manufactured electoral counts in one of our notoriously crooked elections. It smells.”

The UP paper actually claims no such thing, only that poverty incidence “rises steadily with the number of children to 57 percent for a family of nine children or more.”

Such loose argumentation does not advance the cause of truth, the good of the Filipino people, or the credibility of the Church for which the author seems to be speaking. It may be useful therefore to list down some facts which I believe to be well established and which tend to be obscured in the dust of the ideological battle surrounding the Reproductive Health Bill.

• The Philippine population is hardly “booming” or “runaway.” The birth rate and the natural increase rate (birth rate-death rate) have both been coming down, though not as rapidly as some economists and others would like. The surge in population, which multiplied 10 times over in the 20th century, was not due to a significant increase in the birth rate but to a drop in the death rate made possible by public health measures such as malaria control, clean drinking water and immunization of children.

• Rapid population growth can be either good or bad for an economy. In the United States of the 19th century, a vast continent of immense natural resources benefited immensely from the immigration of Irish and German immigrants who built the railroads, dug the canals and mined the coal to fuel rapid economic development. In the Philippines, on the other hand, and despite what textbooks may say of “vast natural resources,” the forests are gone, the coral reefs are in bad shape, the rivers are dead or dying and millions of tons of precious topsoil have been washed into the sea. To make matters worse, our human resources are underdeveloped due to a disastrously poor public school system. In these circumstances, rapid population growth imposes an additional burden on the economy.

• Rapid population growth alone cannot explain poverty; the latter has many other causes including corruption, oligarchic control of the economy, concentration of income and poor economic policy. But large families among the poor make it more difficult for them to rise out of poverty since expenditures per child on health and education drop radically and systematically as the number of children in a family increases.

• A lower population growth rate would not be a quick fix, however, for the economy. If all Filipinos were to stop having children today, the impact on the school system would not be felt for another seven years or so—when the children not born today would not be starting to go to school!—and the impact on the job market for 15 or 20 years.

• The current decline in the birth rate should not be a reason for complacency among those who oppose contraception, since much of the decline is due precisely to contraception. It might better be seen as a challenge to provide a genuine option especially to the poor, in the form of natural family planning.

• Nor does it mean that the “population problem” will soon be a thing of the past. Even though the average number of children born per woman is decreasing, the large percentage of women in their childbearing years will ensure population growth for generations to come.

• Contraception and abortion: Is there a link and if so what is it? On the one hand, one would intuitively expect that easy availability of contraception especially among the poor would provide an alternative to abortion. On the other hand, there are cases such as the United States in which the use of contraceptives and the rate of abortions have increased together. Here the pro-life people have their hands on an important point: It is a question of values and priorities, of another child or another car, of respect for life and the whole sacred process by which a man and a woman cooperate with the Creator in bringing a new life, a new human person, into being.

• Hence the importance of value formation such as that which is ideally given in courses on natural family planning (NFP). Without that, even NFP can become simply another technique, less expensive than contraception, with no side effects, and effective if used properly.

• Effective usage of NFP is not as simple as popping a pill or having oneself ligated. The “user failure rate” can be high, depending mainly on the motivation of the couple to be faithful to the method. Yet the user failure rate of various contraceptives, including pills, can also be high. And even with a relatively high user failure rate, if the 50 percent of Philippine couples not practicing any form of family planning were to turn to NFP, it would impact significantly on the birth rate. Moreover, NFP has its intrinsic rewards in terms of woman’s empowerment, discipline and family solidarity.

Which reminds us that, behind all of the statistics and arguments, what we are talking about here is, ultimately, life and love.

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