Population bomb, bust – or boon? New UNFPA report debunks 8 myths about a world of 8 billion

On 15 November, the world’s population reached a landmark 8 billion people. The UNFPA State of World Population 2023 report released today asks what this means for their lives, rights, health and futures? © UNFPA/ARTificial Mind/Cecilie Waagner Falkenstrøm
  • 19 April 2023

Reaching 8 billion is a sign of human progress. It means more newborns are surviving, more children are going to school, receiving health care and making it to adulthood.

© UNFPA/ARTificial Mind/Cecilie Waagner Falkenstrøm

UNITED NATIONS, New York – On 15 November 2022,  the world’s population reached a landmark 8 billion people. It’s a staggering number – but what does it mean? What are the implications for the lives, rights, health and future offspring of all these people? 

Instead of celebrating a milestone in global development, media reports have been overwhelmingly fearful: The world is bursting at the seams, migration is out of control, there’s no one to look after all the old people, women need to reproduce more, or less. As alarmist rhetoric circulates and governments increasingly seek to influence fertility rates, in our latest State of World Population report we ask: What’s fact, what’s fiction, and what’s the future beyond the figures? 

Myth 1: There are too many people being born

Increasing climate catastrophes, endless conflict over resources, soaring hunger, pandemics, economic devastation….the causes behind these crises are multiple and overlapping. For many, it's only natural to point the finger at fertility rates: The world population is too large, our resources can't cope, etc.

But the truth is, reaching 8 billion is a sign of human progress. It means more newborns are surviving, more children are going to school, receiving health care and making it to adulthood. People today are living almost 10 years longer than they were in 1990. Changes in fertility rates will do little to change our population’s current trajectory of growth (for the next 25 years, two thirds of all population growth will be driven by past growth). In fact, if we look at the rate of population growth, it is slowing significantly – which brings us to our next myth.

Many countries have experienced falling population rates since the 1970s – but have still grown due to migration. And all populations are ageing – the result of welcome increases in longevity.  

© UNFPA/ARTificial Mind/Cecilie Waagner Falkenstrøm

Myth 2: There aren't enough people being born

Since the 1950s, the average number of children that women are having globally has more than halved, from 5 to 2.3. Two thirds of the world's population live in places with below-replacement fertility rates. Is this an alarm bell signalling the demise of the global population? That as populations age, the elderly will use up all our social service resources and nations will dwindle and die? 

No. It is a sign that individuals are increasingly able to exercise control over their own reproductive lives. Falling fertility rates need not result in population reduction overall. Many countries have experienced falling population rates since the 1970s – but have still grown due to migration. And all populations are ageing – the result of welcome increases in longevity.  

Myth 3: These are demographic issues, not gender issues

Populations are about people, and people are currently being born into a world of deeply entrenched gender inequality. Human reproduction should be a choice, but the latest data show us that, tragically, it often is not. Some 44 per cent of partnered women are unable to exercise bodily autonomy – meaning they are unable to make their own decisions over their health care, contraception and whether or not to have sex. Nearly half of all pregnancies are unintended. Half a million births every year are to young girls of 10 to 14 years old. As few as one quarter to one third of women in low- and middle-income regions are having the number of children they planned, at the speed that they planned – if they even planned on having them at all. 

Yet when faced with population changes or concerns, we often see rhetoric and policymakers turn to fertility rates as a preferred solution. How often do people proposing these solutions consider the fertility desires of women and girls? Not often enough.

Myth 4: The ideal total fertility rate is 2.1 children per woman 

It is often noted that 2.1 children per woman is the replacement fertility level – the average rate needed to replace a population over time. This is generally true. But the number 2.1 can be treated as a gold standard, and a target for many fertility policies – which is a mistake. Firstly, 2.1 is the average replacement rate for countries with very low infant and child mortality and natural sex ratios at birth, not countries with higher mortality or skewed sex ratios. It also fails to capture changes in the age of women at childbirth and the impact of migration. In short, it is a misleading and unattainable goal. There is no reason to believe a 2.1 fertility rate will result in the highest levels of well-being and prosperity.

Myth 5: Having kids is irresponsible in a world of climate catastrophes

This logic suggests women in countries with high fertility rates are responsible for the climate crisis. In fact, they have contributed the least to global warming, and they will suffer the most from its impacts. The wealthiest 10 per cent of the human population is responsible for half of all greenhouse gas emissions. And they tend to live in countries with lower fertility rates – which have policies aimed at boosting fertility or no policies at all. 

What can we deduce from these statistics? That reducing fertility rates will not fix the climate crisis; for that, we need sustainable levels of consumption. We need reduced inequalities and investment in cleaner energy sources. 

Myth 6: We need to stabilize population rates

This belief contains the assumption that certain population rates are good or bad. But there is no perfect number of people, nor should we prescribe a number of children that each woman should have. History has shown the damage this kind of thinking can cause, such as eugenics and genocide. 

The international community today firmly rejects population control efforts, but there remains significant interest in influencing fertility rates. The United Nations has surveyed governments’ attitudes towards population change over the past decade. One notable finding in our report is a marked uptick in the number of countries adopting policies with an intention to raise, lower or maintain the fertility rates of their citizens. These are not necessarily coercive policies – they might be positive, for example if they increase access to health services – but in general we see that efforts to influence fertility are correlated with lower performance on measures of democracy and human freedom.

The bottom line is that every individual has a fundamental human right to choose, freely and responsibly, the number and spacing of their children. No one – not politicians, not pundits, not policymakers – gets to take that right away.

Myth 7: We have to focus on fertility rates because we don’t have data on what women want

Concerns about population are repeatedly framed as issues around fertility or birth rates – but is anyone asking what individuals want for their own reproductive lives? Experts often fret that data on fertility intention is unreliable. Indeed, a woman’s reported fertility desires can change over time, depending on her circumstances. People can, of course, be ambivalent about issues like family size. But failing to account for what women – and other marginalized groups – need and want opens the door to harms and rights violations.

Calls to increase or decrease fertility rates are often heard as efforts to control women’s fertility, rather than intentions to secure women’s and girls’ own control over their choices. 

For the most marginalized people, saying “fertility rates are too high” or “too low” neglects the agency of the very people whose fertility we are talking about. We must bridge these gaps by putting rights and choices at the centre of all conversations about fertility rates.

Myth 8: Rights and choices are great in theory, but unaffordable in reality 

Failing to support reproductive rights always comes with costs – and those costs are borne, disproportionately by women and the most marginalized. We must work towards providing a full range of reproductive health-care services – from contraception to safe delivery to infertility care – in all settings. These interventions can help people and societies thrive and prosper. 

Women’s bodies should not be held hostage to choices made by governments or other individuals. Family planning must not be a tool for achieving population targets, but one to empower individuals.

© UNFPA/ARTificial Mind/Cecilie Waagner Falkenstrøm

In the end, is it really about the numbers?

Too many people? Too few? What is the right number? We're asking the wrong questions. What we should be asking is are people, especially women, able to freely make their own reproductive choices? The answer, unacceptably often, is no.

As UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem said, “Human reproduction is neither the problem, nor the solution. When we put gender equality and rights at the heart of our population policies, we are stronger, more resilient, and better able to deal with the challenges resulting from rapidly changing populations.”

The State of World Population 2023 report shows that too many people today are still unable to achieve their reproductive goals. Women’s bodies should not be held captive to choices made by governments or anyone else. Family planning must not be a tool for achieving population targets, but one to empower individuals.

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