Too many countries are freaking out about population the way Elon Musk has—and it’s hurting women worldwide, the UN says

A crowded street in New Delhi.

While Elon Musk worries about too few babies and climate activists predict an overpopulation crisis, the United Nations is warning that the bigger threat could be alarmism on either side of the population debate.

Clashing fears of overpopulation and underpopulation are pushing countries to act to either lower, increase, or stabilize their birth rates, according to a new report by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) published Wednesday. 

But reasonable concerns could be morphing into population “alarmism,” according to the report, risking potentially dangerous new policies that might undermine yearslong efforts to improve basic human rights and gender equality.

“This alarmism poses real risks,” the report said. “One, that population anxiety will distract us from serious but solvable problems, and two, that population anxiety will become a rationale for denying the rights and bodily autonomy of women and girls.” 

Over- or underpopulation?

Concerns about population have hit a fever pitch recently. When the world population exceeded 8 billion people in November, fears of overpopulation spread in sub-Saharan Africa, where eight countries will account for more than half of global population growth from now to 2050, according to the UN. 

Officials in the region say the demographic struggles stem from population growing faster than economies, and that countries lack enough time and resources to build the infrastructure and food systems necessary to ensure every citizen has access to enough resources.

But at the same time, stalling birth rates in the developed world that fell even lower during the COVID-19 pandemic have sparked fears of the opposite phenomenon: underpopulation. Tesla and Twitter CEO Musk is among the more vocal advocates of higher birth rates, arguing that economies and civilization could collapse if the world runs out of enough young people. “A collapsing birth rate is the biggest danger civilization faces by far,” he tweeted last year while confirming he had recently fathered twins, his eighth and ninth children.

The two doomsday scenarios have elicited a range of policy reactions. Countries with fast-rising populations like Nigeria have recently overhauled their policies to expand access to family counseling and planning. Meanwhile, birth control has become much harder to access in wealthier European nations including Croatia and Poland

Population rhetoric risks

It is true that birth rates in many countries, including the U.S., have for several decades been below the “replacement rate” needed to maintain population levels. This has sparked fears of looming economic catastrophe, as not enough young workers are entering the labor force in developed countries to replace the rising number of retirees. The situation could, in turn, lead to economic trouble as public spending on health care, long-term care, and pensions increases. 

But while reasonable solutions to these problems exist, the UN report found that the burden of slowing birth rates tends to largely fall on women who choose to delay having a family or avoid it altogether. “The blame, in many contexts, is laid at the feet of women, who are often castigated for rejecting marriage and motherhood,” the report said, adding that in many parts of the world declining population is fueling policies that call for a return to a “submissive model of femininity” and traditional family and gender values.

The report found that recent policy changes in countries such as Poland and Turkey have not only limited access to contraceptives, they also reduce paid government services for counseling and reproductive health care and cut back on sex education in schools.

The UN also warned against conflating demographic adjustments as the only remedy to global issues such as climate change, saying that overpopulation and underpopulation risk becoming a “scapegoat for many problems.” Instead, the report recommended voluntary family planning services, education on reproductive health, and expanded access to birth control and abortion as ways to fix demographic issues without impeding human rights.

The UN cautioned against enforced, top-down decisions prescribing fertility rates, as economic benefits would likely be at the expense of equality, human rights, and progress, and could limit the “essential goal of empowering women and girls to exercise choice over their own bodies and futures.”

It isn’t the first time the UN has warned population alarmism could worsen demographic issues. Last year, as the global population neared the 8 billion mark, UNFPA executive director Natalia Kanem said rising population was “not a cause for fear,” and that history showed population control policies ranging from restrictions on contraceptives to forced sterilization are often “ineffective and even dangerous.”

“We cannot repeat the egregious violations of human rights…that rob women of their ability to decide whether [or] when to become pregnant, if at all. Population alarmism: It distracts us from what we should be focused on,” she said.

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