When It Comes to Family Planning, Maternal, Child, and Environmental Health Go Hand-in-Hand

Elizabeth Futrell

(Formerly) CCP | Content Development Lead

Last Thursday in Chicago, my friend Danielle gave birth to a healthy baby boy named Sam via an emergency C-section six weeks before her due date, safely concluding a high-risk pregnancy that had involved several hospital stays. Roughly 800 other expectant mothers around the world died in childbirth that day, many without the presence of a skilled birth attendant. The majority of these maternal deaths occurred in developing countries, and most could have been prevented with access to basic health services including prenatal care, skilled childbirth attendance, and family planning.  

Two days before Sam was born, many of the roughly 70,000 women giving birth in India that sweltering Tuesday were plunged into darkness as countless homes, health centers, and hospitals in India lost power completely or were forced to operate on backup generators when the country suffered the worst blackout in its history. More than half of India’s population—600 million people—were affected. The Washington Post noted that this blackout was the largest in global history, leaving nearly 1 in 10 people in the world without power. In India and other countries around the world, as population growth outpaces the development of infrastructure, situations like this will become increasingly commonplace.

Woman and child search for drinking water in India

A young woman and child search for drinking water across Machal Lake in India.

© 2009 Kailash Mittal, Courtesy of Photoshare

Meanwhile in the U.S., where population growth is leveling off, officials have declared more than half of all U.S. counties disaster areas this summer due to the extreme drought, which has ravaged the country’s agriculture and will likely send food prices soaring. The hardships inflicted by this drought seem minor compared to last year’s drought in East Africa, which caused a severe food crisis in Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya; threatened the livelihoods of almost 10 million people; heightened the already crushing refugee crisis in Kenya; and led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people, many of them infants and children suffering from extreme malnutrition. Rajiv Shah, administrator of USAID, attributed the severity of the crisis to global warming. A newly published statistical analysis by NASA scientist James Hansen also attributes the 2012 U.S. drought and several other recent droughts around the world to global warming, a result of ever-increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

In their piece in last month’s Lancet series on family planning, O’Neill et al. presented evidence that changes in CO2 emissions from the use of fossil fuels correspond proportionately with changes in population size. The authors’ scenario analyses demonstrated that alternative population growth trends have the potential to substantially affect the CO2 emissions of future generations. Stephen Goldstein noted last week in a blog post reflecting on the Lancet series that improving global access to family planning will not only protect women’s health and rights but will also help regulate population growth and reduce the ecological demands and environmental strain imposed by our rapidly multiplying, increasingly consumerist modern society. Many of the Lancet papers espouse the interrelated health, social, and economic benefits of family planning and call for universal access to contraception as an essential human right. The series also includes several fascinating papers that focus on the environmental effects of population growth. These arguments for family planning complement each other, highlighting the multitude of crucial benefits that family planning offers.

Nigeria Traffic

Human and traffic congestion along Apapa-Oshodi Express Way in Lagos, Nigeria. The city population, estimated at approximately 15 million people, continues to grow quickly despite the city's very slow infrastructure development.

© 2006 Kunle Ajayi, Courtesy of Photoshare

Mothers and babies suffer and die every day from preventable conditions   because parents lack the information and tools they need to space their births at healthy intervals. Families lose members every day because of drought-related food emergencies and subsequent conflicts and refugee crises. Every day, infants and children battle respiratory, gastrointestinal, and other illnesses ignited by poor air and water quality. With all of our scientific and technological capabilities, parents and their children should not be suffering and dying from these causes.

Women must have the right to reproductive health, quality prenatal care, and safe, supported childbirth. Women must have the right to plan when and how often they have children. Women must have the right to pursue livelihoods of their choosing, to adequately feed themselves and their families, and to contribute to the economic development, environmental protection, and social fabric of their communities. Children must have the right to grow and thrive in a world with clean air, safe drinking water, plentiful nutritious food, and the abundance of natural resources previous generations have enjoyed. All of these rights are interwoven, and family planning offers a simple, individualized solution to the multifaceted challenge of protecting the health and wellbeing of oneself, one’s family, our communities, and our planet.

For more information about the intersection of population, health, the environment, and family planning, please visit the Population, Health & Environment Toolkit on K4Health.org.