Women's Rights, Healthy Planet Go Hand-in-Hand How do population, natural resources and women's rights all intersect? Author Robert Engelman explains in a new book how allowing women to control their reproduction can lead to a more sustainable planet
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Women's Rights, Healthy Planet Go Hand-in-Hand

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Women's Rights, Healthy Planet Go Hand-in-Hand

Women's Rights, Healthy Planet Go Hand-in-Hand

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Up next, a look at the connection between women's reproductive rights and the environment. If the world's women had complete control over their reproduction, most of them would stop at just two or maybe three children. That's the premise of a new book, one that takes the long view on women's reproduction and the various forces that have, at different times in history, led women to have more or fewer children than they might otherwise have chosen.

Joining me to talk about this is Robert Engelman. He is the author of "More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want," just out by Island Press. He's also vice president for programs at the Worldwatch Institute, and he joins us from NPR in Washington, D.C. Thanks for talking with us, Mr. Engelman.

Mr. ROBERT ENGELMAN (Author, "More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want;" Vice President for Programs, Worldwatch Institute): Hello, Richard. How are you?

HARRIS: I'm well, Robert. Thank you. So, you - I should also mention that before you went to Worldwatch, you were vice president at a population organization, and I wonder if the inspiration for this book started from your many years of work of trying to think about world population.

Mr. ENGELMAN: Yeah, it had a lot to do that. I spent 15 years with an organization called Population Action International, and was lucky enough to travel a lot around the world, particularly in the developing world with that, and that's where I gathered quite a few of the stories that make up the book. Probably goes even before that. I was an environmental reporter for sometime before I made the switch to getting active on some of these issues, and I was always intrigued by these connections even then.

HARRIS: Yeah. I should mention that callers are welcome to join in the conversation. Give us a jingle at 1-800-989-TALK, and join the conversation with Robert Engelman. So, what inspired you to do this book? What was - did you start with a premise and then - try to see if it panned out, or how did it come about?

Mr. ENGELMAN: Yeah. It was an exploration of a premise about contemporary affairs that actually, in part, brought me into the field, and my career for the last number of years has been an extended exploration of this really interesting premise about a topic that's pretty important in the world today. And it's in the news right now, but it's also pretty sensitive and controversial, which is population growth and its impacts on environmental risk and other problems that people face (unintelligible).

And the premise is basically this - it was something I heard from a woman whom I eventually came to work with at PAI, the organization I worked in so many years - that if women were actually able to decide for themselves not just what size family they wanted, but really, at any given moment in their reproductive careers, do I want to get pregnant now? Or would I rather not be pregnant now, wait another time, or not ever get pregnant ever? And could actualize their decisions free of pressure from husbands, mothers-in-law, churches, whatever, that world population problems would pretty much resolve themselves in an environmentally sustainable way, and they'd take care of themselves.

Well, I thought this was an interesting idea, and it actually became a topic of discussion at a U.N. conference in the mid-'90s around population, which kind of made the assertion that, yes, the way to deal with population is to meet women's needs for reproductive healthcare and family planning. And it struck me, in this conference in the mid-'90s, as something of an assertion that didn't have a strong research base behind it.

And I got interested in seeing if there was such a research base. Then I got intrigued, because it's just the way my interests tend to run, in - so how was this played out in history? What - has this been true in the past? Have women, in fact, wanted to have smaller families or fairly - a few children and weren't able to in the past? Or what are women's views been about this sorts of things? And that led me into a grand historical inquiry that pretty much took me back to the point at which humans became bipedal and started walking on two feet.

HARRIS: Indeed. Yeah.

Mr. ENGELMAN: And then let me forward from that.

HARRIS: Yeah. I'm Richard Harris and this is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. We're talking to Robert Engelman, author of "More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want," and you mentioned that you started really way back in the beginning in this book and trying to understand, among other things, why the world population didn't grow much sooner, right? I mean, because we've had - the human career is pretty old, 200,000 years, something like that...

That's right.

HARRIS: For us on the planet. Why is it only now that we'd simply be facing a real population boom and obviously filling up the planet rather rapidly?

Mr. ENGELMAN: Yeah. And it is fairly recent, although it's happened at various points in the past on a smaller scale. This is really a story of how women saved humanity, and how they could do it again if we just let them. That is, women were really the original population growers.

They - because of various innovations that really belonged pretty much more securely to women than to men, particularly around the birth process itself, we can say pretty confident that if women hadn't been as strategic and successful at giving birth and raising children to adulthood as they had been, the human species would have went the way of most of the other hominid species, and in fact, most other animal species in the world, and would've eventually gone extinct.

Our great success was due, as any demographer knows, to the fact that women consistently - your maternal ancestors, Richard, as well as mine, and everyone listening - gave birth to at least one, and on average, two, and a bit more than two, children, and then successfully cleaned them, bathed them, kept them from falling into rivers, kept them away from where the lions hang out. So that they made it to their own reproductive age and then had children themselves. This is no small feat and one of the things I looked into it was, so how exactly did women do this in history? And why were Homo sapiens women so good at it, our mothers and grandmothers?

HARRIS: Right. And midwives tend to turn - to have a pretty important part in this story, don't they?

Mr. ENGELMAN: Well, this is a really interesting thing, and I really feel that very little attention has been given to the relationship between mothers and midwives. It was a revolution in animal behavior. Most animals give birth alone, and humans, for various reasons that are little complicated to demonstrate on the radio, need help. It's very dangerous to give birth when you walk on two feet because of the way your pelvis is shaped, quite literally.

You need help, and very, very early on we can say through logic and deduction more than fossil evidence, we don't have midwife fossils particularly, but we can figure, and people have worked this out pretty interestingly and well, that women had to get help from probably other women in giving birth, and that assisted birth itself was a tremendous spirit to language to communication and to a whole way of raising children that was cooperative. It involved probably not just a mother but a number of adults - the father, too, I might add - but probably especially grandmothers and cooperating women to bring children to adulthood.

Now, to get back to your question about population growth, the other side of this question that's interesting is that it's not hard to document that, throughout human history or for certainly quite a long time, women have also been interested in the other side of this. It's very important to have enough children survive, as Margaret Mead pointed out long ago. It becomes difficult if too many consistently do, because then suddenly your population grows rapidly, and you run a little short on resources.

And women tended to be acutely aware of that, and the evidence is very strong, and the documentation, even, historically as strong, that for a very long time they have sought to find methods and substances that could help them be sexually active but only become pregnant when they wanted to do so. And they've been frustrated by that, in some cases, by men, for interesting reasons that relate to our social development over the years. And that frustration is probably one of the major reasons that populations have grown as much as they have over the years.

HARRIS: Well, we'll be right back after this short break.

(Soundbite of music)

HARRIS: This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And we're talking this hour with - about reproduction and the environment with my guest Robert Engelman, who has written a book called "More: Population Nature, and What Women Want." He's also vice president for programs at the Worldwatch Institute. And we were talking about not only getting - having more babies, but also figuring out ways to have fewer babies. And I was surprised to read in your book about how early there were, at least reportedly, herbal contraceptives and things like that. Do you have any idea? Well, tell me about them. Do you think any of them were actually effective?

Mr. ENGELMAN: Well, about as early as there is writing, there's mention of the idea of contraception. Egyptian hieroglyphics talk about using crocodile dung. I'm not quite sure how or how effective that would be. And there's varying opinions about this, Richard. There's so many - or some views that said, well, these were some kind of herbs you ate. It was pretty hard to invent the oral contraceptive pill and took a lot of testing and a lot of work. It'd be pretty surprising if you could just eat a piece of fruit and it would be as effective as the pill.

And I think that's a point well taken. These were not what - you know, I say in the book, don't try these at home, readers. But interestingly, they have been studied by historical pharmacologists, and many of the herbs particularly that are mentioned in, for example classical Greek literature, pomegranates feature and the Myth of Persephone, for example, and Demeter, have been found to have this interesting hormonal estrogenic - or mimic estrogenic kinds of qualities, and that leads some pharmacologists to think they might have had some effect.

And the interesting thing is, from your own personal perspective, you wouldn't want something that might have some effect. But from a demographic perspective, if people were using these in widespread ways, you don't have to bend down the arc of fertility very much to actually have a big impact over time on demographic change.

HARRIS: I suppose if enough women are taking them...

Mr. ENGELMAN: That's right. And by some theories in some populations, Europe, for example, in the Middle Ages, they may have been quite widely used. There are also other things that can be effective if they are used, withdrawal, for example, which you get a nice lesson about by reading Genesis. And withdrawal can be relatively effective if it's used consistently. It's not a woman-controlled method. That's kind of a problem. But under certain circumstances, it can be and probably has been used to reduce unwanted pregnancies in the past.

HARRIS: Yeah. One theme of your book seems to be that men want more kids and women want fewer kids. Is there an explanation for that?

Mr. ENGELMAN: Yeah. And it's a generalism. I wouldn't say it's true in every case, and I don't want to criticize men too much in this regard. But yeah, men and women are different in the way they have children. This is the one way that I think we can all agree, that men and women are generally, without any controversy, different. Women give birth to all babies, at least last time I checked the data, and men have a lot to do with that, but they don't give birth.

They have a bit of different interest about it and it's evolved to actually bifurcate, to some degree, in that probably in early days men shared many of women's interests in not having too many children in the tribe or the clan of the family for environmental reasons. But as societies developed, men began to realize the - recognized the importance of having lots of soldiers, lots of people to build pyramids, lots of farmers for food surpluses, while women were continuing to think, is it safe for me to have a child?

Will it be safe for my child? Will my child grow up and become an adult and have children of her own? So there's this different view that's quite born out in the anthropological and sociological literature as well. Men typically, for example, tell survey researchers that they would like to have more women than their spouses are reporting to the same survey that researchers - or partners.

HARRIS: Let's go to the phone. Let's hear from Vincent, Rockford, Illinois. Welcome to the Talk of the Nation.

VINCENT (Caller): Yes. This has been sort of a frightening subject for me ever since reading Paul Ehrlich's "Population Bomb" about 1970, and I'm just wondering if we're past the point where certain resources - I mean, oil is all over the news these days, but you know, fresh water and other such resources for growing food, are we past the point of being able to support ourselves even if the population birth rate were to drop to zero at this point?

Mr. ENGELMAN: Hm. Well, let's hope it's not going to drop to zero. And it's a good question. I think it's fundamentally unanswerable, Vince. My sense about it is - I guess the best answer I can give you is that, yeah, it's possible. We may be. We don't really know. The book comes out at a pretty good time because of the concern about rising food prices, rising energy prices, not a good time in the sense that I'm happy about that, obviously but these issues are getting more attention.

I chose in part because of the attention Ehrlich got for his book, and there's sort of a history writing about population, not to dwell on, is it too late? Are we past the point of no return with human population? But the focus, again, looking at a long term, on the fact that we have had population pressures in the past, we are very innovative as a species, we often find ways to address them, we have a good record of survival for the 200,000 years that Richard mentioned.

So I prefer to be optimistic and look at the idea that if women are able to make decisions about their own childbearing, hopefully with their partners, but if not with their partners, on their own, that we can - and if we do all the other right things, we clearly have to do a lot that doesn't have anything to do with population, saving energy and being more penurious about our use of resources and being fairer with poor people, and people who don't consume as much as wealthy people. All of these things have to be done in concert, and then, I'm hopeful that we'll find out we haven't overshot. But we're in a pretty dangerous zone right now, I would agree with that.

HARRIS: Yeah. I guess one of the issues is that people think this personally about, how many kids I want? And one kid is not going to make a difference to whether the world runs out of resources or not. So it's a difficult juxtaposition about - of personal views versus global views. And I think you saw that replicated also in the debate about population, as you mentioned, in - up until about the early '90s, everyone was concerned about world population and then the discussion very much shifted to personal issues, and hasn't really come back full circle, I would guess, to the question about, what do these numbers all add in up to?

Mr. ENGELMAN: Yeah, and there is a real strong sense, and I think it's understandable and in many ways justifiable, that people shouldn't be telling other people how to make these decisions for themselves. There's a great discomfort with that. And one of the most encouraging things I discovered in researching this is that there's a kind of invisible hand that relates to personal wellbeing and connects at the collective in species-wide wellbeing.

That is, women, when they're making decisions about when to be pregnant and when not to be, they aren't really thinking about global warming or whether there's enough water, I mean, they may be, but that's probably the exception. They're more thinking about, what about me? What about my partner? What about this child? But collectively, these decisions, through history, have tended to make population more sustainable when they can be put into effect. When they can't be put into effect, the population tends to be less sustainable.

HARRIS: Let's take another call. This is Jonathan in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

JONATHAN (Caller): Yes, sir. Thank you very much for taking my call. I was just discussing this very topic with my class today. What effect has the Mexico City policy or the international gag rule had on the fertility rates and the environmental damage in second and third world countries? And I'll take my question off the air. Thank you very much for your time.

HARRIS: Can you explain what that is?

Mr. ENGELMAN: Yeah, it's a great question. Gets into the policy wonk side of me, but it is represented a little bit in the book. The Mexico City Policy is a policy that Republican presidents and not Democratic presidents since 1984, have had an effect that U.S. foreign assistance for family planning and reproductive planning, and reproductive health care generally, can never be given to any organization, any nongovernmental organization, at least, that ever mentions the word "abortion," even if in distant response to a woman's question about abortion, and whether it is legal in her country or whatever, and certainly not if they offer abortions.

And it's had the effect of limiting U.S. assistance to some of the better, more comprehensive reproductive health organizations around the world, groups like Planned Parenthood or Marie Stopes International out of Britain. And I don't think that there's a way to draw a direct connection to how much environmental damage it may have caused, or even how much - where fertility is because of it, but it's very clear to people who work in the field that it is much harder to provide good services to women who are asking for them as a result of this restriction.

The U.S. is the biggest single donor in this field, and when it tells half to two-thirds of the talented people that work in this area, we can't help you because you occasionally mentioned the word abortion, obviously the care that real women receive goes way down, and PAI, the organization I used to work for, documented numerous clinics that had to shutter their doors. Some were offering HIV prevention and treatment, had to close their doors because of this policy. So it's a tragic policy and hopefully it will be reversed soon.

HARRIS: Yeah, and you've mentioned several times in the book that abortion is unfortunately something that we can't ignore that has to be part of the formula. Why do you say that?

Mr. ENGELMAN: Well, it's ubiquitous in human history and it's ubiquitous in society. It's everywhere, because contraception doesn't always succeed. There's been no society that's eradicated it. It exists under every religion, and it's critical especially because the lack of safe access to abortion has been so murderous to women. I document some of the things that happened when woman tried to get abortions that weren't legal and therefore, generally aren't safe. And women are very often driven to this and they've been driven to it in the past. What happens often with the lack of abortion is that you find something that I would argue as much, much worse, which is higher levels of infanticide, and that can be documented as well.

HARRIS: Yes, you talked about that quite a bit through history. That appeared to be a method of population control.

Mr. ENGELMAN: Yeah, infanticide is interesting, and obviously sad, and one of the main points about infanticide, which has been a method of - a kind of fertility control or a way for women to avoid the commitment to being a parent, is that even aside from the attachment you might have in giving birth and have to break when you cause your child to lose its life, it's a horrific, bad investment in reproduction.

You have to go through all the dangers of pregnancy and childbirth, which have been historically and still are quite dangerous to very many women around the world. You obviously wouldn't do it if you had the choice of safe and effective contraception. And I think that can be said throughout history that, of all the infanticide that's existed in history, it was because there were not safe and effective contraceptive options. We live in a world now where we have those. There's no reason for infanticide to exist in this world.

HARRIS: Let's hear from Katie in Dos Palos, California - is it?

KATIE (Caller): Yes, yes. Hi. I'm a veterinarian who works in population control, you could say. And my question relates to - well I guess somewhat related to the infanticide option, which is that we have, as veterinarians, very often been forced to deal with overpopulation of pets by euthanasia of post - either infant or post-infant animals. And I'm just wondering if you could comment on the relationship between our finding in animals that, when the population tends to be limited, the quality of life for all of the animals that are brought into the world tends to go up, and that the fewer surplus animals there are due to unplanned birth, the better quality of life the animals that are brought into the world tend to enjoy.

Mr. ENGELMAN: Great. Well, thanks. It's an opportunity to plug the website from my book, morethebook.org, where I have some blogs. In there, there's a blog about veterinarians and animals and euthanasia. My wife and I recently had to go through the sad experience of sitting with our cat while a veterinarian put our cat to sleep. So it caused me to ruminate on cats, and actually the impact that cats have on songbirds, which I suspect Richard is familiar with and maybe done stories on.


Mr. ENGELMAN: And this does relate very much to human population. Now, relative to your direct point, I would want to be very careful about talking about - using the word "surplus" when we discuss humanity. It's not a word that I'm very comfortable with in talking about people, can be perhaps used in discussing animals. But a point that I would make about our pets and our livestock is that these animals, much as we love them and are grateful for them, and my wife and I really loved our cat, are now getting in an unbalanced situation because of the large numbers of humans in the world, and naturally outnumber wild animals by very large ratios, which I discuss in the book.


Mr. ENGELMAN: And it's because of human population, of course. So they're having their own environmental impacts, such as threatening the survival of songbird species. Cats like to kill birds.

HARRIS: I'm Richard Harris and this is Talk of The Nation from NPR News. So we're talking to Robert Engelman about his new book called "More," and it has to do with women and their role in controlling human population or determining what it will be and what effect it has on the environment. And let's go back to the phones. Our number's 1-800-989-8255, and let's talk to Russ in Kansas City.

RUSS (Caller): Hello there. My assertion would be that not only must women have control of their reproductive rights, but they must have a certain degree of education in order to exercise that control.

Mr. ENGELMAN: Absolutely.

RUSS: I know somebody who's husband got a vasectomy and she promptly divorced him because she felt she should pop out puppies every nine months. Unfortunate - there are a number of the-more-the-merrier cults, I'll call them, I won't mention names specifically, that unfortunately, they tend to believe that - and their members tend to believe that reproduction should be, well, you know, go be fruitful and multiply. It may have applied back when we could shoot another Indian and get another acre, but not so much anymore. The - what I'm trying to get at is, for instance, there are certain schemes of Christianity, they take their Holy Book - I'm not Christian personally - but they take it as kind of a salad menu. They take some items. They leave others.


RUSS: For instance, homosexuality is evil but wearing mixed fibers and eating shellfish isn't, that sort of thing.

HARRIS: Yeah, OK. Now, that - you do talk a bit about the role of the Church in the course of human history here. Do you want to say just a couple of words about that before we wrap up?

Mr. ENGELMAN: Yeah, there's a whole chapter about the development of a period in history when most of the world's great religions had their roots and it did have - it was a period of pretty intense female subjugation and a sense that it was important to have lots of children in part to spread the faith. And I did discuss that a fair amount.

What I would say here, to be brief, because we're running out of time, is that where that's really been a problem - I mean, everyone is entitled to their views and their religious views and the views about reproduction, where it's been a particular problem is where institutions, religious or otherwise, have felt that they should impose their views on everybody else, and on women particular. And where that's occurred, you've had real problems. You've had a kind of perverse reverse population control.

And most population control, historically, has induced women to have more children than they would have had, had they'd been free to decide. The sense I came out through the research was that everyone's entitled to their opinion, and everyone's entitled to their religious views. The key point is that when women decide on their own, individually, in the silence of their own mind, whether this is the time to become pregnant or this is not the time to become pregnant, and they have safe, healthy, effective ways to put that decision into effect, things go well. When other people are telling them you've got to have this many kids, things go badly.

HARRIS: Hm, well, on that note, I would like to thank you very much. Robert Engelman is author of "More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want." He's also vice president for programs at the World Watch Institute. Thanks for joining me today.

Mr. ENGELMAN: Thank you, Richard.

HARRIS: The program is produced by Karen Vergoth and senior producer Annette Heist. Charles Bergquist is our director. Flora Lichtman is our producer for digital media. Schuman Ma (ph) is our Metcalfe fellow. Our intern is Christopher Intagliapta (ph). Josh Rogosin is our technical director and he's at the controls here in New York. We also had help in Second Life from Lynn Collins, Dave Andrews, Jeff Corbin and the University of Denver. I'm Richard Harris. This is Talk of the Nation: Science Friday. Ira Flatow will be back next week.

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