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Recently I read a blog post by Libby Anne about her disenchantment with the US “pro-life” movement. If you are not familiar with her blog, I recommend checking it out. She writes about “leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the harmful effects of the ‘purity culture,’ the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism”. In this blog post she points out many factual errors propagated by the “pro-life” movement, and she also makes a case that arguments like “zygotes are people and we need to save them” are not really what motivate the people behind this movement.

I agree with Libby Anne on the facts: the pill prevents fertilisation of eggs, and even plan B seems to suppress ovulation rather than prevent implantation of a fertilised egg. However, this is not why I am writing this blog post, rather I want to write about something that is not mentioned in her blog post, something more basic. One of the questions generally not asked is why we suddenly use all this contraception. Many of my readers might wonder how contraception in general could be a disputed issue, but it is. Think for example of the government-funded abstinence-only programmes in the US, through which many lies about contraception have been disseminated. Note well that the dissemination of lies was not a slip but the lies meant to scare teenagers.

So, back to why, on a historical scale, contraception “suddenly” became so prevalent. This question harks back to an astonishing fact, and this fact not only bolsters family planning and contraception, but it shows that contraception actually is a secondary “symptom” of a much bigger, fantastic and very moral story. Let me explain what I mean by this.

The current global child-mortality rate is below 4%, i.e. ~ less than 4 out of 100 children die before the age of five. While this may come across as a staggering number, it pales in historical comparison. As recent as 1800 child mortality was around 40% on a global average! So even if a family had five children (!), the chance of more than two children surviving was 32%. Compare that with at least 99.9% in today’s world. As a consequence of high child mortality, it was paramount for a stable population to have large families, while in today’s world, large families would lead to runaway population growth. Let me illustrate the latter with an example. Let’s assume that the likelihood of surviving childhood and starting a family was around 40% in 1800 (a VERY conservative estimate). In this case, a family needed 3.3 children on average for the population to remain stable. In contrast, an average of 3.3 children per family in today’s world would lead to population growth of a staggering 60% per generation . A generation equals roughly 30 years, so this population surplus would lead to more than a tripling of the earth’s population by the end of this century. So if we do not want to populate ourselves to death, we are pretty much only left with two alternatives: we either increase the mortality rate or we lower the birth rate. In order to understand the latter think of the current human population as a bathtub filled with water molecules, where the water molecules represent individual humans. Water is flowing into the bathtub (read: births) and the drain is partly open (read: deaths). In order to change the volume of water in the bathtub, one can either change the drainage (read: deaths) or change the inflow to the bathtub (read: birth rate). The above historic change of child mortality corresponds to a throttling of the drainage and to avoid an overflow of the bath-tub, decreasing the inflow is thus the only option.

I do not think that anyone promotes increasing mortality in general or child mortality in particular. To me, actions that lead to a lower child mortality are inherently moral and 4 out of 100 is still too high. Furthermore, except for some people on the fringe, no one I know denies the importance of slowing down population growth to avoid a global catastrophe, rather the opposite. So in order to create a sustainable world that is blessed with low child mortality, it is a simple fact that we need to limit the number of births below the level that would prevail without birth control. Contraception is a powerful and fairly non-intrusive way of lowering the birth rate, and it has experienced an increasing demand ever since it’s invention, especially in the developing world. This can probably be attributed to the fact that contraception does not curtail freedom, while other approaches, such as the one-child policy, do. On the contrary, contraception is often seen as an enabler of freedom, especially by women.

To summarise my argument:

  • Low child mortality is moral and something we should strive for;

  • Low child mortality necessitates lowering birth rates below levels absent birth control;

  • Contraception makes an important contribution to this noble cause (while not curtailing people’s freedom or indeed even while fostering it).

That is all I wanted to say.

Acknowledgment

I thank mon ami for directing me to several of the linked documents and for copy-editing this blog post.

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2016-01-18 update: corrected the percentages for the survival of children in case five are born in total.

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