Population Human Curbs to Growth

As quickly as the population "explosion" of the post-World War II era became a cause celebre, developing countries began to consider ways to slow growth. It became apparent that population growth rates reached in the 1960s would cause their populations to double every twenty-five years, a situation that was without precedent in history.

The rapid increase in population growth in developing countries, as has been well documented, resulted directly from the swift spread of modern methods of public health and sanitation, preventive medicine, and health care. These methods had taken centuries to evolve in developed countries but could be exported quickly elsewhere. Death rates throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America, particularly in the latter two regions, fell rapidly in the second half of the past century. The intentions, were, of course, good—but such efforts had an unexpected result. Declining mortality rates, particularly infant and child mortality, raised population growth rates to heights never anticipated. In fact, a major concern in the 1950s had been that repeats of past famines and epi

A billboard in the city of Chengdu extols the one-child policy of the Chinese government, 1994 (Bohemian Nomad Picturemakers/Corbis)

demics might lead to rising death rates in developing countries.

One by one, developing countries realized that the pace of population growth had quickened remarkably. India, which had a population of about 350 million at independence in 1948, could easily have reached 1.5 billion by 2000 with its slowly rising life expectancy, had its fertility level of about six children per woman remained unchanged. Many countries came to the conclusion that something had to be done.

The most obvious direct tool to slow growth was family planning. The vast majority of couples in developing countries lived in rural areas where large numbers of children were seen not only as an economic asset but also as an emotional comfort and, often, a matter of pride. The reasons varied from region to region. In some areas, strong son preference might exert some upward pressure on family size, as couples sought at least one or two surviving sons for their support in old age. High infant and child mortality had long motivated a relatively large number of births. A woman's role in life, to bear children and tend house, made larger families attractive. Perhaps simply the lack of prospects for economic advancement under many colonial governments kept family size high.

Although there certainly were women in virtually every society who would have wanted to control their fertility, the notion of family limitation was relatively novel. Traditional practices—such as rhythm, withdrawal, abstinence, and a prolonged period of infertility resulting from breastfeeding—whether used intentionally or not, did keep the number of children a woman might bear below a possible maximum. But the use of modern methods of contraception, such as sterilization or the condom, were largely unknown.

Perhaps one of the great surprises of the twentieth century was that the use of family planning spread as widely as it did (see Table 1). It is surprising in the sense that the idea of family limitation was introduced in societies that had changed little in themselves. This is particularly true of modern methods of contraception, such as the pill, sterilization, and injection. The contraceptive pill and injection are often looked upon with suspicion and fear of side effects, while there can be considerable reluctance to seek a permanent method such as sterilization, particularly on the part of husbands.

Table 1

Percentage of Married Women Using Family Planning

Table 1







Developing Countries








East Asia




South Asia




Latin America




Sources: Data for 1960-1965 and 1980-1981: United Nations Population Division. 1988. Levels and Trends of Contraceptive Use as Assessed in 1988. New York: United Nations; Data for Late 1990s: Population Reference Bureau 2002. 2002 World Population Data Sheet, Family Planning. Washington, DC: Population Reference Bureau.

Sources: Data for 1960-1965 and 1980-1981: United Nations Population Division. 1988. Levels and Trends of Contraceptive Use as Assessed in 1988. New York: United Nations; Data for Late 1990s: Population Reference Bureau 2002. 2002 World Population Data Sheet, Family Planning. Washington, DC: Population Reference Bureau.

Yet contraception did catch on in a large number of countries, often for very different reasons. In some countries, such as Indonesia and Thailand, the use of family planning was popularized in a variety of innovative ways, such as meetings at which villagers discussed the health and economic value of family planning and announced publicly the method they were using. The inclusion of men in such meetings was particularly effective. Such activities were often accompanied by mass media campaigns such as the use of billboards and radio and TV messages that described the health benefits to both mother and child of a smaller family. Even popular soap operas incorporated such ideas or were specifically produced to dramatize the idea that large families result in poverty and reduced opportunities for all concerned.

In other cases, programs were less than voluntary or were outright coercive. The latter, to the extent that they truly were coercive, are contrary to the UN's principle that family planning should only provide couples the ability to decide their number of children—and the timing of those births—themselves. Some programs, such as China's, provide for penalties for violating the national policy of having one child and seeking permission for a second. Although excessively coercive measures are not part of the national family planning policies, such violations do occur. In South Asia, notably India and Nepal, sterilization "camps" that brought the procedure to the village level proved quite unpopular, particularly where pressure might have been used. Such campaigns initiated by Sanjay Gandhi in the late 1970s gave India's program a bad name, from which it has only recently recovered. Today, in Vietnam, the government policy of two children per couple, advertised widely on signs and billboards from large cities to highways to country lanes has received what truly seems to be a good reception from the people, without the use of any Draconian measures, other than some peer pressure.

Family planning's role as a limiting factor to population growth is often viewed in the light of "replacement level" fertility, which corresponds to an average family size of about two children per woman. That particular number of children is often specified, or implied, in national population policies because, at that pace of childbearing, population growth ultimately comes to an end and the total population size stabilizes. With replacement fertility, each couple simply replaces themselves, not increasing or decreasing the size of future generations. It is unlikely that a family size of fewer than two children would be a societal or government goal, since that would lead to long-term population decline. That is the very situation in which all of Europe, in fact every industrialized country except the United States, finds itself. This limit to growth, below replacement fertility, is a phenomenon that was truly unexpected.

It has long been the practice when making projections of global population size to incorporate what we might call an "end of growth" scenario as the medium projection, the one most often quoted by users. The custom has been to make the general assumption that fertility in a country will fall to the two-child family average at some point in the future and then remain at that level. The second half of that assumption has largely been for statistical convenience, in that the two-child family will result in stabilized, unchanging total population size, a population that neither grows nor declines. For nearly every industrialized country, however, that outlook has changed rather drastically.

Throughout Europe, the so-called end of growth scenario has become a discussion of how to end population decrease—or at least dampen its intensity. In many populous European countries, the rate of childbearing, both in formal and informal unions, is such that women would average only about 1.1 to 1.5 children each if birth rates do not rise, and they give little sign of it. Here the curbs to population growth that have emerged are sluggish economies or economies in actual recession, unemployment and lack of confidence in the economic future, longer periods of education in preparation for occupations that have become more technical, and, finally, changing "tastes," the desire to live well, travel, and have more time for oneself, rather than raise as many as two children. Here, we have something of a paradox, in that highly educated societies seem to move away from earlier, traditional family formation, and more frequently face the question not when to form families, but if. In the developing countries, higher levels of education are thought to result in smaller family size, but the notion of population decline is hardly a national goal.

Fertility reduction as a limiting factor on growth is a common element of most national policies, but it rarely occurs in a vacuum. Policies today call for a full menu of programs, both from educating larger proportions of women and keeping them in school longer, incorporating a full range of reproductive health services with family planning programs, improving child health, and involving men. This is certainly an ambitious series of tasks, but it is one that has been discussed extensively for many years, particularly since the landmark UN International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in 1994.

At a previous UN population conference in 1974, limiting factors to population growth were discussed under the general theme of the oft-quoted "development is the best contraceptive." This line of argument held that forcing family planning on the population would be counterproductive; it would be economic development that would motivate people themselves to seek such services. Ten years later, at the next UN population conference in Mexico City, recently available survey data showed clearly that family planning programs did find a ready clientele in developing countries and that lower birth rates were a result.

Now, more emphasis would be placed on increasing contraceptive supply and information on family planning.

At the 1994 ICPD, another shift in direction seemed to occur, when the argument was advanced that family planning was not simply a tool by which demographic targets might be achieved with women's rights taking a back seat. Although it can be argued that most programs already incorporated many aspects of what was now hailed as "reproductive health," family planning programs since 1994 have emphasized needed enhancements to improve prenatal care, delivery and postdelivery care, information on family planning methods, the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, and child nutrition and immunization.

The 1990 UN Summit on Children emphasized a series of goals for child and maternal health that could be taken as a form of "fewer, healthier babies," although it was not itself designed to slow population growth. Still, greater emphasis on child health reinforces in the parents' minds that child survival has seen significant improvements in their country, lessening the sense that large numbers of children are necessary to ensure the survival of a few.

The general assumption made in end of growth population projections that family size will eventually decline to two children is not an unreasonable one. (Whether fertility decline stops at two children or falls well below is a question for another day.) It follows the general plan of the demographic transition that took place in the industrialized countries. Their societies became almost fully urbanized, and large families lost their appeal. It is not illogical to believe that today's developing countries will follow much the same path and, indeed, many are.

Such an assumption often implies a large number of growth-limiting circumstances that work in concert to reduce fertility in developing countries. Factors such as universal secondary education, greatly increased life expectancy, low infant mortality, and the involvement of women in decisions from the domestic arena to national government imply a fundamental transformation in society that must not only be accomplished simultaneously, but in a very short period of time. Transformations of this type took centuries in industrialized countries, and assumptions made today about the future of developing countries implicitly assume that such changes can occur in mere decades.

What has happened thus far is that fertility decline has actually occurred where societal changes have been only gradual at best. In Bangladesh, national policies to lower the birth rate saw little effect until population growth itself became a limiting factor. Rural land could no longer be subdivided among offspring, so that income was sought by migrating to cities. Here, children may be more of an economic liability than an asset, and the Bangladesh birth rate began to fall.

Finally, a factor has reappeared that had almost vanished from consideration: the appearance of epidemic disease. HIV/AIDS has emerged as one of the most tragic and unanticipated curbs to population growth in modern history. Its impact in a number of countries of Africa is such that the population of those countries is actually expected to decline in the near future—that, in countries in which women recently averaged six and seven children during their lifetimes.

The earth has undergone cataclysmic demographic changes in its recent history, and both the twentieth and twenty-first centuries will likely be remembered as the "centuries of population." The twentieth century began with 1.6 billion people and ended with 6.1. The twenty-first century is the one in which we expect that population growth may end in the developing countries, as it has elsewhere. But how that happens will be a complex interplay of factors that will vary in different countries. Finally, a demographer might at this point emphasize some of the mathematical implications. The future timing of fertility decline—how quickly or how slowly it actually takes place—will have a very large impact on the ultimate number of the earth's residents. That number could range anywhere from 6 to 20 billion, a range that carries with it huge implications for earth's future.

See also: Agriculture, Origin of; Human Evolution; Population Growth, Human; Urbanization


Bongaarts, John. 1984. "Implications of Future Fertility Trends for Contraceptive Practice." Population and Development Review 10, no. 2:341-352; Cohen, Joel. 1995. How Many People Can the Earth Support? New York: W. W. Norton; Jain, Anrudh, ed. 1998. Do Population Policies Matter? Fertility and Politics in Egypt, India, Kenya, and Mexico. New York: Population Council; Ross, John, John Stover, and Amy Willard. 1999. Profiles for Family Planning and Reproductive Health Programs. Glastonbury, CT: Futures Group International; Sauvy, Alfred. 1969. General Theory of Population. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson; UN Population Division. 2000. Levels and Trends of Contraceptive Use as Assessed in 1998. New York: United Nations; UN Population Division. 2001. World Population Prospects: The 2000 Revision. New York: United Nations.

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