Do you worry about over-population? Do you believe that the Earth has begun to reach its carrying capacity, its ability to support more people?
That’s certainly an understandable concern—the world’s population passed the 7 billion mark in 2012, and the United Nations Population Fund estimates that we will reach 8 billion people by the year 2025, the fastest the human population has ever grown.
Here’s a mind-boggling statistic: the Earth’s population now expands by somewhere between 75-80 million people each year. Do the math, and that works out to 145 new babies every minute.
In the year 1800, the Earth supported a billion people. By the year 2100, according to a recent study in the journal Science, the Earth will hold somewhere on the order of 11 billion people. Other demographic and birthrate projections estimate as many as 15 billion.
That’s the definition of exponential growth, and it has happened for very good reasons—because we’ve figured out ways during the last few centuries to grow more food, prevent or cure more diseases, reduce infant mortality and stop waging massive world wars. The plague, the Black Death and the huge influenza epidemics of the past are now ancient history. We know more, so we can save more people.
But because we’ve been so successful in moving humanitarian, social and public health initiatives forward, we’ve witnessed a massive increase in human population—which will inevitably continue into the near-term future during the 21st Century. This has raised a whole host of tough questions. Do we have the resources to support such rapid growth? Is population growth sustainable? Can we possibly feed, clothe and shelter that many people? No one really knows, because we’ve never tried it before.
Today, July 11, is United Nations World Population Day, so it’s the right time to ask those questions.
In this short series of essays, then, we’ll explore the crucial issues of overpopulation, and see how the Baha’i teachings recommend dealing with the problem.
First, let’s look at the theme of today’s UN observance: Family Planning: Empowering People, Developing Nations. The United Nations says:
Around the world, some 225 million women who want to avoid pregnancy are not using safe and effective family planning methods, for reasons ranging from lack of access to information or services to lack of support from their partners or communities. Most of these women with an unmet demand for contraceptives live in 69 of the poorest countries on earth.
Access to safe, voluntary family planning is a human right. It is also central to gender equality and women’s empowerment, and is a key factor in reducing poverty. Investments in making family planning available also yields economic and other gains that can propel development forward. – UN World Population Day
This issue—birth control and ready access to safe, effective family planning—has sparked significant religious debate in the past, and still does today. Some major religious organizations have opposed modern birth control methods like the pill. Catholics and some Orthodox Jewish groups outlaw artificial contraception. Even some governments have opposed those methods for moral or political reasons.
How do the Baha’is deal with this weighty issue? Well, the Baha’i teachings on birth control have definitely evolved over time—which shows that the Baha’i principle of the agreement of science and religion, and the flexibility of a democratically-elected universal leadership body, both allow the Faith to react and adjust to new scientific developments. Note the dates on these two letters, one from a secretary of the Baha’i Guardian, Shoghi Effendi; and the following one almost 50 years later from the Universal House of Justice:
As to the problem of birth control. Neither Baha’u’llah nor Abdu’l-Baha has revealed anything direct or explicit regarding this question. But the Baha’i Teachings, when carefully studied imply that such current conceptions like birth control, if not necessarily wrong and immoral in principle, have nevertheless to be discarded as constituting a real danger to the very foundation of our social life. – from a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual Baha’i, October 14, 1935.
As to birth control methods, the House of Justice does not wish to comment on the effectiveness or possible hazards of present-day contraceptive agents, and leaves it to individuals to decide what course of action they will take in light of the teachings and the best medical advice available … – from a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual Baha’i, March 4, 1981.
Of course, we need to understand that birth control in 1935 was vastly different than the safe modern oral contraceptives developed in the 1960s—so you can see why the advice from the Baha’i administrative order changed and progressed. In the 1930s, birth control often involved harsh chemicals, primitive and harmful intrauterine devices or permanent sterilization—and in most places, all those methods were illegal. Now, oral contraceptives and much more sophisticated, benign devices are safely, widely and legally used all around the world.
But this issue, of course, involves much more than just the modern methods used to limit and control fertility—it involves the emancipation and equality of women:
… the principle of religion has been revealed by Baha’u’llah that woman must be given the privilege of equal education with man and full right to his prerogatives. That is to say, there must be no difference in the education of male and female in order that womankind may develop equal capacity and importance with man in the social and economic equation. Then the world will attain unity and harmony. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 108.
Baha’is believe that women must have full equality, including an equal voice in the important decisions every couple makes about procreation. When that equality happens, the Baha’i teachings say, the world will know peace.