What should the so-called U.S. “baby bust” mean to those who care about reproductive and environmental justice?
A spate of recent articles notes that, rather than an anticipated COVID-19 baby boom, demographers are predicting a “baby bust.” One such article in this magazine argues that this population control is a good thing—for the climate, the environment and women’s empowerment.
Not so fast.
First and foremost, population growth is not a linear, direct cause of resource depletion or climate change. Study after study has demonstrated that resource consumption among affluent people in countries like the U.S. plays a more important role than sheer human numbers. And it is not simply uneven consumption between nations. Wealthy people profit from highly polluting production of consumer goods and services that predetermine markets, whether or not people partake of them. As troubling, governments, militaries and corporations—fossil fuel corporations in particular—are responsible for the lion’s share of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Population campaigns, even those couched in the language of women’s empowerment, won’t curb the worst polluters. As the book On Infertile Ground: Population Control and Women’s Rights in the Era of Climate Change argues, these campaigns are particularly harmful when they place the burden of the world’s environmental problems on women’s reproductive choices.
Let’s also keep in mind that one of the reasons for the baby bust is the number of people who have died over the past year. As of mid-May, more than 23,000 people who had died of COVID-19 in the United States were people in their reproductive years (18–49 years old). CDC data demonstrates that Black, Hispanic and Indigenous communities have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic—with disproportionately high rates of illness, hospitalization and death.
The pandemic also seems to have worsened the appallingly high U.S. maternal mortality rates, with a death rate twice as high for Black women than for white women. One study suggests that rates of stillbirth and maternal mortality worldwide increased by as much as a third during the pandemic. Given the loss of life with the pandemic, and the racial health disparities that underpin it, a celebration of fewer births is insensitive at best, distasteful at worst.
Falling U.S. fertility rates are no surprise. U.S. birth rates have declined since the 1960s and have hovered around “replacement level” (defined as two children per pregnant person) since the early 1970s. As of the end of 2020, the fertility rate fell to 1.6 per pregnant person, the second lowest rate since the 18th century. This mirrors global trends: According to the 2019 U.N. World Population Prospects, smaller families are the new norm and almost half the people in the world live in countries where the fertility rate is below 2.1. Higher child survival rates are a major reason that people are having fewer kids, as well as improved health care, basic hygiene and nutrition, and increased access to education, among others.
Historically, population growth in the U.S. has come from immigration, which has also slowed dramatically in recent years due to draconian immigration restrictions. Unfortunately, many still blame immigrants for U.S. ‘overpopulation’ and by extension, for environmental degradation too.
Take Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s claims in his recent federal lawsuit. He is suing the Biden administration for failing to uphold Trump-era immigration restrictions, including construction of the border wall, on the grounds this will encourage migrants who will degrade the environment. Brnovich asserts that this violates the U.S. National Environmental Protection Act because “as more and more people come into the country, it has a more and more devastating impact on our environment.”
Recent changes in immigration policies have contributed to a rise in reproductive injustices targeting immigrants. For example, between 2018 and 2020, as many as 57 ICE detainees held in Irwin County Detention Center, Ga., reported they were pressured to undergo unnecessary gynecological procedures, including taking Depo-Provera shots. Some were forcibly sterilized. The range and extent of such injustices have led reporter Tina Vásquez to declare that “war is being waged on the bodily autonomy of certain, vulnerable people.”
What should the so-called U.S. “baby bust” mean to those who care about reproductive and environmental justice? For a start, it is an opportunity to reject old population ideology that equates more babies with environmental ruin. We should take a cue from the Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights (COLOR). COLOR has taken a forceful stand against population reduction, or decreasing the number of births, as a strategy for environmental sustainability.
Instead of blaming yet-to-be-born babies and their mothers for our environmental problems, let’s follow the lead of Mothers Out Front, an advocacy group that fights to protect children from climate crisis and works toward a livable future for all. Let’s also support the work of organizations like the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program and call to task the fossil fuel industry for its environmental harm, anti-democratic tactics and health risks to Black and brown communities. Addressing race and environmental injustice is vital because, as a recent study shows, people of color suffer disproportionate harm from air pollution.
Resisting old population ideology also means fighting for reproductive justice and anti-racist health care. The Centers for Disease Control, along with other public health entities, recently declared racism a public health emergency and structural barrier to appropriate care. Physicians have drafted An Anti-Racist Agenda for Medicine as a way to address such barriers and catalyze institutional change. Resisting population ideology also means centering the experiences and research of groups like the Black Mamas Matter Alliance to address Black maternal mortality rates and support healthy parents and babies. And it includes fighting for reproductive autonomy for detained immigrants, like Project South and allies do as part of a broader abolition and healing justice platform.
Let’s address environmental and human health problems together, rather than pitting the number of people (or babies) against the planet. So much depends on confronting inequalities as climate change, like COVID, threatens to deepen them. Population alarmism—bust or boom—simply won’t get us there.
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