Access to Family Planning Takes on New Urgency in a Post-Roe, Hotter World

In a concurring opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the same legal reasoning behind overturning Roe v. Wade should be used to reconsider rulings protecting same-sex marriage, gay sex and contraception. (Bryancalabro / Wikimedia Commons)

As we near World Population Day, observed each year on July 11, the Supreme Court’s overturning of abortion rights has the chilling effect of casting a shadow over the right to contraception and family planning services. The global population is approaching 8 billion—but now, efforts to slow population growth (and the consumption burden that comes with it) are under a new cloud.

As the dissenting justices pointed out, “The right to terminate a pregnancy arose straight out of the right to purchase and use contraception.” The Court’s decision hinged on privacy rights which underlay reproductive rights—and thanks to the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, privacy rights are now in doubt.

We undermine family planning at our peril. It’s one of the most powerful tools we have for achieving sustainable development and a sustainable population. It creates more economic returns than virtually any other investment and was a major factor in cutting fertility rates in half over the last 50 years. Since population growth stokes climate change and other environmental and social pressures, Paul Hawken’s Drawdown ranked family planning and empowering women and girls among the most effective long-term climate solutions. Closing the education gap between girls and boys in low- and middle-income countries could help slow population growth, reduce wasteful consumption by hundreds of gigatons and lower greenhouse gas emissions by over 50 gigatons by 2050.

Many institutions worldwide embrace family planning, using the media and popular role modeling to encourage smaller families. This has moved the world closer to its sustainable development goals. But with population and climate change reaching critical levels, we need to do more to promote family planning and empower women and girls to use it.

Until now, family planning has been viewed as a question of parental autonomy. But it’s more than that. It’s a way of defending the rights of future generations, assuring they have a baseline level of ecological and social resources. Failure to do this has helped precipitate the climate crisis, fueling population growth, especially in wealthy nations, that far exceeds the planet’s capacity to absorb humans’ climate impacts.  

Seeing the decision of how many or how few children to have solely as a matter of parental autonomy has no footing in binding international law. It’s the product of “soft law” agreements between developed nations which are focused on GDP growth. 

It also assumes that a child’s economic position is simply the luck of the draw. But there is clear evidence that family planning choices and birth circumstances dictate a child’s economic prospects throughout life. 

That’s why we need to connect empowering women and promoting women’s autonomy with child equity into the future. Development aid should be distributed to ensure that birth and developmental equity is treated as a human right

There is clear evidence that family planning choices and birth circumstances dictate a child’s economic prospects throughout life. 

Outside the Supreme Court after the decision on Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, a June 2016 Texas abortion case. (Adam Fagen / Flickr)

Social movements like BirthStrike seek to empower women to influence future social, environmental and economic conditions by refusing to procreate. Women in leadership roles can take that influence further and help balance multiple goals in society, including a habitable planet and a baseline level of resources for children. To achieve them, we’ll need to put voluntary limits on how many children we choose to have.

Discourse about this among young women is emerging fast. So are efforts to reform education laws to prioritize teaching and learning about the dimensions of reproductive choices, sustainable family sizes, and empathy and justice for future generations. Some argue that those that gained immense wealth from the current economic system while imposing great costs on future generations, like fossil fuel companies, give some of it back to fund initiatives to create greater equity for future children.

But meanwhile, public policy on reproductive choice and population growth lags way behind such ideas, and in the U.S. even family planning itself is in the crosshairs. We can’t afford that in the 21st century. We need to envision and build a society where young people are empowered to make conscious reproductive choices, including support for delayed childbirth, small families well-raised and life paths that don‘t include parenting.

As the population and consumption levels mount, our planet is more threatened than many of us are willing to contemplate. But we must face up to how reproductive decisions threaten our common future. Empowering people to make them responsibly will protect future generations in ways that other approaches have failed to do.

Sign and share Ms.’s relaunched “We Have Had Abortions” petition—whether you yourself have had an abortion, or simply stand in solidarity with those who have—to let the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House know: We will not give up the right to safe, legal, accessible abortion.

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About and

Phoebe Barnard, Ph.D., is CEO of the Stable Planet Alliance.
Carter Dillard is the policy adviser for the Fair Start Movement. He previously served as an Honors Program attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice and with a national security law agency before developing a comprehensive account of reforming family planning for the Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal..