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Women's International Issues

Approaches to Family Planning: Helping Women vs. Reducing Birthrates

While overwhelming majorities support US aid for approaches to international family planning that emphasize helping women gain control over the development of their families, efforts that focus directly on trying to reduce birthrates get a mixed response. Efforts that imply coercing women to stop having children are strongly opposed.

While there is strong support for providing US aid for the purposes of family planning, there is substantial variation in attitudes about different approaches to the problem of overpopulation.

Efforts that focus on empowering women to gain control over the development of their families, and that generally work to improve women's living conditions, get overwhelming support. In July 2004, the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations found 76% in favor of "aid for women's education in poor countries to help reduce population growth" (see Population: Foreign Aid for Family Planning).

An April 1992 Gallup poll presented a list of "some ways that have been proposed to control population growth in developing nations." Approaches that focused on helping women received overwhelming support. Extremely high percentages supported broad measures to help women and mothers, with a near unanimous 97% favoring "improving women's health care," the same number favoring "improving children's health care" and 90% favoring "improving all status of women." Providing women with birth control options was also extremely popular, with 95% favoring "making birth control information widely available," 91% favoring "providing birth control at low cost to all women who want it," and 85% "providing free birth control to all women who want it." The option of "providing free sterilization for all who want it" also received 77% support. [1]

Options that involved abortion or encouraging behavioral change got lower support. Sixty-seven percent supported "encouraging sexual abstinence" and 53% supported "making abortions easily available to any women who want them." [2]

Options that implied direct restrictions on women's ability to have children were roundly rejected. Only 25% supported "restricting the number of children a couple can have" and 21% supported "sterilizing women after they have had three children." [3]

More recent polls have also shown this differential response to efforts that focus on helping women versus those that emphasize lowering birthrates. A 1998 Belden and Russonello question asked: "Do you agree more with those who say the United States should encourage developing countries to lower their birthrates, or more with those who say it is inappropriate for us to do this because it may offend other people's cultures?" A slight majority of 52% said they thought this was inappropriate, while 42% said it was not. Interestingly, the percentage that was concerned about this issue has risen. In 1994 only 41% said they thought it was inappropriate, while 55% were not so concerned. [4]

There is also a strong and growing consensus that there should not be any encroachment on the right to have children. In February 1994 68% agreed (37% strongly) with the statement: "People should feel free to have as many children as they can properly raise" (30% disagreed). When this was asked again in September 1998, agreement had gone up to 76% (50% strongly) and only 23% disagreed (Belden & Russonello). [5]

These feelings may well explain lower levels of support for foreign aid programs that are framed in terms of the goal of lowering birthrates as compared to those that are framed in terms of helping women in poor countries with family planning. For example, "education on family planning and providing birth control" and "helping women in poor countries avoid unintended pregnancies" have been rated higher than "helping countries slow their rate of population growth." Also, while the support for aid for family planning can be overwhelming, questions that speak of aid for limiting population growth find a more modest majority (see Population: Foreign Aid for Family Planning).

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Women's International Issues - August 2008 (PDF)