To breed or not to breed, that is the question now being asked by individuals, families, and governments all over planet Earth. But as the following pieces demonstrate, this question quickly leads to many others concerning the whole spectrum of human concerns, including media ethics (is singing about condoms on the radio okay?), international politics (why can’t we talk about population at the Earth Summit?), and our attitude toward death (are nursing homes really a good idea?). Here is a sampling of ideas and perspectives related to population and family planning, ranging from the comprehensively global to the intensely personal.
On September 14-15, 1991, the Elmwood Institute convened an invitational symposium at the Green Gulch Zen Center, near San Francisco, to examine global population issues from a systemic perspective. In attendance were many of the world’s leading thinkers, activists, and researchers on population, environment, and development issues, and most of them have agreed to sign the following document, now known as the "Green Gulch Declaration." For more information and the complete text of the declaration (including commentary), write the Elmwood Institute at PO Box 5765, Berkeley, CA 94705.
1. The population problem is a "systemic" problem – inseparably linked to other major problems of our social and environmental systems. It has no single "key." Workable solutions must also be systemic, dealing with many interrelated factors.
2. A sustainable world population is one whose environmental impact does not diminish our resource base and life support systems; in other words, one that does not diminish the well-being of future generations of humans and other species.
3. Environmental impact derives not just from population sizes, but also from the combined effects of levels of consumption and degrees of harmfulness of various technologies; and it is also shaped by political and cultural values.
4. The current global environmental impact of humanity is unsustainable. It has exceeded the limits of the planet’s carrying capacity.
5. One of the main causes of excessive levels of consumption is our obsession with unrestricted economic growth, usually defined by the growth of the GNP.
6. Whatever the different mixes of population size, consumption levels, and technologies for different countries, it is clear that world population, not just population growth, needs to decline.
7. Population "control" is the wrong approach to reducing population. It tends to violate basic human rights and is part of an outdated mechanistic approach, inappropriate for dealing with living systems.
8. The ideal environment conducive to population decline is one of equity, justice, and nonviolence.
9. Lower levels of population cannot be achieved unless women have economic and social equality, including full political representation – basic rights that all human beings deserve. Within this essential framework, the following three rights for women are especially important: freedom of reproductive choice (see point #10), ending coercion and violence (see #11), and access to financial and other economic resources (see #12).
10. Freedom of reproductive choice means making safe, effective, and convenient methods of contraception accessible as widely as possible, so that women can determine the number and timing of children that suits them best. Freedom of reproductive choice must also include women’s right to terminate unwanted pregnancies safely and legally.
11. Women’s equality includes ending sexual harassment, coercion of women, and violence against women within and outside the family.
12. To liberate themselves from their dependency women need to have access to financial and other economic resources (such as land).
13. Many of the systemic solutions required to reduce the environmental impact of the world’s population will exceed available financial resources. However, global demilitarization would free a substantial portion of the funds required.
Contraception has been practiced in some form since ancient times. The Petri papyrus of Egypt, which dates to 1850 BC, carries a prescription for a pessary [vaginal suppository] made of sodium carbonate and honey. Another Egyptian formula of that time was crocodile dung mixed with a paste-like material. In the mid-1700s, Casanova recommended capping the cervix with half a lemon, from which the juice had been removed. Condoms date back to ancient Egypt and China, where men used sheaths made from animal membranes or oiled silk. The word "condom" was first used in England and may derive from the name of a Dr. Condom, who supposedly made a protective sheath for King Charles II to stem his number of illegitimate children.
In the early 1900s, a movement to make contraceptives and family planning services available to US women got under way with Margaret Sanger’s first birth control clinics. The synthesis of two orally active progestogens in 1951, followed by the successful testing of these steroids as oral contraceptives, began a campaign for widespread access to birth control in the 1960s described by some observers as a "contraceptive revolution."
The development of the birth control pill, plus a renewed interest in the IUD, came at a time when rapid population growth was being perceived as a threat to the global environment and the economic and social health of many countries, particularly those in the Third World. In the United States, the increasing number of women entering the work force created new demand for the control that contraception could give over one’s reproductive life. Stirred by these concerns, governments for the first time began to fund research on population and contraceptive development.
The success of the pill encouraged the pharmaceutical industry to become vigorously involved in developing new contraceptives. By the mid-1970s, 13 pharmaceutical companies, 9 of them in the United States, were active in the field, and observers predicted that many new approaches to contraception would soon be available. Expectations included a pill for men and a vaccine against pregnancy for women. As recently as 1982 the congressional Office of Technology Assessment estimated that by the end of this century more than 20 new or significantly improved technologies for contraception would be available.
Although these expectations were based on the number of studies under way, interest and funding soon declined and the predictions have yet to become realities. In fact, the opposite has occurred. Writing in Family Planning Perspectives in early 1988, Richard Lincoln and Lisa Kaeser of the Alan Guttmacher Institute observed:
If in the 1960s we saw the birth of a contraceptive revolution, then in the 1980s we are witnessing the failure of that revolution and the reversal of many of its hard-won gains. In the United States, where the pill and the modern IUD were first developed, contraceptive methods are disappearing faster than new ones can be introduced.
Until very recently IUDs were almost unavailable to women in the United States; today only two models, the copper-releasing ParaGard and the progestogen-releasing Progestasert, are marketed. Injectable contraceptives, such as Depo-Provera, which are used in practically every country of the world, are not allowed here. Several new birth control pills on the market in Europe cannot be prescribed in the United States, although they are considered safer. The pills contain new progestins that are thought to cause fewer adverse effects on the cardiovascular system than the older progestins. RU 486, an abortifacient and menstrual inducer, is being marketed in France and China, but at present there is no plan to seek the approval of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in this country. Lincoln and Kaeser state that clinical research on new contraceptive methods is practically at a standstill in this country; only two American pharmaceutical companies, Ortho and Wyeth, are doing any contraceptive research at all.
In the United States, as in many countries, women begin having intercourse at a younger age than did women living earlier in this century. At the same time, many wish to have small families. Observes Dr. Malcolm Potts, president of Family Health International:
The median age at which US women have their last wanted child is 26.9 years and 75 percent of all women have all the children they want by age 30. Even a contraceptive method with an annual failure rate of one percent that is used from age 30 to age 45 will leave one woman in seven with an unintended pregnancy.
At first it may seem that there are many birth control choices in the United States, but close examination reveals the opposite. Oral contraceptives are used chiefly by women under age 30 because physicians are anxious about the cardiovascular side effects of the pill among women over age 35. Furthermore, misinformation about the possible health effects of the pill discourages many young women and teenagers from using it. Also because of side effects, IUDs today are being prescribed only for women in mutually monogamous relationships who have at least one child. Barrier methods such as the condom and diaphragm are less effective than the IUD or the pill and are unattractive to many couples.
Because their choices for truly safe and effective contraceptives are limited, American women often have long intervals during which they are not protected against the possibility of pregnancy. As a result, over 50 percent of them have unintended pregnancies, and thus the United States has a higher rate of abortions than most other industrialized countries.
Excerpted with permission from Science and Babies: Private Decisions, Public Dilemmas, © 1990 by the National Academy of Sciences. Published by National Academy Press, Washington, DC.
Charlie Murphy and Sandy Bradley
In 1989 radio personality Sandy Bradley – host of the aptly named public radio show "Potluck" – decided to feature the Seattle rock band Rumors of the Big Wave. The band introduced the radio audience to a song promoting the use of condoms – a song which brought Sandy more letters than usual, including more than a few complaints.
Band member Charlie Murphy’s lyrics follow, together with a letter from Sandy in reply to a complaining listener. "Love Glove" (© 1988 by Charlie Murphy) is featured on the album "Secret Language," available through Out Front Music, PO Box 12188, Seattle, WA 98102 (206/722-2889). Sandy Bradley’s "Potluck" originates on KUOW-FM, Seattle, and is syndicated on National Public Radio.
When you fool around
Go on and get down
Respect your health
Put on that love glove
(ooh ooh gonna love that glove)
Put on that love glove
(make me feel fine)
Put on that love glove
(ooh ooh gonna love that glove)
Put on that love glove
(baby don’t be shy)
I want communication
When it comes to love and lust
What I need the most
Is somebody I can trust
Gonna beat this thing
Gonna keep our love alive
Gonna beat this thing
Determined to survive
Sex can be so hot
Sex can still be safe
In the beauty of our love
Fear shall have no place
In the heat of passion
It’s easy not to be aware
So when you first feel the spark
Remember to take care
Put on that love glove
Put on that love glove
State your intention
For conscious prevention
Just take this direction
Put on that love glove
Put on that love glove
In the heat of passion
It’s so easy to forget
So when you first feel the spark
Take it out of your pocket
Put on that love glove
Put on that love glove
No glove … No love
Face to face, gonna play it safe
October 1, 1989
I appreciate your concern about the content of our show. The song that you found objection-able we put in for a purpose, and I’d like to tell you why.
All people learn things in different ways, but some things are so important that we must all learn them one way or another. Using condoms is not easy to talk about, for anyone! It’s hard to picture the moment in a romance when the matter should be solved, and to picture that moment going by smoothly. That is partly because we have only clinical ways of talking about it – and who wants their romance to turn "clinical"? We must find ways to bring up the issue gently, and one way is to have a sense of humor about the issue in general. That song ["Love Glove"] does the job.
Having lost two friends to AIDS, I am horrified by unnecessary suffering which can be prevented by simple precautions. I think "Love Glove" is a great song, and not clinical, and it gives lovers a way of bringing up the issue in an appealing way. That song ought to be a hit, and that phrase ought to be on every young lover’s tongue. That’s a real public service.
I think progress has been made. Words like "condom" never used to be said. Now when you and I hear them, we still blush. But the words can be said more easily, perhaps even during that important moment when it really makes a big difference. I think people now tend to see condoms as a sensible alternative to no protection. People of all kinds are going to continue to make love, and safety is important. This song addresses the fact that it is a universal issue of love: homosexual and heterosexual as well.
I don’t plan to make this issue a campaign of the show, and it’s unlikely you will encounter such a song about this again. But if it made it even a little bit easier for one person to approach the issue of condoms with their lover, then it may have even saved a life.
I certainly don’t ask you to agree with me on this issue, but I did want you to know that the decision was not lightly made to include this song. In that choice we have an honest difference of opinion, but that need not keep us from appreciating each other’s merits.
Thank you for taking the time to express your concern. All too few people bother.
Very truly yours,
With world population expected to double to 10 billion by the year 2025, it seems obvious that population growth merits serious consideration as an environmental concern. Nevertheless, few issues have generated as much controversy during preparations for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) as the question of how – or even whether – human population growth should be addressed.
Touted as the Earth Summit, and scheduled to take place in the first two weeks in June in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, UNCED has an extensive agenda that spans everything from fresh water to biological diversity, and from global climate change to international financial institutions. From the outset, however, delegates from developing countries (South) lobbied hard to prevent formal consideration of the impacts of human population growth on environment and development during the negotiations.
The South felt that the North (developed/industrialized countries) would use UNCED to focus on reductions in population growth rates as a prerequisite for providing financial assistance for economic development and environmental management. Further, they argued, the root cause of most environmental problems is not rapidly growing populations in the South but the excessive per capita consumption of natural resources and generation of waste in the North. The South made it clear that they didn’t want to discuss steps to control their population growth until the industrialized countries made commitments to reform their unsustainable and inequitable patterns of development.
Developing countries point to the fact that per capita energy use in the US is ten times that of Asia or Brazil, and 35 times that of India. That translates into substantial differences in the amount of air pollution generated, with Americans producing more CO2 on a per capita annual basis than the average Chinese contributes in eight years. Developed countries respond with their own set of figures which indicates that by the year 2025, 86% of the world’s population will live in the developing world and that means added stress on natural and economic systems already shaking under their current strain.
After two rounds of UNCED negotiations (called "Preparatory Committee Meetings," or PrepCom for short), no progress had been made in achieving a compromise on the issue of population. Finally, at the third PrepCom in Geneva in early Fall 1991, a compromise position was crafted that satisfied both camps. It was agreed that both overconsumption of resources and rapid population growth would be considered within Agenda 21 – the name given by the UNCED Secretariat to the action plan for the 21st century that will be the Summit’s principal product. "Although population policy alone is not sufficient to preserve the environment," notes the Secretariat, "it is both a necessary and essential component of comprehensive policies, which should incorporate the interactions between patterns of population dynamics, resource use, economic development, and technological change."
In addition to the rhetoric, Agenda 21 will also include specific recommendations for both national governments and international agencies with respect to recognizing and acting upon the linkages between population, poverty, health, and environment. The exact nature of these commitments will be determined at the fourth and final PrepCom, which will be held in New York from March 2 to April 3.
The debate over population’s inclusion in the UNCED discussions has highlighted once again the gross underrepresentation of women in environment and development policy discussions. Women’s advocacy groups have used UNCED to effectively raise the issue of lack of women in decision-making roles. They have also succeeded in broadening the debate about population so as to include discussions about the status of women’s health care, education, and economic opportunities in addition to the traditional concerns about birth control strategy and technology.
To its credit, the US has supported the inclusion of population proposals into the framework for Agenda 21. On a more tangible level, however, the Bush Administration still refuses to fund the United Nations Fund for Population Activities as well as organizations such as the International Planned Parenthood Federation, which provide family planning counseling and referral services, including abortion.
More than likely, a substantial amount of the debate over population will be deferred until the 1994 United Nations Conference on Population and Development. As every good bureaucrat knows, never commit yourself to something today that somebody might forget about by tomorrow.
Mark Valentine is a consultant to the US Citizens Network on UNCED. For further information about UNCED, contact the Network at 300 Broadway, Suite 39, San Francisco, CA 94133; Tel. 415/956-6162; e-mail "email@example.com".
Mary E. Clark
Looking at the way human societies have accommodated to population pressures in the past leaves us with grave cause for concern. In each case the tendency has been to use up the natural reserves that Earth formerly possessed. Hunter-gatherers slowly but surely used up easily accessible plants and animals; traditional agriculturalists, slightly more rapidly, used up the Earth’s soils, and industrial societies are busily consuming fossil fuels while destroying even more species and more soils. Time after time, instead of learning to maintain – to nurture and care for – Earth’s resources, humans have dipped into Nature’s non-renewable reserves: her living species, her soil, her water, her minerals and finally, her stored fossil fuels – consuming each in turn. For 2 million years we have been living beyond our means, charging our overdraft to Nature’s environmental ‘credit card account’, but the amount owing is now growing exponentially. It’s time to begin paying the bill. Ours is the first generation to have the global perspective to perceive, if we choose to, the folly of our ways, and so deliberately to change them.
Excerpted from Ariadne’s Thread (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989). The author is a professor of biology at San Diego State University.
Frances Moore Lappé & Rachel Schurman
Now, decades after the population explosion first went off and with considerable experience in trying to defuse it, we must look unflinchingly at the lessons to be learned. The realization that the population explosion is a complex social fact is not enough; we will have to do more than pay lip service to its social roots if we are serious about meeting the crisis.
To continue to focus narrowly on birth control strategies is to imply that regardless of what we know about the real roots of the problem, better birth control is all we in the industrial West can offer. We do not accept this view, especially as US citizens. As a major world power, the US government directly and indirectly shapes the behavior of many foreign governments. It is inconceivable that the United States would ever stop using its foreign policy to aid those governments it deems supportive of its own interests. Thus it is by becoming citizen activists that Americans who are troubled by the dire consequences of high population growth rates can make their most effective contribution.
Working to change our own government’s perception of the kind of foreign governments it can support may be the single most important way American citizens can help address the population problem. Until our government transcends its deep fear of redistributive change abroad, our tax dollars will continue to go to support governments blocking the very changes necessary to allow people the option of smaller families – i.e., universal education, augmenting the power of women by expanding opportunities for both women and men, and making safe and acceptable birth control technologies widely available.
Simply funding a family planning initiative is woefully inadequate. US citizens must be willing to do something much more controversial: explicitly identify the link between US policies and the very reasons why birth rates are high to begin with, and use one’s voice as a citizen to alter those ties.
Without more democratic structures of decision making power, from the family to the global arena, there is no solution – short of dehumanizing coercion – to the population explosion. Because we have no time to waste with approaches that cannot work, we must face the evidence telling us that the fate of the world – whether it becomes miserably overcrowded – hinges on the fate of today’s poor majorities. Only as they are empowered to achieve greater security and opportunity can population growth halt.
Excerpted from Food First Development Report #4, The Missing Piece in the Population Puzzle, 1988. The complete report is available from the Institute for Food & Development Policy (Food First), 145 Ninth Street, San Francisco, CA 94103.
Contributing editor Donella H. Meadows recommended that we look into the legacy of Alva Myrdal (see below), the woman who inspired – and designed – much of Sweden’s progressive family and education policy, widely considered to be one of the best in the world. Our Swedish friends led us to Ami Lönnroth, who provided us with what turns out to be a very timely report on a changing Sweden.
Ami Lönnroth is an award-winning Swedish journalist specializing in issues related to social change, women, peace, and conflict resolution. She is the author of two books on so-called "superkids" ("Maskrosbarn" in Swedish) – children who survive and even excel despite appalling social conditions. She is presently on leave from Svenska Dagbladet (a national daily) to work for Swedish Radio.
"I think it’s about time we reevaluate Alva Myrdal and the crucial influence she’s had on the lives of Swedish women." This comment, from one of the brightest young feminist opinion-makers in Sweden, Ebba Witt-Brattström, points to an interesting shift in the Swedish social climate. Following the elections in September 1991, the social democrats fell from power for the second time in sixty years and the proportion of women in Parliament dropped for the first time since 1970 (even if only from 38% to 34%).
I met Ebba at an informal meeting to which we were both invited by former prime minister Ingvar Carlsson. He wanted to know why the social democrats had failed to attract women’s votes – previously, there have always been more women than men voting for the party. What were the needs of women that the social democrats had failed to meet?
And so we came to talk about Alva Myrdal, this almost mythological figure whose influence on the construction of the Swedish welfare state has been met either with solemn reverence – the way one communicates with dead ancestors or with God – or with ridicule and disdain: "… one of these naive ideologists who thought she could prescribe a lifestyle for others while failing to live up to these ideals herself." Alva Myrdal has been severely judged the last few years, following her death in 1986, partly because of a reevaluation of "the Swedish model" and welfare state. Even before that, however, the publication of her son Jan Myrdal’s childhood autobiography didn’t exactly present her in a favorable light.
Despite such questions of character, the time has come for Swedish women to assess what Alva Myrdal really stood for, simply because the whole edifice called "the Swedish model," which so many of us have taken for granted, is now being threatened. The Swedish preschool system and the training of preschool teachers was outlined by her as long ago as the 1930s, and the Swedish school reforms of the fifties and sixties were to a large extent inspired by her ideas. The experiments with community living that she pleaded for in the thirties resulted in a number of so-called collective houses based on the idea that both men and women should be gainfully employed. The children spend their days at school, the nursery, or the day care center, and the families meet in the afternoon in the communal restaurant where they are served food cooked by staff or volunteers. The idea of the collective house didn’t exactly take off. A few still exist, among them the Hässelby family hotel, where I myself lived with my two sons as they grew up. If it hadn’t been for Alva Myrdal, I don’t know how I would have been able to make ends meet as a single parent with a career to attend to.
Still, you could say that the spirit of community living somehow permeated the building of the Swedish welfare state. The social security network that developed over the years after Alva Myrdal and her husband Gunnar published their controversial book The Crisis of the Population Question in 1934 created a collective spirit that bridged class differences. At that time there was widespread concern that Sweden was going to vanish from the map because of the extremely low birthrate. The conservatives at the time blamed the situation on "the decay of the family" and on the "lack of morals" (meaning the use of contraceptives). The Myrdals advocated legalized contraceptives, abortion on demand, better living standards, school reforms, women’s rights, and even women’s sexual freedom – a very daring standpoint at the time.
Looking back on what could be called a blueprint for the Swedish model, one could argue that the Myrdal medicine worked. Contraceptives were legalized, and we had a baby boom. Much later (in 1975) we passed a law to allow free abortions. In the sixties the standard of housing improved considerably. Day care centers first became an issue after individual taxation was introduced in 1971 and women started flooding into the labor market. Earlier, couples had been taxed as a unit, and it didn’t pay for women to work outside the home. Now 85% of Swedish women are in the labor force. Alva Myrdal’s dream – to make it possible for women to combine work and children – has come true.
But there is a growing uneasiness among Swedish women. Their jobs are threatened as the public sector is subjected to large budget cuts. And those who aren’t threatened by unemployment may experience problems with day care. Preschool staff are being laid off. Care for the elderly is deteriorating. Middle-aged women face the prospect of having to take care of old and sick parents in their homes.
Like the rest of the western world, Sweden is suffering a deep recession. But this was also the case in the thirties when the Myrdals published their vision of the Swedish model. A new feminist underground movement is now emerging in Swedish society. All political parties are worried, and they are doing their best to detect and use this feminine energy for their own purposes. Ingvar Carlsson’s aforementioned meeting with fifteen female opinion-makers can be seen as such an effort.
But women don’t want to be used or channeled into a safe political line. Alva Myrdal learned through bitter experience that however much men talk about women’s rights, men’s rights always come first. Or, as Anna Hedborg (a well-known economist and social democrat) said at the meeting with Ingvar Carlsson: "I don’t think the men in our party ever realized how progressive all our reforms have been from a women’s perspective!" Ingvar Carlsson agreed, and said that the time has come for women to take over in politics.
A new Alva Myrdal for 1990s – will such a person emerge?
Alva Myrdal: A Pioneer For Peace,
Family Planning, And Women’s Rights
Alva Myrdal was born in 1902. Her father was a self-taught building contractor, a Social Democrat active in social welfare matters and the cooperative movement. Against her mother’s will but encouraged by her father, Alva persuaded the local school board to give her a high school education, even though the high school was only for boys. Later she began a university career and married Gunnar Myrdal in 1924. They had one son and two daughters, born between 1927 and 1938.
In 1934 they published The Crisis of the Population Question, which had an important influence on social policies throughout Scandinavia.
In 1936 Alva Myrdal founded the Training College for Nursery and Kindergarten Teachers and directed its work until 1948. A member of the Social Democratic Party, she served on its program planning committee and on a number of goverment commissions. Before World War II, she spent two years in the US and was inspired by its progressive educational ideas, later to be reflected in Swedish school reforms.
After the war, Alva Myrdal entered upon a second career in international relations, a career that culminated late in life when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1982. Her book The Game of Disarmament, published in 1976, and the establishment of the Swedish International Peace Research Institute made her reputation as "the conscience of the disarmament movement." Three years after she received the Peace Prize, Alva Myrdal died at the age of 84.
- Ami Lönnroth
The following are two of several pieces on voluntary childlessness that stirred up something of a controversy around the offices of Context Institute. Editorial polling revealed the following fascinating (but perhaps unsurprising) trend: the more children each staff member already had, the less likely it was that he or she would feel comfortable with the arguments presented here. But we were all in agreement that those who choose to be childless (or find themselves unable to conceive) need and deserve support as much as do those who make choices to parent.
Choosing to lower our population flies in the face of a basic drive in all species, that of survival. The drives to sexual intercourse and to have children are very basic and closely intertwined physiological urges. They are also part of our mores – the morality of many religions insists that the sexual act not be interfered with to prevent procreation. In the United States, the law rewards us for having children by giving us tax deductions.
It is in the face of all this that I sit here trembling as I write these words, for I have reached the point where I must say that sustainability requires that we have less children. No, I must say more: the ideal for the planet at this time is for residents of the US and other overdeveloped countries not to have any children. The reasons:
1. The planet’s ability to sustain us with the number of people we have presently is waning. The Earth cannot sustain humans at the level we are now consuming resources.
2. The average child born in the US will consume 5 to 10 times more than the average child living in other countries.
For these reasons, I salute those who have no children in this society. You are the ones who make sustainability most possible. All the conserving of resources that I may do will not come close to saving what one less human does. I salute you because you are flying in the face of both physical drive and cultural mores. I salute you because I know intellectually that it is right, and also because I know how difficult this whole concept of voluntary childlessness is for me. I had my two children before this realization entered my consciousness, so who am I to speak? Tears come to my eyes as I imagine what it would be like not to have my children, Megan and Devin, in my life. Tears come to my eyes as I think of saying to them, do not have children of your own, give up this wonderful, magnificent experience. Tears come to my eyes as I think of not having grandchildren. Other aspects of a sustainable lifestyle pale in comparison to how this one affects me personally.
And so I salute you and honor you who do not have children. It is you we must emulate in this society – you, who have had to deal with the biological and cultural pressures: "Suzy, when are you going to make us grandparents?" "Poor Suzy, she doesn’t have children yet, I wonder if she can’t have them." It is you who must deal with the continued conversations about our children. I also want to salute those who have only one child, or who stopped at two children – I salute each of you, no matter how many children you have, if you have controlled the drive to have more children. We must hold you as heroes of the sustainability movement.
Let each of us honor someone who does not have children. Let us make their lives easier. Let them know we believe they are courageous, even as we look at our own children and feel the tears well up in our eyes.
Excerpted from the IMAGO Newsletter, 553 Enright Avenue, Cincinnati, OH 45205. Jim and Eileen Schenk described the IMAGO ecological neighborhood project in IC #29.
At a recent conference on personal and planetary health, I ate lunch with three health care professionals who were swapping cases and treatments. "Do you know any holistic treatments for infertility?" one of them asked the other.
Boldly I rushed in where angels fear to tread: "Perhaps," I suggested, "from a holistic perspective, infertility is the planet’s way of sending us the message that there are already too many of us here. Perhaps the main environmental issue about babies is not which type of diaper to use, but whether we should have them at all." Their three faces looked stunned.
My own choice not to have children evolved over many years and was made for many reasons. First, I recognized that my reasons for wanting a baby were, in all honesty, selfish. I wanted to be "fulfilled as a woman" and suspected that giving birth to a child was a necessary part of the curriculum. Second, I thought it was my duty to pass on my genes. Third, I wanted to have the experience of being pregnant. (Years later a new mom told me, "I loved being pregnant, but I never really realized that it would lead to motherhood.")
When I searched underneath all these "reasons," I found no calling to be a mother – a biological mother, at any rate. I faced up to the fact that the urge to procreate and pass on my genes in the face of population pressures and environmental crises was a little piece of insanity hard-wired into my DNA. As my social awareness grew, I found an ever stronger calling to devote my "mothering" to the world – to the physical and spiritual suffering of the more than 5 billion already here.
In recent years, as I have grappled with how to respond to the vast forces driving the environmental crisis, I have seen even greater value in my choice to be childless. By every measure, more people means more stress to the whole ecosystem. And a child born (or raised) in North America will consume many times more of the Earth’s resources than one born in a developing country. (My friends who are choosing to have children somehow believe that they can raise them not to be consumers. Do they think, like so many have before, that their children won’t rebel or have a will of their own? I’ve asked this question – and lost friends in the process.)
When I have the courage to feel the pain, my heart aches for the 40,000 children who die every day and the 150 million who are orphaned or abandoned each year. And my heart aches for a planet overtaxed by my own beloved, inventive, creative, and reckless species.
At the conclusion of that conference on personal and planetary health, one speaker offered this quote: "Motherhood is not simply the organic process of giving birth … It is an understanding of the needs of the world." With that, the final piece fell into place for me. I am a mother. Even without children. And so is every woman – and man – who chooses to care for our world.
Vicki Robin is President of the New Road Map Foundation and a contributing editor to IN CONTEXT. Her new book Your Money Or Your Life (co-authored with Joe Dominguez) will be published in Fall 1992 by Viking.
I have just retired from a ten-year career as a nursing home activity director.
Now I can think the thoughts, feel the feelings, and ask the questions that I couldn’t think, feel, and ask before about life in a nursing home. I can think: It isn’t really life. In fact, the whole quest to create "quality of life" for these folks, through mountains of regulations and an ever-increasing amount of staff attention, seems to me now an exercise in futility.
I can think: I never want to live in a nursing home. More to the point, I don’t even want to live if living means not knowing where I am, who I am, why I am, and why my caregivers are doing things to me – especially if living also means being confined to a wheelchair until someone has time to walk with me, take me to the toilet, or put me to bed.
Now that I’m not working there, I can ask: Why the conspiracy of silence among those who work in nursing homes about the true horror of what they deal with, as best they can, each day? Perhaps admitting the truth about the quality of nursing home life would make it too hard to do a job that’s already hard enough.
And I can ask an even more unspeakable question: What kind of sense does it make to spend $47.9 billion per year (Medicaid, Medicare, and private pay combined) keeping these people alive, when about half of them are in the condition I described? And when there are so many people, most of them younger, who may still be able to give something back to life but who don’t even have basic health care, or education, or good food to eat?
The resources to provide for the young, the old, the sick, and the well all come from one pie. Its chief ingredient is money, but that money represents resources – for example, all the resources for growing and harvesting the cotton to make countless incontinent pads, all the water for washing those pads, metal and other materials for wheelchairs, heat for buildings, etc. And our resource pie is shrinking.
Why are nearly one and a half million Americans in nursing homes? Because we want so much to prolong life and avoid death. Many nursing home residents are alive – but not really living – because of medical choices made from the paradigm that "more life is better," even if the quality is abysmal.
I’ve found a friend in my attempts to make some sense out of all of these questions. Louis Shattuck Baer is a family doctor who, in his own old age, wrote a short book called Let the Patient Decide: A Doctor’s Advice to Older Persons (Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1978). It’s a straightforward and very loving dialog with the reader about how not to end up in a nursing home.
Here’s his plan: after a certain age (he suggests 70) you follow, precisely, the very clear steps he spells out for communicating to the medical profession your preference for a natural death at a natural age. Some of the options he suggests are common, such as no CPR. Others are less common and even radical: no admittance to a coronary unit, no coronary monitoring, only very brief stays in intensive care, no pacemaker, no IV or tubes in case of medical emergency. If you should land in a nursing home: no diagnostic tests, no antibiotics for pneumonia or urinary tract infection or anything else, no diuretics for managing congestive heart failure, no spoonfeeding. Pain medication and comfort measures, yes.
I like Dr. Baer’s advice. But in order to be able to take it, I have to be able to answer, for myself, some important questions. First, how much life is enough for me? And second, how much of the resource pie should be used in keeping me alive? Maybe the $100 a day it would cost to keep me going in a nursing home (that’s $73,000 after just two years) would be better put to some other use. Maybe I can look on foregoing such expenses for myself as an investment – an investment in the future rather than the past, and a legacy of surrender and gratitude.
I like to think that by old age I will feel fulfilled. I will have appreciated and used well the bountiful gifts of life, and I will have given to others from my heart, to my heart’s content. I’m doing the preparing now, in my forties, to make sure that’s how my life turns out. And when some body-system or other weakens or wears out, I’ll be ready to go.
Paula Hendrick is an IN CONTEXT volunteer and a recent graduate of the New Road Map Foundation financial independence program.