Population Matters

Fragile States/Fragile Families

June 29th, 2014

What do Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and South Sudan all have in common? Plenty.

In Washington DC, a city consumed by headline stories, Foreign Policy magazine and the Fund for Peace this past week teamed up to give an in-depth look at the stories behind all the conflicts and civil wars. The 2014 Fragile States Index (FSI), previously called the Failed States Index, gives an insider’s look at the factors contributing to political and social breakdown.

Behind every country that erupts into civil war, falls victim to famine or flubs in respond to a natural disaster is a government that has failed to protect its citizens. Such failures rarely arise overnight. They give plenty of warning signs, and the FSI identifies and analyzes them in hopes of strengthening these “fragile” states, preventing humanitarian disasters and building a country’s resilience in the face of conflict, climate change and other threats.

Governments can “fail” in numerous respects. They can fuel ethnic division, perpetuate corruption and economic inequality, abuse human rights, neglect basic services or squander human capital. And when they do, their countries become “fragile,” meaning they become far more susceptible to conflict, civil war, drought and other humanitarian disasters.

It’s important to note that the governments of these fragile states are often struggling against impossible odds to meet the needs of their citizens. While some governments are victims of their own ineptitude or corruption, others face major external threats like climate change or regional conflict.

In this year’s FSI rankings, South Sudan replaced Somalia in the top spot, after the fledgling government failed to calm the ethnic tensions that are undermining progress and national unity. The Central African Republic, which now teeters on the brink of genocidal conflict, was bumped up to third place in the FSI rankings. Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Sudan, Chad, Afghanistan, Yemen, Haiti and Pakistan rounded out the top ten.

There are many factors that distinguish these “fragile” states from one another, but almost without exception they are all struggling to cope with rapid population growth. Rapid population growth can overwhelm a government’s ability to tackle chronic hunger, severe poverty, environmental degradation, political unrest and the depletion of water, forests and other resources.

Sixteen of the countries that top this year’s Fragile States Index have populations that are projected to double in size over the next 35 years. Chad, which ranked 6th, is on course to trip its population by 2050, while Niger, which tied for 19th on the FSI, could nearly quadruple its population. And these projections assume that fertility rates in these countries will continue to decline.

What makes population growth so challenging for fragile countries is that many of them are already on the front lines of poverty, hunger and malnutrition. The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) publishes a Global Hunger Index. Of the top 20 countries on that list, 15 will double their population in the next 35 years. Four of the remaining five, are projected to increase their population by 60 percent or more. The UN Development Programme (UNDP) publishes a Multidimensional Poverty Index. Eighteen of the top 20 poorest countries will likely double their population in the next 35 years. The other two will increase their populations by 50 percent or more.

Some of the world’s most fragile states — including Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Jordan — consume 80 percent of more their renewable water resources every year, and yet their populations are projected to increase by 80 percent of more by 2050. No one knows how these countries will meet the anticipated demand for water resources.

The best way to make “fragile” countries stronger and more resilient is to strengthen the family unit. When girls are better educated, women economically empowered and when girls and women are able to space or limit their pregnancies without male or religious coercion, the family is strengthened. Maternal and infant mortality decline. Nutrition and food security improve. Children are better educated and parents are able to devote more resources to improving the family’s income, whether it is buying a new sewing machine or more fertilizer for the crops. Smaller, better educated families are also better able to meet the challenges posed by conflict or natural disaster.

The FSI is a crucial start, but it’s time for a much larger debate about fragile countries and what can be done to strengthen them. Fragile states rarely receive the assistance they need until they become humanitarian disasters. If made in time, small investments — including investments in family planning and gender equality — can pay big dividends.

Posted by Robert Walker, President

This was originally posted on the Huffington Post on June 28, 2014

As the World Bank Turns

June 26th, 2014

Something exciting, almost revolutionary, is happening at one of the most conservative of the world’s international institutions. The World Bank, which for decades has been criticized has overly focused on the construction of dams and other infrastructures as the cure for poverty, is turning its focus to the real engine of economic progress in the developing world: girls and women.

The shift from physical capital to human capital has been in the works for several years, but it has accelerated under the leadership of Jim Yong Kim, who became the Bank’s president on July 1, 2012. Kim, an anthropologist by training, understands that gender inequality is one of the biggest obstacles, if not the biggest, to improving economic conditions in the world’s poorest countries.

Two years ago, prior to Kim’s appointment, the World Bank’s annual “World Development Report” focused on the promotion of gender equality, describing it as “smart economics,” but doubts remained as to whether the Bank was really changing its bricks and mortar orientation. The jury is still out, but the Bank’s new concentration on girls and women is gaining critical momentum. And the World Bank Group’s Gender and Development team, led by Jeni Klugman, appears to the leading the charge.

Last month, the team released a new report titled, “Voice and Agency: Empowering women and girls for shared prosperity.” The report argues, and persuasively so, that investing in gender equality will “yield broad development dividends.” Gender equality requires, at a minimum, that women have “voice.” By voice, the Bank means “having the capacity to speak up and be heard and being present to shape and share in discussions, discourse, and decisions.”

But voice alone is not enough. Women also require “agency,” which the Bank describes as, “the capacity to make decisions about one’s own life and act on them to achieve a desired outcome, free of violence, retribution, or fear.”

While full gender equality requires “agency” at all levels, it’s particularly true with respect to childbearing. But girls and women in many of the world’s least developed countries have very little “agency” with respect to spacing and limiting their pregnancies. In many male-dominated societies, men, not women, effectively make the childbearing decisions, particularly in rural areas where child marriage practices are still prevalent.

While the United Nations recognizes reproductive freedom as a basic human right, child brides have a hard time exercising that right. In Yemen, Afghanistan and other countries where old tribal traditions still prevail, it is not uncommon for a girl to be married off before reaching puberty. And not infrequently, the husband can be 20 or 30 years older than the girl bride. In such cases, girls have little or no “agency” in determining when they will have a child.

If women in developing countries are to exercise “agency,” social norms with respect to child marriage, the education of girls, female ownership of property, and desired family size must change. The Bank takes that challenge seriously. Kim insists that “norms can and do change,” and the Bank’s report outlines a number of strategies for changing social norms, putting particular emphasis on the role that “information and communication technologies can play in amplifying women’s voices.”

That is the correct approach. In many parts of the world today, “social content” soap operas are providing positive role models for girls and women and, just as importantly, helping to change the attitudes and behaviors of boys and men towards girls and women. By showcasing what girls and women are capable of in the workforce, and addressing socially harmful practices, like child marriage and female genital cutting, radio soap operas and other entertainment media can change public perceptions as to what is normal and beneficial, and what is not.

Social norms urgently need to change with respect to gender violence. So long as boys and men believe that it is acceptable to inflict sexual violence on girls and young women, very little — if any — progress will be made with respect to reproductive choice and the economic empowerment of women.

If social norms can be changed, and if the World Bank takes a leading role in helping to make that possible, the goal of eliminating severe poverty and hunger in the world may yet be realized. When girls receive the same education as boys, the productivity of the country’s workforce takes a giant leap forward. When girls and women are able to decide — free from male dictates or coercion — the spacing and number of their children, they generally choose to have smaller families. With family planning, maternal and infant mortality decline, child nutrition improves, educational attainment levels rise, and the stage is set for rapid economic advancement. The “demographic dividend,” as economists and demographers describe it, is a time-tested development strategy that contributed to the economic breakthroughs achieved by the emerging economies of Asia and Latin America.

There will always be a need and a role for economic infrastructure improvements, but unless the World Bank and the broader international donor community realize the “human capital” potential of girls and women, the economic potential of many developing countries will remain untapped.

The realization of “voice and agency” for girls and women is not just a moral imperative, it’s an economic one, and the World Bank, it appears, is taking that imperative seriously.

Posted by Robert Walker, President

Originally posted on the Huffington Post on June 25, 2014

Every Two Minutes

May 9th, 2014

This week the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the World Bank and the UN released a report with the maternal mortality numbers for 2013. The good news is that maternal deaths are down 45% since 1990, dropping from 523,000 in 1990 to an estimated 289,000 in 2013. Even with the decline, however, a woman dies every two minutes due to complications from pregnancy or childbirth, mostly from preventable causes.

There are large disparities in maternal deaths between countries and regions, with 99 percent of maternal deaths taking place in the developing world. Sixty percent of all maternal deaths occur in just 10 countries: India, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Tanzania, Kenya, China, and Uganda. The riskiest region in the world to give birth is sub-Saharan Africa. Chad and Somalia have the highest lifetime risk of maternal death due to pregnancy or childbirth-related cause: in Chad a woman has a 1 in 15 lifetime risk and in Somalia a woman has 1 in 18 lifetime risk.

 
Eleven countries that had high maternal mortality in 1990 reached their MDG target of reducing maternal mortality by 75 percent. Those countries are Bhutan, Cambodia, Cabo Verde, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Laos, Maldives, Nepal, Romania, Rwanda, and Timor-Leste. While many countries are not on track to meet their MDG target, since 2003 the maternal mortality rate has increased in only eight countries.

 
Unfortunately the United States is one of those eight countries, along with Afghanistan, Belize, El Salvador, Guinea-Bissau, Greece, Seychelles, and South Sudan. In 2013 18.5 women died per 100,000 births in the United States, whereas in 1990 the number was 12.4.

 
The best news is that we know what needs to be done to save more lives. We need to ensure that girls are allowed to stay in school and be girls, not brides. Right now 15 million girls aged 15-19 give birth every year, and there is a much higher risk of death and injury associated with adolescent pregnancy. Next, we need to ensure that young people are given comprehensive sex education, that more skilled birth attendants are trained, and that they have access to the equipment and medicine needed for a safe delivery. With abortion complications accounting for eight percent of maternal deaths, women also need to be able to access safe abortion care. Finally women and girls need access to family planning services. Right now there are 222 million women in the world who would like to avoid a pregnancy, but are not using modern contraception. If their need for family planning services and information were met it would prevent 79,000 maternal deaths.

 
This Mother’s day I will be joining the world in celebrating our mothers, and I will be thanking my mom, in particular, for always being there for me and teaching me the importance of giving back. But I will also be thinking of the 800 women who will die on Mother’s Day from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth, and how those many of those lives could have been saved.

 
Posted by Jennie Wetter, Director of Public Policy

Teen Pregnancy Rate Reaches Historic Low

May 6th, 2014

Happy Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month! The month kicks off with great news from the Guttmacher Institute: the teen pregnancy rate has continued to drop, reaching a historic low in 2010, the most recent year for which data are available. The Guttmacher Institute’s new report indicates that the teen pregnancy rate has fallen in every state and among all racial and ethnic groups, and at the same time the teen birth and abortion rates have continued to drop as well.

The teen pregnancy numbers for 2010 show that the teen pregnancy rate has dropped 51% from the high in 1990 and by 15% from 2008, with 18-19 year olds making up the majority (69%) of the teen pregnancies. Along with the decline in the teen pregnancy rate, the teen birthrate has also fallen 44% from the peak in 1991 and the teen abortion rate has dropped 66% from the peak in 1988.

 
While the teen pregnancy rate dropped in all 50 states between 2008 and 2010, there still are significant differences between the states. The states with the highest teen pregnancy rates were in order: New Mexico, Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. The rates were the lowest in New Hampshire, Vermont, Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Maine.

 
The study also showed that between 2008 and 2010 a greater proportion of 18-19 year olds reported having sex, but fewer teens were becoming pregnant. The finding suggests that teens are increasing their use of contraceptives and that they are now using more effective methods of contraception.

 
While progress is being made, the U.S. still has a long way to go. According to the Guttmacher Institute “teens in the United States and Europe have similar levels of sexual activity. However, European teens are more likely than U.S. teens to use contraceptives generally and to use the most effective methods; they therefore have substantially lower pregnancy rates.”

 
The report also shows the importance of providing teens with comprehensive sex education and easier access to an effective means of contraception. Unfortunately, as was seen in our 50 State Report Card many states continue to rely on unproven “abstinence-only” education programs.

 
Posted by Jennie Wetter, Director of Public Policy

Re-Examining the Global Barriers to Reproductive Freedom

April 17th, 2014

Every woman in the world should be able to space or limit her births. At a minimum, that means every woman should have access to the contraceptive method of her choice, whether it’s a female condom, birth control pills, an IUD, sterilization or a long-acting injectable. But physical access to contraception does not guarantee reproductive freedom. For many women in the developing world the real barrier to the exercise of reproductive choice is male opposition, religious teachings, social norms, or misinformation about contraceptive options.

There has always been some truth to the idea that supply creates its own demand: make modern contraceptives more available and more women will want to use them. But in male-dominated societies where religious teachings or social norms promote large families, there are practical limits to how far supply will drive demand. And that’s particularly true in areas where child marriage is still prevalent. When a girl is married at an early age, and her husband demands a large family, the mere availability of contraceptives does not guarantee that she can exercise reproductive choice. In societies where violence against women is widespread the exercise of reproductive freedom can even result in physical violence or even death.

The problem is, and it’s a significant one, is that countries with the highest fertility rates and the lowest rates of contraceptive use tend to be male-dominated societies where gender inequality prevails and religious teachings or social norms dictate larger families. Add to that ignorance or misinformation about contraceptive options, and women, in practice, may have little or no reproductive choice… even if modern methods of contraception are available. Girl brides, in particular, seldom exercise any real degree of reproductive freedom; any decision about childbearing is effectively out of their control.

Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS),commissioned by USAID, underscore the scale of the problem. In Ethiopia, where women still have nearly five children on average, the 2005 DHS reported that less than 1 percent of young married women (ages 15-24) not using contraception cited lack of access to a contraceptive method as their reason for non-use. In fact, nearly one out of four said they wanted to have as many children as possible. 7.1 percent cited male opposition to contraception as a reason for non-use; 14.3 percent cited religious opposition. 12.8 percent reported health concerns or fear of side effects as their reason for non-use, and 16.9 percent indicated lack of knowledge.

Similar results are found throughout sub-Saharan Africa. The 2008-09 DHS in Kenya found that only 1.2 percent of married women (age 15-49) reported cost or lack of access as a reason for non-use of contraceptives. More than three out of ten cited health concerns (14.9 percent) or fear of side effects (15.8 percent) as their reason for non-use, while 9.0 percent cited religious prohibition and 6.0 percent attributed their non-use to their husband’s opposition.

In Sierra Leone, where women on average have five children, the 2008-9 DHS found that only 1.6 percent of married women (ages 15-49) attributed their non-use of contraceptives to cost or lack of access. One out of seven (14.4 percent) reported male opposition as their reason for non-use, while 9.3 percent cited religious prohibition. In Mauritania the most recent DHS survey indicated that one out of four women not using contraceptives were deterred by religious prohibitions. In Liberia, Ghana, and Uganda, a fear of side effects stops one out of four non-users from using contraception.

These findings do not diminish the importance of ensuring that women in developing countries have access to a wide array of contraceptives. As contraceptives become more widely available and women become more informed as to the benefits of spacing births, more women will opt to use a contraceptive method. But in many countries the cultural or informational barriers to contraceptive use loom much larger.

The United Nations has declared that access to reproductive health services is a universal right and, as part of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG5b), it set 2015 as the target year for achieving universal access. The target will not be met. While the MDGs have achieved great success in many areas, progress with respect maternal and reproductive health has been disappointing. Any hope of achieving universal access to reproductive health care anytime soon will require much greater investments on the part of donor countries.

But it will take more than expanded access to contraceptive services to ensure that all women are capable of spacing or limiting their pregnancies. So long as a woman’s reproductive freedom is constrained by her husband’s opposition, religious prohibitions, or misinformation, she will not be fully capable of exercising that freedom. And because reproductive choice is so important to a woman, her family, and her community, the empowerment of girls and women — a high priority in its own right — takes on added importance.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, president

Originally posted on the Huffington Post on April 16, 2014

Climate Change: The Least We Can Do

April 8th, 2014

As the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report makes clear, we are long past the point of avoiding climate change. The best we can do now is to avoid the worst effects. The situation is more dire than previously projected and the consequences of inaction more starkly drawn than ever before:

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased….Over the last two decades, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have been losing mass, glaciers have continued to shrink almost worldwide, and Arctic sea ice and Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover have continued to decrease in extent (high confidence)…. Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system. Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.

In a perfect world, the IPCC’s report would summon forth our best efforts at mitigating climate change and its effects. We would be doing whatever is necessary and prudent to avoid a human and environmental catastrophe. By now, however, it is evident that governments — and the people they represent — are shrinking from the challenge. Hope for concerted global action on any kind of meaningful scale has largely evaporated.

Instead of asking what is the most that can be done to mitigate climate change and alleviate its consequences, perhaps we should be asking, “What is the least that can be done?”

The “least” we can do is to mitigate the scale of human suffering and displacement, and the single most cost-effective means of doing so is to prevent unplanned pregnancies. Nearly 40 percent of all pregnancies in the world are unwanted or unintended, and preventing them would make a valuable contribution to climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Giving every woman the power to avoid unwanted pregnancies would dramatically lower projected population growth rates. According to the latest UN population projections, world population, currently 7.2 billion, is likely to reach 9.6 billion by mid-century and continue rising, but if the total fertility rate (i.e. the average number of children per woman) were to fall by just half a child, world population would rise to only 8.3 billion and gradually decline during the second half of the 21st century.

It’s particularly important to prevent unplanned pregnancies in the United States, where our carbon footprints are, on average, nearly twice as high as they are in many European countries and twenty or more times higher than many developing countries. A study released five years ago found that the average “carbon legacy” of a child born in the U.S. would produce about 20 times more greenhouse gases than the mother or father would save by adopting a lower carbon lifestyle (i.e. driving a highly fuel efficient vehicle, using energy efficient appliances, etc.).

But even where carbon footprints are relatively small, no one should discount the contribution that birth control could make to lowering projected greenhouse gas emissions. A 2010 study of energy use and demographics by Brian C. O’Neill concluded that slowing global population growth “could provide 16-29% of the emissions reductions suggested to be necessary by 2050 to avoid dangerous climate change.” That is not insignificant.

Even if preventing unplanned pregnancies in developing countries contributed absolutely nothing to reducing future greenhouse gas emissions, there is a compelling moral case to be made for expanding international family planning services and information. That’s because women and children in countries like Mali, Niger, Somalia, Uganda, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia find themselves on the front lines of climate change. Subsistence farmers, in particular, are vulnerable to the crop damage that will be inflicted by heat, drought, flooding, and rising seas. Some of the most vulnerable and food insecure countries in the world — countries that are already in a struggle for survival — could likely see their populations double or even triple in the next half century. Denying women in these countries the ability to space and limit their pregnancies will compound the suffering that is likely to be caused by climate change. Large families in environmentally-stressed communities will be less resilient and inevitably suffer more from disease, food insecurity, and water scarcity.

Access to reproductive health services is recognized by the United Nations as a universal right, but in many parts of the developing world it is far from being a reality. Making that right a reality for women everywhere may not save the world from climate change, but it would go a substantial way toward alleviating the human suffering that will accompany it. The costs of empowering women and providing family planning services are trivial compared to the benefits that would result from giving women reproductive choice. It really is the least we can do…for climate change…and for the women and their families who will endure some of its worst effects.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, president

Originally posted on the Huffington Post on April 7, 2014

Pope Francis and the Great Catholic Divide

March 13th, 2014

Perhaps more than any other pope in modern times, Pope Francis has done much to unify and reinvigorate the Catholic faith, but as he approaches the first anniversary of his ascendancy to the papacy, he still confronts a great divide. As confirmed by a recent international poll of 12,000 Catholics in 12 countries, many Catholics do not embrace the church’s teachings on family planning. Many, in fact, hope that Pope Francis will relax, if not reverse, the church’s longstanding opposition to the use of modern contraceptives.

The poll, which was conducted by Bendixen and Amandi International for Univision, found that support for family planning among Catholics is high, particularly in Europe and the Western Hemisphere. In five of the 12 countries that were surveyed, including the pope’s homeland of Argentina, nine out of 10 Catholics support the use of contraceptives. (The other four countries were Columbia, Brazil, Spain, and France.) In America, the poll found that nearly eight out of 10 Catholics (79 percent) were in opposition to church teachings on contraception.

If nothing else, Pope Francis is prepared to listen to concerns about family planning. Last fall the Vatican announced plans to gather information in preparation for the October 2014 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.” The survey instrument, which was disseminated to dioceses around the world, asked Catholics to make known their views with respect to family planning, along with abortion, divorce, gay marriage and other issues affecting modern family life.

All of these issues are important to Catholic families, but what the Vatican ultimately decides to do on the question of contraception could also determine, to a considerable degree, whether the church makes significant progress on the concern that Pope Francis has made a centerpiece of his papacy: the fight against poverty.

While Catholic teachings on family planning have found very little resonance with Catholic laity in the developed world, they have served to reduce the use of contraceptives in some of the poorest countries in the world. The recent Bendixen and Amandi International poll found, for example, that only four out of 10 Catholics in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Uganda support the use of contraceptives.

As long as women in the DRC and Uganda have six children on average, hopes are slim that any major progress will be made in reducing the stubbornly high prevalence of severe poverty in those two countries. In the DRC one out of seven children dies before the age of 5, school enrollment rates are actually declining, and less than half of the population has access to safe drinking water, but its population, currently at 71 million, is projected to reach 182 million by 2050. Uganda, with a per-capita income of less than $170 per year, is one of the poorest countries in the world, but its population, currently at 37 million, is projected to reach 113 million by 2050.

Many countries in the world have enjoyed an economic boom as their fertility rates have fallen. When women elect to have smaller families, child mortality declines, children receive a better education, and economic growth prospects enjoy a potential boost as the number of workers to dependents increases. But many of the world’s least-developed countries may never collect their “demographic dividend,” as it is often referred to. Unless fertility rates in those countries fall faster than currently expected, many countries will remain caught in a demographic trap.

In many of the world’s poorest countries today, the single most important contribution that the church could make to poverty reduction is a reversal of its position on family planning. High fertility is not the only impediment to reducing severe poverty, but it’s hard to imagine that much progress can be made absent a fall in birth rates. As recently noted by John May, a former World Bank demographer, there’s no guarantee that some countries in sub-Saharan Africa will ever collect their demographic dividend; their fertility rates are not falling quickly enough.

In the past the Catholic Church has shown some willingness to reconsider its opposition to the use of contraceptives. At one point in the 1960s, a papal commission recommended approving the use of birth control, but that recommendation was short-lived. The upcoming Extraordinary Synod of Bishops could recommend giving Catholic couples the moral license to use a modern method of birth control. In many countries that might make little practical difference, but in countries like the Philippines, where Catholic teachings on contraception have severely undermined public access to contraception, it could do a world of good. That would be truly extraordinary.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, president

Originally posted on the Huffington Post on March 12, 2014

The Ultimate Reality Show: Man Versus Nature

February 20th, 2014

Chuck Duck Dynasty. Move over, Honey Boo Boo. Forget the Real Housewives. The ultimate reality show is here, and it is a colossal battle: Man Versus Nature. For centuries, it has been a dull, one-sided contest, with nature faring about as well as the Denver Broncos did against the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII. Not anymore. Nature is mounting a fierce comeback with forest fires, soaring temperatures and raging storms. It could be the greatest comeback in all of recorded history.

Since the dawn of civilization 10,000 years ago, we have been steadily subduing nature, converting forests and grasslands into farmland and pasture, mining the earth for metals and minerals, cutting down trees for timber and fuel, building wells, constructing dams and even re-routing rivers. Sure, nature has put up some resistance along the way, but, until lately, with little success.

Humanity fields a formidable offense and our playbook is positively ingenious. Having substantially depleted many land-based resources, we are drilling for oil far beneath the ocean floor and dredging remote seabed for metals and minerals. Running short of arable land, we have been fiendishly clever at boosting crop yields through the development of hybrid seeds and the generous application of artificial fertilizers. When nature has produced insufficient rain, we have built dams and reservoirs and pumped water from deep underground aquifers. When we have effectively exhausted a natural resource, we have been resourceful at developing and exploiting substitutes that are more abundant.

For a long while, it appeared that humanity was virtually unbeatable; nature didn’t stand a chance against human resourcefulness. From time to time, nature would fight back. Loss of topsoil and nutrients would render some distant land unsuitable for agriculture. Deserts would encroach on farmland. Pollution would render the water from some rivers unusable, but man was still winning, and the final outcome never appeared to be in doubt, even as human numbers soared from 1 billion to over 7 billion in less than 200 years. Man, not nature, would prevail.

But the contest between man and nature, if it can really be described as such, is not a sprint. It’s not even a marathon. There is no finish line or timeline. The way things are going, it could be a fight to the death. If so, don’t bet against nature.

Sure, humanity is confidently ramping up its emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gases,but nature is raising global temperatures and increasing the frequency and intensity of drought and flooding. Yes, we are drilling deeper and deeper for water, but underground aquifers in many areas are now being exhausted. Our engineers are finding new ways to exploit metal and mineral resources, but the commodity prices for those resources have increased dramatically in the last decade. Farmers are still converting grasslands and tropical forests into farms and pastures, but in China and elsewhere desertification is gaining the upper hand. Dams in many areas are silting up. Reservoirs are drying up. Farmers are applying more fertilizers to sustain crop yields, but what we gain in agricultural output we are starting to lose in terms of ocean productivity thanks to the nitrogen runoff.

Here, at home, record droughts in the West are putting farmers and ranchers out of business, curtailing hydroelectricity and limiting growth prospects. In Southern Brazil, record heat and drought are curbing coffee production; in South Africa it’s the corn, and in Australia it’s the wheat. Around the world, from Northern India to Southern California, farmers who once made their fortunes, thanks to irrigation, are suddenly facing economic ruin. Even homeowners find themselves at elevated risk as the incidence and severity of forest fires increase.

For centuries, we have sown the wind with little or no regard for our impact on nature. Now, it appears we are reaping the whirlwind. Nature is fighting back. The once academic debates about the potential impacts of greenhouse gases and resource depletion are now taking on real life dimensions. An ecological peril once dimly perceived and often dismissed is now coming into sharper resolution.

Man Versus Nature: It’s the ultimate reality show, and we may not have to wait long to see who will be he ultimate loser. For except in our minds, humanity has never existed separate and apart from nature. The harm we inflict on nature we ultimately inflict in some measure upon ourselves.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, president

Originally posted on the Huffington Post on February 19, 2014

The Still Uncertain State of Reproductive Health in America

January 10th, 2014

In a few weeks the president of the United States will be giving a report on the state of the union, but it is not too early to take a look at the state of reproductive health in this country. This week the Population Institute released its second annual report card on reproductive health and rights in the US, and the results were not encouraging. Thirteen states received a failing grade, and the US as a whole received a “C-” for the second year in a row.

America is at the crossroads with respect to reproductive health and rights. At the federal level we continue to see improvement. Within the past year the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) ruled that Plan B One Step should be made available over-the-counter without an age restriction, and, thanks to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), women are now able to access family planning services without a co-pay requirement. In addition, expanded Medicaid eligibility is ensuring that millions of more women will be able to access reproductive health services.

At the state level, however, reproductive health and rights remain under vigorous assault. While the ACA paved the way for Medicaid expansion, 25 states have refused to expand their Medicaid eligibility, denying millions of women improved access to health care, including reproductive health services. In addition, several states have restricted funding for Planned Parenthood and other family planning providers, while also enacting abortion restrictions that will further serve to limit women’s access to family planning clinics.

Legal challenges are also clouding the picture of reproductive health and rights in the United States. As a result of pending cases, the US Supreme Court this year will hear a challenge to the HHS ruling that insurance companies, under the ACA, must provide coverage of contraceptive services when religiously affiliated hospitals and schools refuse to provide such coverage for their employees.

This year’s report card on reproductive health and rights ranked each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia using nine criteria:

• Thirty percent of the grade is based on measures of effectiveness. This includes the latest available data on the teenage pregnancy rate (15 percent) and the rate of unintended pregnancies (15 percent).
• Twenty percent of the grade is based upon prevention. This includes mandated comprehensive sex education in the schools (15 percent) and access to emergency contraception (5 percent).
• Thirty percent of the grade is based upon affordability. This includes if states are expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (10 percent), Medicaid eligibility rules for family planning (10 percent), and funding for family planning clinics serving low-income families (10 percent).
• The final 20 percent of the grade is based upon clinic access. This includes abortion restrictions (10 percent) and percent of women living in a county without an abortion provider (10 percent).

Based upon their scores, each state received a “core” grade (A, B, C, D or F), but some states received an additional “plus” or a “minus” for factors not reflected in the core grade, such as pending changes or legislation.

Only 17 states received a B- or higher. Just four states (California, Maryland, Oregon and Washington) received an “A.” Oregon received the highest composite score. Thirteen states received a failing grade (“F”). States receiving a failing grade included Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming.

The ACA was designed to produce a nationwide improvement in access to reproductive health care services, but the failure of 25 states to expand their Medicaid eligibility has severely undermined the potential progress. With so much happening and so much at stake, it is imperative that people who care about reproductive health and rights keep apprised of what is happening in their state.

All of the hard-earned gains that have been made with respect to reproductive health and rights over the past half-century, along with the advances that were made with the passage of the ACA, are not to be taken for granted. As aptly demonstrated by what is happening in half of the 50 states, this is no time for complacency. America remains at the crossroads.

Rates of teenage and unintended pregnancy in the United States remain unacceptably high. Indeed, despite continuing declines in adolescent pregnancies, the rate of teenage pregnancy in this country is still the highest among industrialized nations, and nearly half of all pregnancies in the United States remain unintended. When it comes to reproductive health and rights, America is still not making the grade.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, president

Originally posted on the Huffington Post on January 9, 2014

When in Doubt Fallback to the War on Women

September 30th, 2013

Saturday night House Republicans decided to double down on their idea that they would not fund the government unless Obamacare was defunded for a year, an idea previously rejected by the Senate. However they did not stop there, they added in a “conscience clause” that would allow employers and insurers to opt out of preventative care for women if they find it objectionable on moral or religious grounds. While the provision is clearly aimed at contraceptive coverage, it would also affect any preventative care for women that the employer/insurer finds morally objectionable.

Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, explains why this is such a problem in an op-ed in Politico:

Think about what that means. If a retail chain is bought by someone who doesn’t believe women should have access to immunizations or screening for the human papillomavirus, then potentially lifesaving treatment that is proven to help prevent cervical cancer would not be part of the insurance coverage for any women at that company. If a woman works at a bank owned by a man who opposes contraception, her birth-control prescription would no longer be covered by her health-insurance plan. Same thing for breastfeeding support, domestic violence counseling, HIV testing and other preventive care.

The health of women should never be used as a bargaining chip. Luckily the Senate has rejected this bill, but the House by this action has made it clear that it will not waste any opportunity to wage a war on women. With no clear path to preventing a government shutdown or a breach of the debt ceiling, supporters of contraceptive health care coverage must be ever vigilant that the House does not carry on this senseless assault on women and their reproductive health.

Posted by Jennie Wetter, Director of Public Policy

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