When Christians discuss issues relating to population, we are often much clearer about what we are against than what we are for. At one level, this is understandable, even appropriate. We need to speak out strongly against public policies that diminish the value of human life (including that of the unborn) and threaten to undermine the integrity of the family. At another level, we are missing an important opportunity to bring to bear key biblical principles on a topic of vital public interest—and thus help shape the agenda, rather than react to it.

Whether rapid population growth is detrimental to overall economic development is a subject of empirical debate. Evidence to date has been ambiguous, although the best recent research suggests that very high population growth does hurt a nation's economic prospects

An issue of even greater concern to the Christian should be the impact on human well-being at the family level. Here strong evidence indicates that rapid population growth makes it much more difficult (and often impossible) for poor countries to bring vital human services, such as primary education, clean water, sanitation, and health care, to all their citizens. And growing evidence suggests that very large family size with poor spacing between children can adversely affect the well-being of children, especially among poor families

Does all this mean that Christians should embrace aggressive population policies, involving targets and coercion? Absolutely not. These should be sharply rejected on theological grounds. And the good news is that virtually everybody—including the population "experts"—now reject such policies. Coercive target-driven programs have been found to lead to human-rights abuses. They are an ineffective way to reduce population growth anyway. Such approaches have therefore been opposed by virtually all the delegates to the Cairo population conference. Replacing the old approach is one more consonant with biblical principles. Its starting point is the family unit, with a special emphasis on the mother.

The reason for this major shift is accumulating evidence that population growth rates fall when couples choose to have fewer children much more than when governments try to persuade them to have fewer children. Recent research at the World Bank. for example, shows that over 80 percent of differences in fertility rates among countries is due to these "demand" factors (such as people choosing to have fewer children), rather than the "supply" of family planning services. The best way to reduce population growth rates is to reduce poverty, provide basic education and literacy (especially for girls), reduce infant mortality, and enable greater security of employment and income.

These goals are precious to Christians. They help men, women, and children to live whole and dignified lives according to God's original intention. We should wholeheartedly support governments and groups to help bring such developments about.

Worldwide progress in these areas has been remarkable over the past four decades: primary- and secondary-education enrollment rates have doubled; infant mortality has halved; average nutritional standards have improved; poverty has been reduced in most parts of the world. And families have been choosing to have fewer children.

On the other hand, all is not well. Despite the sharp reduction in fertility rates, total population increase—at almost 100 million per year—is greater than ever, due to the sharp increase in the number of women in childbearing age. Sadly, interest in and support for international development programs has fallen in recent years in affluent countries like the United States. In earlier times the church was at the forefront, preventing this from happening, but no more; like the nation as a whole, Christians are focusing inward on problems at home. There is now a serious threat to the momentum of development, and in some parts of the world (especially Africa), earlier progress in reducing poverty has been reversed. We thus stand at a critical juncture. This is a time for the church to lead the cause for a pro-poor pro-life agenda rather than merely react to the agenda of others.


By Andrew Steer, director of the World Bank, with responsibilities for environmental and social policies.

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