Sat, 13 Mar 1999

'Year of the six billon' set to dawn on June 6

By Gwynne Dyer

LONDON (JP): It is the 'year of the six billion': on June 16, the world's human population will reach the astonishing total of 6,000,000,000, precisely double the figure in 1960. Japan is marking the event after a fashion, by finally legalizing oral contraceptives. But China, with over a fifth of the world's people, has authorized a pilot program that could result in ending the country's draconian 'one-child-per-family' birth- control policy.

Disasters in the making? Not necessarily. Phasing out China's one-child policy now, for example, could avert a boom in the birthrate if and when the country democratizes. And legalizing oral contraceptives is unlikely to affect the birth rate in Japan which is already one of the lowest in the world.

The impending end of Japan's 35-year ban on the pill was triggered by female outrage at the government's rapid approval of Viagra. "The elderly men who rule Japan raced to approve a drug to enhance male sexuality," fumed Yuriko Ashino, deputy director of the Family Planning Federation of Japan, "but women have had to wait for decades for a drug that would improve the quality of their life." The Health Ministry is expected to recommend in June that oral contraceptives at last become generally available on prescription.

But why weren't they legalized over 30 years ago, when they became commercially available in the rest of the developed world? The initial reasons were the chauvinism of Japanese males (who feared that the pill would make women promiscuous), and a nationalist determination to let nothing hinder the rapid growth of Japan's population. The reason the ban has lasted so long, however, is the influence of the medical lobby representing the doctors who perform Japan's 350,000 annual abortions.

Abortion has become Japanese women's main way of dealing with unwanted pregnancies in a society without easy contraception, and they are hugely profitable for the doctors who do them. Their lobby made large, regular contribution to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and the normal dynamics of Japanese politics did the rest.

But here's the point. Banning the pill did nothing to keep Japan's birth-rate up: women just had abortions instead. Indeed, Japan's birth rate has fallen so low that the over-65s outnumber the under-15s. The total population, now 125 million, will go into absolute decline only eight years from now.

So what drove Japanese women to stop having babies? A recent report written for the Ministry of Health by Michiko Mukuno pulls no punches: it's the fact that "the Japanese corporate climate requires husbands to put work before family." In a society where "salarymen" have to show their loyalty to the company by working very long hours and then spending many evenings and holidays with colleagues or clients, there is just no time left for a normal family life.

Japanese women have responded by having fewer children, or by avoiding marriage entirely: the average age at marriage of Japanese females has been rising by four months annually throughout this decade. This had nothing to do with the contraceptive technologies available, or even with the general levels of health and economic security in the society. It was just that Japanese women have got fed up with having to raise their families effectively alone.

Modern population-control experts are finally coming to understand what should have been obvious all along: that people's motives, not technology or regulations, are key in deciding how many children they have. People have always known how to limit their numbers -- even hunter-gatherers did it, though their method was often just exposing unwanted children -- and they generally will choose to do so if they can count on a reasonable level of prosperity and a good level of child health care. So since China has more or less achieved those levels, why does it continue with the ruthless "one-child-per-family" policy?

When the policy was first imposed in 1979, the sheer pressure of people on China's limited land and resources was generally seen as excuse enough: births had to be forced far below normal levels to avert future calamity. China is still heading for 1.6 billion people in the next half-century, but without the "one- child" policy, some experts say, it would have been 300 million more. Other experts, however, wonder whether similar results might not have been achieved with much less coercion.

These were the years, after all, when decent health care and a measure of economic security were becoming normal in China; people's motivations about children would have been changing anyway. Besides, resistance to the coercive "one-child" policy has forced major retreats on the government. While it is fairly strictly enforced in the cities, in the countryside these days most families are allowed two children (especially if the first was a girl), so long as there is a five-year gap between them.

So it's really a one-point-eight-child-per-family policy, not drastically different from what has been achieved elsewhere in Asia and it will be blown away by popular resentment the moment that China moves to a less repressive system. Might it not be a good idea for China to move now to the kind of non-coercive approach that has been so successful in, for example, Indonesia, where the average number of children has dropped from 5.6 to 2.9 per woman in the past 25 years?

Starting next month, in 32 rural counties with a total population of 20 million, China will launch a pilot project that ends coercion and relies on making information and a wide variety of contraceptive means available to everybody. China-wide change may follow if loosening the controls does not lead to an instant population explosion in the test counties.

Six billion people on Spaceship Earth may already be too many. And the cruel irony about population control is that the most effective means of achieving it is improving people's living standards which in turn also increases each individual's pressure on the environment.

But the battle against overwhelming numbers is being won, and the good news is that the most efficient methods do not require repression.