Maria Fotopoulos, 7/13/2012 [Archive]

Populationists Find a Rock Star in Melinda Gates

Populationists Find a Rock Star in Melinda Gates

By Maria Fotopoulos

In 2006, Edward Hartman wrote a terrific primer, "The Population Fix: Breaking America's Addiction to Population Growth," that explained the basic math of how populations grow and the impacts of growth. In it, he used the term populationist to describe anyone with views and concerns about population growth.

While anyone who understands the negative impacts of our overpopulated world would think such a book should be recommended reading for all, "The Population Fix" did not make the list of "Best Sellers" in The New York Times. One of the reasons overpopulation comes across as a dud is because there's been no "rock star" to take on the issue.

The "environment" has Robert Redford, Leonardo DiCaprio, a Kennedy and a host of others, while animals have Bill Maher, anti-fracking advocates have Alec Baldwin and Bono attached himself to Third World debt relief, just to name a few of the causes with celebrities carrying the message. Who has got overpopulation's back?

Well thankfully, and finally, after many Wilderness Years post-Zero Population Growth and Paul Ehrlich's "The Population Bomb" in the 70s when it was perfectly respectable to talk about overpopulation, the issue has a rock star-caliber voice in Melinda Gates. Along with her husband, she leads the multi-billion dollar Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which works on global development and health issues, particularly AIDS, malaria and polio. Now Gates is making family planning and contraception availability her key issue.

A few months ago at TedTalks, Gates raised the profile of this issue considerably with a very eloquent, thoughtful and sometimes funny presentation on family planning and contraception. At the beginning of it, she acknowledged how incredibly controversial what should be a totally uncontroversial topic has become. From there, she made the practical, reasonable argument why access to contraception is essential. Her talk should stand as the response to any naysayers for years to come.

The ideas Gates puts forth are very basic and simple to understand. Men and women should be free to decide if and when they want to conceive a child, and they should have access to birth control to aid their decision. In other words, they should be able to plan their families in a way that is best for them.

According to Gates, annually about 100,000 women who didn't want to be pregnant die in childbirth. There are another 600,000 women who say they didn't want to be pregnant, give birth and lose the baby in the first month. In a modern world that has the know-how and the means to prevent such tragedies, these are shocking numbers.

Gates says we've stopped trying to save these lives, and now need to give women the power to save their own lives, their children's lives and to give their families the best possible future. There's certainly nothing to argue with there.

Gates recognizes that there are many health-related and educational issues globally, but she says that giving everyone access to birth control methods is one of the simplest and most transformative things that can be done to help generate positive outcomes. By doing so, ultimately families have a better quality of life, healthier families, mothers are less likely to die in childbirth, children are more likely to survive, families have better economic footing and children have more opportunities for schooling.

When this effect is multiplied across families, Gates says a virtuous cycle is created which enables large scale economic development, regionally and nationally.

While Gates is not framing the Gates Foundation's new program as one to tackle overpopulation — which is smart, given how politicized the idea of overpopulation has become — it will nonetheless, when successfully implemented, have a tremendous positive effect on contributing to a sustainable population.

Gates is calling on both rich and poor governments to make contraception a priority, including in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, two areas with extremely high fertility rates. Gates' next step in building awareness, buy-in and raising funds for the $4 billion needed to achieve these family planning goals is this month's London Summit on Family Planning, World Population Day, held July 11.

According to the United Nations Fund for Population Activities, some 222 million women worldwide would like to avoid or delay pregnancy, but lack access to effective planning. So to Melinda Gates, thank you for putting this issue back on the agenda to help these women.

2012 Copyright Maria Fotopoulos. Maria is a Senior Writing Fellow for Californians for Population Stabilization ( Contact her at This column distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate. For more info about using this column contact Sales (805) 969-2829 or email

This column has been edited by the author. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.

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