From Chance to Choice

August 6, 1999

By Michael Jessen

According to the U.S. Census Bureau's world population clock, the estimated world population reached six billion on the morning of Sunday, July 18.

This relatively unheralded event occurred almost three months before the official Day of Six Billion - October 12, 1999 - as decreed by the United Nations Population Fund. The day falls during World Population Awareness Week to be observed from October 10 - 16.

While the actual date may be in question, one historic first has been reached - the world population has doubled in less that 40 years.

"It took all of human history for the world's population to reach one billion in 1804, but little more than 150 years to reach three billion in 1960," says Amy Coen, president of Population Action International. "Now, not quite 40 years later, we are twice that number."

A billion is a big number, difficult to comprehend for most of us. Joel Cohen, author of the book How Many People Can the Earth Support?, says a billion people spaced 15 inches apart would form a straight line from the Earth to the moon. Six billion would make a triple loop.

Despite a gradual slowing of the population growth rate, an additional 78 million people are added to the world population each year. The increase is the equivalent of adding a city nearly the size of San Francisco every three days, or the combined populations of France, Greece, and Sweden every year.

While three babies are born every second somewhere in the world, 35,000 children die every day from malnutrition or disease. Every year, almost 8 million children die before their first birthday.

The situation is only marginally better for the world's mothers. More than one woman dies every minute from complications of pregnancy and childbirth, about 585,000 a year. Less than one percent of these deaths occur in developed countries, demonstrating that they could be avoided if resources and services were available.

In addition to maternal death, women experience more than 50 million maternal health problems annually. As many as 300 million women - more than one-quarter of all adult women living in the developing world - currently suffer from short- or long-term illnesses and injuries related to pregnancy and childbirth.

The issues of population growth, child survival, and safe motherhood have an eloquent advocate in former Nelson resident Margaret Catley-Carlson, who ended a six-year term as president of the Population Council last January.

Catley-Carlson, who graduated from L.V. Rogers Secondary School in 1960, was Deputy Minister, Health and Welfare Canada, from 1989 to 1992. She was president of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), from 1983 to 1989, and Deputy Executive Director, Operations, of UNICEF, from 1981 to 1983.

She believes saving children will actually reduce overpopulation. "Among the many things that mix into a decision about how many children you're going to have is how many of them you think are going to survive," Catley-Carlson told the Child Health 2000 conference in Vancouver.

The average family size worldwide has dropped from six children to below four, she said, adding educating girls and young women is crucial to controlling population levels.

"Girls who go to school marry later, are more apt to use contraception, have smaller families and are more respected within the family," she said. "Girls going to school is very much part of the child survival revolution."

According to Catley-Carlson, one in six women (230 million worldwide) are at risk of unintended pregnancy because they are denied access to birth control methods, usually for reasons of poverty.

"A woman's health prospects are transformed if she can decide whether and when she wants to have children," she said in a speech at the World Bank on World Health Day in 1998. "If she's able to delay marriage and the first birth, space subsequent births, revolutions can happen. The toll of maternal mortality declines as these steps are taken. Using contraception seems like such a simple step, but for many women and their families, it is not."

For Catley-Carlson, becoming a mother should not be left to chance; it should be a matter of choice.

"The paramount issue before us as we enter the next millennium is whether people all over the world will have a right to have the number of children they want and means to achieve this goal," says Catley-Carlson.

Dr. Nafis Sadik, executive director of the UN Population Fund, says the cost to get family planning to everybody who wants it in developing countries is $17 billion a year, which represents only one week of global expenditure on armaments.

As Catley-Carlson said at the end of her World Health Day speech, "Is the life of a woman not worth at least that much?"

ONE SMALL STEP - The world population issue exemplifies the logo of this column - Think Globally, Act Locally. The plight of developing countries affects everyone on Earth. Do whatever you can in your local community to advocate for universal access to quality and affordable reproductive health services, including family planning and sexual health. Become involved in broad-based measures to ensure gender equity and equality and the empowerment of women. Support organizations that advocate worldwide universal access to primary education and the closing of the gender gap in education.

The Year of Six Billion is the cover story in the July/August issue of E the Environmental Magazine. Editor Jim Motavalli's excellent article is accompanied by his interview with Dr. Nafis Sadik. Internet web sites of interest include,,,,, and The U.S. Census Bureau site is at and Margaret Catley-Carlson's Wall of Fame information can be found at

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