Suzanne EhlersSuzanne Ehlers, president of Population Action International.Suzanne Ehlers, the new 36-year-old president of Population Action International, likes to talk about “the magic of family planning.”  If you give women around the world contraceptive tools and information, they’ll limit the size of their families of their own free choice, and that makes their families healthier, wealthier, and better able to thrive in a climate-changed world.

PAI, a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy group, focuses on a “voluntary and rights-based” approach to family planning, as Ehlers describes it.  I talked to her recently to find out how the population movement intersects with the broader environmental movement and the fight against climate change.

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Q. Population is a touchy and misunderstood topic. What message do you most want to get out to people on this issue?

A. I consider PAI’s bread-and-butter issues to be family planning and reproductive health first and foremost, and then population.  I believe that it’s a totally mainstream issue, and that it has way more support than anyone gives it credit for. We’re trying to help women overseas determine their own paths and journeys — with partners if they have one, and with children if they choose to bear them. Not using “choice” because it’s such a charged word, but just giving people options and autonomy.

Q. So conservatives are more open to this message than some might think?

A. Yeah, we do find that — particularly to the family-planning agenda.  If conservatives’ core mission is to prevent abortion or reduce the need for abortion, the way to do that is to reduce unintended pregnancies, and the way to do that is by offering access to reproductive-health services and family planning. The core message of prevention and education — that’s a mainstream issue right there.

Q. It would be hard for a sane person to argue against women or couples having the tools and freedom to determine the size of their families. But if we’re looking at a rising population and worrisome resource-consumption trends, is that enough? Is there a need to spread the word, of course not in a coercive way, about the potential benefits of smaller families, whether from an environmental standpoint or maybe a personal standpoint?

A. I’m glad to see that conversation is alive and well in a lot of politically diverse ways. It’s not where PAI plays its strategic hand. There are 215 million women [PDF] out there who say they want access to family planning and basic contraception and don’t have it. So let’s work to meet their needs. I really trust women to take care of it themselves. You find that in [developing] countries when you give people access to education and services, they achieve kind of the same thing that you’ve just described. They do tend to have smaller families, they do want to see all of their children go through school, they do absolutely put a priority on girls’ education, and the woman in the family does often return to work and engage in the professional sphere. It’s the magic of family planning. We in the West take for granted these options and this autonomy, and we forget all that flows out of it.

I think of myself. I’m 36 and I’m nine-and-a-half-months pregnant with my second child; I obviously delayed childbearing. If I had started having kids when I became sexually active in my late teens and early twenties, God knows how many children I would have by now. I certainly wouldn’t have the career that I have. I was able to delay childbearing until I was in a partnership that I felt well-supported in and we decided together that this was something that we wanted to pursue, as opposed to this kind of reproductive destiny that many women around the world feel beholden to. The only reason I enjoy [parenthood] as much as I do is because it was totally my choice — a choice I was ready for, a choice I could afford, a choice that I had a partner with whom I could pursue it.  It has certainly enhanced my life in untold ways, but it’s not singularly what I’m about, and it’s not singularly what most women in the world want to be about.

So when people ask me, “How did you get where you got? Good mentor? Maybe you went to Cornell?” I’m like, “All that’s fine, but I had the Pill. I didn’t have kids when I was 19.” Having my first child absolutely convinced me that the work I do is the mission I’m dedicated to for the rest of my life.

Q. Do you feel like the population movement is part of the broader environmental movement?

A. I guess that depends on how you slice it. Do we have incredibly supportive and positive partners within the broader mainstream environmental movement? Absolutely. A lot of groups who get it, a lot of groups who have dedicated part-time or full-time staff positions to interfacing and liaising with our reproductive-health community because the issues are so intertwined.

Q. What groups do you collaborate with?

A. The Sierra Club, Audubon, Izaak Walton League, Natural Resources Defense Council, World Wildlife Fund, and Conservation International in the past — some really great groups who have sent staff on a regular basis to monthly meetings of the International Family Planning Coalition, an umbrella group that PAI hosts. I don’t think that we’re the top priority of any environmental group, nor probably should we be, given that we have our own movement.

There are some groups who are much more comfortable taking on a pure population-growth argument, and then there are those who are very clear about a rights agenda and are interested in justice from an environmental lens, so as a piece of that, they are interested in justice from a women’s-health lens.  It’s fun when you have those synergies, where you’re both really out for protecting the world’s most marginalized, and somebody’s coming at it from a sustainable-forestry perspective, and you’re coming at it from a basic reproductive-health-supplies perspective, and you’ve got such a broad area of overlap — I think that’s the some of the best work of the movement when that happens.

Q. How would you describe the link between population growth and climate change?

A. I think the most important way that we’ve pursued in recent years has been on the adaptation side of climate change.  We’re seeing huge environmental devastation, and it typically hits hardest those who are most vulnerable and least able to adapt to change, which are the poor and most often women and their families. I go back to the 215 million with unmet need. If you give people access to the services they have said they already desire, you make their families healthier, you therefore make their families wealthier, you make them better able to adapt to the impacts of climate change, they’re more resilient, they’re less vulnerable.

The more complicated side of the two issues’ intersection is mitigation.  People, including PAI, have been doing new modeling around population growth and climate-change mitigation, and I think it’s a very important area of inquiry. I just think we have much lower-hanging fruit on the adaptation side of the equation that we haven’t fully taken advantage of yet.

Q. That’s interesting. I would assume that what you would talk about most is that if you give women the power to control their own fertility, many of them will have fewer children and you would have fewer people contributing to the climate problem.

A. Where the science is sort of lacking right now, and what we’re hoping to contribute to, is how much of an impact that will really make overall in climate-change mitigation efforts. I don’t disagree that if you meet the need that those 215 million women say they have, that that would result in perhaps an overall slowing. You have to think of population growth and demographics as a fast-moving machine with a lot of momentum. It takes some time for us globally to start to experience a slowdown, or different kinds of projections of where population growth might head.

Q. You called for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to seriously consider appointing a woman as the new head of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, and he did. What kind of new perspective do you hope that Christiana Figueres might bring to the job?

A. I think the fact that she hails from the global South is great, I think it’s an important perspective. [Figueres is from Costa Rica.] Of course, it’s not guaranteed that she would promote the needs and rights of women above all else. We do trust that a woman brings a different gender perspective to decision-making tables, and that’s what we’re hoping could yield better results for the world’s most poor and vulnerable, who are for the most part women. But time will tell if it will all add up.

Q. It’s looking highly unlikely that we will get a real climate treaty out of the next big U.N. climate meeting in Cancun in December. But what would you want out of one, in relation to family planning and women’s rights, or what still might be achievable without a treaty?

A. This may sound relatively simplistic and fundamental, and it is: We want to get more attention paid to the issues of population and family planning within the larger debate, and an appreciation for what I would consider to be cost-effective intervention on behalf of women’s health. Openness wherever mechanisms are developed or created, or a mandate for how some of the new financing will be made available. I hope I’m not setting the bar too low for us, but I know what a complicated process the UNFCCC is. I saw what happened in Copenhagen. 

Q. The population movement has an ugly history. China and India have used repressive and coercive tactics to control population growth, and the movement has some racist and eugenicist roots.  Even one of the original founders of PAI, William Draper, was a leader in the eugenicist movement. Now, of course, the emphasis is on women’s rights, which is a much more positive and, in my view, unassailable goal. But do you think population activists are still hampered by this ugly history?

A. I’d be naive to say that it doesn’t still rear its head. And regrettably, people still bring it up because it’s still a reality in places around the world that you’ve just mentioned. If it was totally a done deal and we had moved beyond and transcended any sort of coercive or forced or involuntary approaches, it wouldn’t be a part of the dialogue. Very sadly, it still is, which makes the shift to the rights-based approach and perspective that much more important.

There have been exposés written by any number of authors in recent years of who used to sit on whose board of directors, [etc].  I’m interested in where we are now in terms of a group’s evolution, in terms of the progress of its mission and mandate, and I think most groups have come a long, long way on that journey.

PAI thinks there’s a way to pursue work around both population and demographics with a rights-based lens, that the study of numbers doesn’t have to be an argument that is in any way, shape, or form undermining the rights of a woman to determine her own autonomy and her own future.

You need to do the work without ever losing sight of who is your ultimate recipient. There was a Nick Kristof column not long ago about a woman in the Congo who’s 25 [and recovering after nearly dying during childbirth and can’t afford to pay her hospital bills]. She didn’t even know family planning was a tool available to her. If she’s always your guiding light, and you’re trying to make her world better and generously extend the privilege you have to her, then I think you’re on the right path, and I think you can trust that the eventual outcomes will be the right ones.

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Read more about population and the choice to be childfree: