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In the Philippines, Less of What Women Want

One of the dozens of countries around the world where hunger is back in the news is the Philippines, where soaring rice prices and long-standing reliance on imported food are raising an old question many people thought was buried for good: Does population growth eventually run into the limits of food production?

In More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want, I suggest this question will never be put to rest—not, at least, until populations stop growing. And, in fact, the recent surge in food prices is beginning to spur stories in the news media suggesting that population growth is indeed an important factor—perhaps especially in the Philippines. See, for example, this recent story by David Montero in The Christian Science Monitor. But let’s leave that debate aside for a later blog, and focus for a moment on another aspect of human numbers in the Philippines.

The country’s high population growth rate of 2 percent annually stems in large part from governmental hostility to modern contraception. That point is documented in another recent newspaper story, this one by Blaine Harden of The Washington Post. It’s hard to believe that in 2008 a national government would try to quell the use of oral contraceptive pills, IUDS, and condoms. Most women and their partners around the world use these devices, and most sexually active people in wealthy countries take their availability for granted.

But the Philippines’ national government follows closely and respectfully the dictates of the local Catholic hierarchy, which has condemned modern contraceptives as “chemical agents and mechanical gadgets that . . . have caused serious damage in family relationships.” One of Harden’s main sources for his story is a health organization whose staff asked not to be named because “they fear retaliation and harassment from officials in the national and city government, as well as from the Catholic Church.”

The main protagonist of the story is Maria Susana Espinoza, “who lives with her husband and children in a squatter’s hut in a vast, stinking garbage dump by Manila Bay.” Ms. Espinoza always hoped to have just two children but only learned details about contraception after her fourth child. “I don’t want any more children,” she told Harden. “Life is hard. Rice is expensive.”

It saddens me to read stories like this in today’s newspapers after chronicling similar tales spanning centuries in More. Ancient fears of sexuality and of women’s control over their own childbearing—see a chapter titled “Punishing Eve” for this history—still operate in some places in full force. As food and energy prices rise, the world’s fertility rate ought to be falling significantly, since many women quite naturally make reproductive calculations similar to those of Ms. Espinoza. Since women can’t postpone conceptions just by wishing, however, pregnancies happen despite their best intentions to wait for the right time. It’s an old story, but no less painful for that when it plays out today amidst growing hunger worldwide.