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Bush obstructs needed efforts to limit population

George Bush's hypocritical and cowardly intransigence on world population growth is keeping the United States from offering a choice of life over death to millions of women in developing countries. Recently released population projections shed a new light on the future costs of this harsh policy.

There is no blinking at one devastating fact: Children born less than two years after their next older sibling are almost twice as likely to die as those born more than two years apart. Spacing is the single most important contributor to infant death. Providing the means of spacing births can therefore prevent huge numbers _ perhaps one-fifth _ of these deaths, and a considerable portion of maternal mortality as well. This is not a matter of imposing someone else's culturally alien notion of the right number of children on a Kenyan, Indonesian or Saudi couple. It is about providing the means for couples who want to space or limit the number of their children to do so.

The new U.N. projections reveal that it will matter enormously to our grandchildren whether contraceptive use spreads quickly or slowly.

Until now, official population projections have been built on the assumption that fertility will eventually reach replacement levels (in which each couple reproductively replaces itself by having, on average, 2.1 children) and stay there. After some decades at replacement fertility, populations stabilize. Depending on how fast replacement level fertility is reached, global population has been projected to stabilize at 9-billion to 14-billion people, about double to triple today's 5.3 billion.

The new U.N. figures expose what has been demographers' dirty little secret: Constant replacement fertility is an assumption adopted for reasons of statistical convenience. There are no grounds for believing that human behavior will actually follow that pattern. Most developed countries are 10 percent to 20 percent below replacement fertility today and may not increase. Other countries may never reach replacement.

Here's how much it matters. Sticking with the old assumption and using the most up-to-date data on birth rates, socioeconomic trends and the like, the United Nations now projects global stabilization in 2150 at 11.5-billion. If, however, fertility is assumed to be 5 percent higher than replacement, global population in that year would be 20.8-billion and climbing. If fertility is just 5 percent lower, population would be just 5.6-billion.

Since 1984, the United States has withheld funds from the principal providers of international family planning services, the U.N. Population Fund and private agencies _ the former with the concocted excuse that the money might otherwise support forced programs in China, the latter on the grounds that no U.S. money should go to any agency that directly or indirectly provides abortion services, even counseling or referral. The fact that fewer contraceptives means more abortions and more deaths does not seem to trouble those who support these policies.

For three years, the president has vetoed or threatened to veto every congressional attempt to overturn these policies and repulsed every effort at compromise. Yet before Bush became Ronald Reagan's vice-president, he was a leading advocate of international family planning, criticizing the "timidity" of agencies that could not understand how "desperately" these services are needed.

Politicians have the right to change their minds, but when they do they have to explain why. Bush has never done so. I don't believe that he can. All of the reasons he once cited for making population control a top international priority are far more urgent today than they were 20 years ago.

Jessica Mathews is vice president of World Resources Institute. This column first appeared in the Washington Post.