By 2100, will the earth be suffering from massive overpopulation, or will there be a “demographic winter” because people are not having children? 

This is being debated by experts and advocates who say recent data from the United Nations support their respective positions. 

The U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) released a statement in May about educating the public about overpopulation, given the expected birth of the world’s 7 billionth person at the end of October. 

Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the UNFPA, said the U.N.’s projections underscored “an urgent need to provide safe and effective family planning” to women in developing countries, to allow them to determine the “number and spacing of their children.” 

However, others say that the UNFPA is reaching conclusions on preliminary data from the United Nations Population Division, which has yet to publicly release in full its latest population report. 

Falling fertility rates 

Dr. Susan Yoshihara, vice president of research and director of the International Organizations Research Group for the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, told Our Sunday Visitor that the best scientific data still shows lagging fertility rates across the board. She says the UNFPA’s conclusions are based on an ideology as well as an unproven model of predicting fertility. 

“The United Nations’ numbers indicate falling fertility rates, and UNFPA is saying we need more family planning? It’s very contradictory,” she said. 

The current world population of almost 7 billion people is expected to reach 10.1 billion by 2100, according to the official U.N. population estimate. 

Much of that increase is projected to come from high-fertility countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia, according to the U.N.’s figures. 

The U.N.’s Population Division also notes that if global fertility increases by half a child per woman, the worldwide population figure could reach almost 16 billion people by 2100. 

Suzanne Ehlers, president of Population Action International, which supports providing contraception as a poverty-fighting tactic, said the projections are “a wake-up call for governments to fulfill the global demand for contraception.” 

However, the statistics reveal that at least 59 developed countries have below-replacement fertility rates of less than 2 children per couple: 2.1 children per couple is considered replacement level in developed countries. 

Those figures raise serious concerns about the viability, security and economic stability of those nations. 

Aging population 

Demographer Phillip Longman, senior fellow at the New America Foundation and author of “The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity” (Basic Books, $26), has noted that birthrates have declined by more than 50 percent since 1979. 

Longman told OSV that the U.N. statistics actually show that by 2100, about 1 in 4 people on the planet will be older than 60. 

“10 billion people by 2100 creates a nice headline, but when you get inside the numbers, you see a growing population of seniors, combined with a dearth in babies being born,” Longman said. 

Even the U.N.’s recent figures acknowledge that variations in fertility rates across the globe can produce “major differences” in global population estimates. 

For example, one possible scenario envisioned by the U.N. has the global population reaching 8 billion in 2050, and then declining to 6.2 billion by 2100. 

In fact, by the turn of the next century, only the populations of countries currently considered high-fertility are expected to still be increasing, according to the U.N. Population Division. 

Between 2095-2100, the population of low- and intermediate-fertility countries would drop 0.3 percent per year; the high-fertility countries would still be increasing at an 0.5 percent annual clip. Africa, where 39 of 55 countries are high-fertility, could rise to a population of 3.6 billion by 2100. 

Differing solutions 

Those figures have many in the UNFPA and the West calling for improved family-planning programs for developing countries in Africa. 

The UNFPA said it will launch a social media campaign on the effects of population growth, with themes including women’s empowerment, environmental sustainability and access to health. 

Dr. Yoshihara said the UNFPA’s emphasis on family planning has often translated into a push for contraception and abortion, rather than providing sound medical services and advice for families in developing countries. 

“UNFPA continues to focus on more money for family planning because the fact is, that is how they make their money,” she said. 

Steven Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute, a nonprofit that argues against overpopulation and coercive family-planning programs, said in a statement that his organization’s research shows that millions of women in the developing world are not demanding contraceptives. 

“What they are actually crying out for is better primary health care for themselves and their families,” said Mosher. 

Congressional Republicans are also critical of the UNFPA. In May, Republicans in the House of Representatives introduced legislation to strip $40 million in funding designated for the UNFPA, saying it would save U.S. taxpayers around $400 million over 10 years. 

The UNFPA’s defenders say it is trying to raise awareness of a pending population bomb; opponents say that theory has been discredited by recent demographic data and falling fertility rates. 

“This is ideology that fewer people are better,” Dr. Yoshihara said. “But when you look at the data, you see that is not true. The prescription UNFPA wants is disastrous for the developing and developed worlds.” 

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts. 

Countries by fertility rates (sidebar)

According to the United Nations, 42 percent of the world’s population currently lives in low-fertility countries, 40 percent lives in intermediate-fertility countries and the remaining 18 percent lives in high-fertility countries. The countries shown on the map below comprise 75 percent of the population of each of the three categories. 

Low-fertility countries 

China, Brazil, the Russian Federation, Japan, Vietnam, Germany, Iran, Thailand, France 

Intermediate-fertility countries 

India, United States, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Mexico, Egypt 

High-fertility countries 

Pakistan, Nigeria, Philippines, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Iraq, Afghanistan, Ghana, Yemen, Mozambique, Madagascar 

Source: 2010 Revisions of World Population Prospects