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People and progress

It is helpful to keep firmly in thought, when looking at the challenges raised in this week's world population parley in Mexico City, that mankind is meant to reflect dominion over the earth, and not to sink into self-made, teeming boroughs of poverty and blight.

The intelligence that enables those taking part in the United Nations International Conference on Population, the first such meeting in a decade, to assess today's human demographic patterns can include the wisdom to prevent their own dire projections from coming to pass.

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Progress has been made since the first conference, held in Bucharest in 1974. Then, population was growing at a rate of 3.3 percent; now it is 2.6 percent.

There can, however, be no mistaking the continuing seriousness of the population challenge. Most of the birthrate decline has occurred in the industrially advanced countries; the population explosion carries on apace in the third world. Now, 2 out of 5 children under age 5 are underfed, and 1 in 10 third-world children do not survive to their first year. Two billion of today's 4.75 billion population lack sanitation facilities. Within 15 years, when today's under-5 group enter its 20s, there will be 6.1 billion people on the globe; by 2050, 10 billion, according to present World Bank estimates.

It's not just more people, it's also where they are expected to congregate. Migration patterns show the emergence of megacities of 30 million people and more, in places like Cairo, Calcutta, and elsewhere in Africa, Asia, and South America. The challenge of providing simple amenities of clean air, drinking water, housing, and transportation, plus employment, under such hitherto unknown urban crowding cannot be dismissed as mere dark Malthusian imaginings.

Simple solutions should be suspect. Economic growth alone will not do it. Neither will traditional programs of population control. Moral, political, legal, and educational reforms are also demanded. International agencies can help only so far. The separate nations will have to find in themselves the will and energy to take realistic and reasonable action. So will families and persons.

In many cases, church domination of government will have to be curbed. The rights of families to follow the dictates of conscience, to measure their parental responsibilities and the opportunities for a wholesome existence for the children they might have, must be recognized. The rights of women to full partnership in many societies will have to be acknowledged; where women's contribution in a society's economic, political, and cultural affairs is valued, birthrates stabilize.

The moral and ethical issues of population control must be faced. In countries like China, where households are pressured to permit only one child per couple, more male infants than female are allowed to survive. Where testing to determine the sex of the unborn may proliferate, the potential to discriminate against the female gender could be tremendous. Such discrimination, compounding cultural gender bias with advancing medical technology, is profoundly wrong.

The current United States approach to the Mexico City gathering falls far short of a comprehensive overview of the challenge. The Reagan administration wants to halt US funding to voluntary organizations that support abortions; previously, private organizations could receive US funds if they ensured that the funds were segregated from abortion-related activities. To make US policy turn so exclusively on this one issue, along with a benign-neglect assurance that economic enterprise alone will curb growth trends, is to cast the world population question far too exclusively in American political terms. This is disappointing, when one considers all the other issues - urban policy, agricultural production, economic development, even promoting the stabilizing advantages of a democratic society - on which the United States could take a leadership stance.

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It could prove useful, nonetheless, if the narrow US focus reinforced an awareness by the overpopulating nations that they must assume responsibility for their own demographic trends.

It would be a sad world, indeed, where people were not welcomed. This is true not only of the young about to be born, but of the elderly, who are also adding to the globe's totals through longer and more useful lives.

One can only look compassionately at the millions of people already struggling for food and space and happiness enough to recognize the social progress that must be made.

Still, there is no inexorable law of overpopulation that can defy mankind's ability to make intelligent decisions, as individuals and as nations. After all, what is our concept of the human race? Are men and women helplessly subject to an ignorant procreative mathematics? Are they not capable of realizing their spiritual endowment as children of a God that has promised them peace and abundance, a world of righteousness and harmony?

The Mexico City conference this week should inspire not dread, but hope and intelligent dedication to even more progress - as indeed there has been progress this past decade - toward a sustainable balance between world population and resources.

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