For most of the public, slowing population means "population control," as in China. But the concept of "control" is, for good reason, anathema to most people. As it happens, it's actually more effective to address population based on our right to decide for ourselves if and when to have children. The basis for action is something that also makes sense for other reasons: Make unintended childbirth as rare as possible. The benefits ripple out from women's lives in particular to all of humanity and to nature.
The idea is hardly new. At a United Nations Conference in Cairo in 1994, almost all the world's nations agreed to reject population control and instead help every woman bear a child in good health when she wants one.
That approach, which powerfully supports reproductive liberty, might sound counterintuitive for shrinking population growth, like handing a teenager the keys to the family car without so much as a lecture. But the evidence suggests that what women want is not more children but more for the fewer children they can reliably raise to healthy adulthood. Left to their own devices, women collectively "control" population while acting on their own intentions. Governments can, and should, get out of the way, merely helping assure that family-planning services are safe, inexpensive, and available to those who seek them.
More than 200 million women in developing countries are sexually active without using effective contraception even though they do not want to be pregnant anytime soon, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive-health research group. The result: Some 80 million pregnancies around the world are unintended, a number similar (though not strictly comparable) to the one by which world population grows every year.