May 10th, 2012 | Posted in Reproductive Health
by Paola Scommegna, senior writer/editor
It’s been 40 years since the 1972 U.S. Commission on Population Growth and the American Future submitted its final report to Congress and President Nixon. Chaired by John D. Rockefeller III, and known as the Rockefeller Commission, the final report concluded that further U.S. population growth offered “no substantial benefits” and argued that “gradual stabilization through voluntary means … would contribute significantly to the nation’s ability to solve its problems.” But Nixon, who originally called for the report, rejected it bowing to election-year political pressure.
“In retrospect, the report stands up well; the conclusions remain strong and the research solid,” said Charles Westoff, a Princeton University sociologist and the commission’s staff director. He acknowledged that the commission “totally failed” to anticipate the volume of immigration or to foresee the increase in out-of-wedlock child bearing. The report included more than 50 recommendations, some of which now appear naïve, such as calling for the establishment of a “National Institute on Population,” he noted.
The report’s carefully worded recommendations on legalizing abortion nonetheless led to its rejection, he said. Yet, the report’s emphasis on eliminating unwanted pregnancies and “enabling women to have the number of children they wanted” formed the basis for the consensuses that emerged from United Nations world population conferences beginning in Bucharest, Hungary, in 1974, according to Westoff.
Today’s debate on abortion and access to contraception “is not too far away from 40 years ago,” said Christine Bachrach, a researcher now affiliated with both the University of Maryland and Duke University. She pointed out that many of the report’s goals regarding raising women’s status and improving reproductive health have been achieved. Specifically, total fertility rates are now below replacement level, unintended births have declined, and women’s educational levels and labor force participation rates have both increased.
In Bachrach’s view, the commission underestimated the power of religion: Out of 100 papers, not one was on religion and she found only nine mentions of the word ‘religion’ in passing. Also, although contraceptive research led to the introduction of new methods, they have “barely made a dent in contraceptive practice,” she reported. Among the issues to address over the next 40 years is family investment in children and child well-being in the wake of nonmarital births, multi-partner fertility, unstable cohabiting relationships, and declining marriage, she said.
The commission’s report “did not have a lot to say about population aging,” noted John Haaga of the National Institute on Aging. This may be because old-age entitlements were proportionately less expensive in the 1970s and the rise in public-sector health care spending was not foreseeable, he suggested.