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8 Billion Lives, Infinite Possibilities: DC Launch of the 2023 UNFPA SWOP Report

The Wilson Center’s Maternal Health Initiative and UNFPA hosted a panel discussion of global experts and contributors to the UNFPA State of the World Population 2023 report. The panelists presented research based on evidence, discussed their advocacy efforts, and initiated a dialogue about how to practically implement the recommendations of the report in healthcare systems across the world.

Date & Time

Apr. 26, 2023
9:30am – 10:45am ET


Online Only


The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) 2023 State of the World Population (SWOP) Report offers a chance to reflect on what’s at stake in debates over global population. “The question is not whether the human population is too large or too small. The question is whether everyone can exercise their fundamental human right to choose the number and spacing of their children,” said Sarah Craven, Chief of the Washington Office of UNFPA at the virtual D.C. launch of the report at the Wilson Center on April 26, 2023.  

Dr. Atul Gawande, Assistant Administrator for Global Health at USAID, observed that the new report comes at a moment when global population has reached a new landmark: “We are now a world of 8 billion people, and that is the result of a milestone in global development over the course of the last century. Human life expectancy has doubled. This is a massive achievement brought about by science, innovation, behavior change, and more.”

The Population Paradox

U.S. Representative Chrissy Houlahan (PA-6) observed that reaching this 8-billion-person milestone has prompted governments and the media to express anxiety and concern about population dynamics in both directions. What impact does population growth have on climate change and access to resources? Yet she also cited concerns that declining birth rates and their effect on economies have led others to fear societal collapse.

What these debates have in common, however, is an insistence on controlling women’s reproductive rights: “It seems as though no matter what women do, our reproductive choices are blamed for society’s ills,” said Rep. Houlahan. “We, as a global community, need to make sure that we’re affirming for all that reproductive rights is not—and should not be—a political ‘hot potato’ to use to score points against opponents, or…a tool to continue to discriminate against 51 percent of the world’s population.”

The SWOP report challenges the idea of either “too many” or “too few” human beings, and instead calls for a radical rethinking of how we frame population numbers. “It emphasizes that with population, the point is not to dictate population size or composition, but rather to refocus on how people are living their lives,” said Jennifer Sciubba, a Wilson Center Fellow who moderated the panel.

“Population is ultimately about people,” said Sarah Barnes, Project Director of the Maternal Health Initiative. “Whether we are talking about fertility, migration, or mortality trends, we are talking about people. This report seizes the opportunity to change the population narrative to be one centered on the choices and rights of the world’s 8 billion and counting.”

Media and Language in Population Discourse

Sciubba noted that “at best, the rhetoric on population is stale and repetitive. At worst, it is filled with alarm and anxiety.” The genuine dangers associated with this type of alarmism are clear. It diverts attention away from serious problems that are solvable in favor of pointing attention to solutions that often limit the rights and choices of citizens.

While the media cannot tell people what to think, it can shape what people think about, so it is important to frame coverage carefully. “Narrative is so central to bringing the facts to life, to giving those facts meaning, and to creating a climate within which people then take action,” said Eliza Anyangwe, Editor of the CNN series As Equals. She added that the SWOP report does a good job in making complex discussions of population accessible to readers, and successfully centers population discourse on people rather than numbers.

The need for better framing of key population issues is essential. Anyangwe noted that policy is often created without considering the perspectives of those who are affected, particularly the “womb owner.” And government-supported fertility policies that aim to either increase or decrease birth rates are not effective—and have been shown to violate human rights.

Anyangwe added that governments also are often insincere when introducing “feminist” foreign policies while simultaneously leveraging immigration or conservation as a means to control the rights and choices of people in their own and in other countries. “Perhaps a feminist response is to not make the womb the sight of these sorts of policy discussions,” she stated, “very much as the report is suggesting.”

Empowering the Future: Gender Equality Fuels Demographic Resilience

In his remarks, Stuart Gietel-Basten, professor of social sciences at Khalifa University, observed that during the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, there was a shift towards empowering people instead of setting population targets.

“But, of course, everything has changed, and everything has stayed the same since 1994,” he continued. A new world of low fertility, pronatalism, and reactions to a rolling back of sexual and reproductive rights hold sway in many parts of the world, so it was necessary to restate these empowerment objectives in the new SWOP report.

Better defining universal population challenges is essential. “A lot of these challenges are defined by shaky science,” said Gietel-Basten. “At worst, these challenges are defined by prejudice, by racism, by sexism, by xenophobia.”  

Lori Adelman, Vice President, Global Connect at Planned Parenthood Global, noted that the most recent data from 68 countries showed that an estimated 44 percent of partnered women are unable to make decisions over health care, sex, or contraception use. “Within that 44 percent, we know that Black women, women of African descent, Indigenous women, and women in poverty face this more deeply, more disproportionately,” she said.

Once again, pernicious framing is setting both policy and perception. “When we hear the narrative that women are having too many children,” continued Adelman, “these women are usually poor and of color. Period. When we hear the narrative that women are not having enough children, these women are usually wealthy and white. These are the factors in our current scenario. It is driven by racism, and to not name that is harmful.”

The size of the global population has sparked concerns about issues that range from climate change and pandemics to economic uncertainty and conflict. But the 2023 SWOP report highlights the importance of understanding that human reproduction is neither the root cause nor the sole solution to any of the issues. And advancing gender equality is an often-overlooked solution to many of these same concerns.

“If we’re really truly concerned about things like economic stability,” asked Rep. Houlahan, “then why are we ignoring studies that consistently show that regions where women are economically empowered are regions where there is greater community safety and longer and more durable peace times?”

The report also emphasizes the need to move towards an approach centered on choices and rights and highlights the ability of a system to adapt and thrive amid demographic changes, said Barnes. 

Humanity’s way forward must be defined by demographic resilience, not demographic control. The evidence is clear. “When people are healthy, educated, and able to exercise their rights, individuals and societies flourish,” said Craven. “Respecting and upholding the rights, dignity, and equal value of all people can unlock a future of infinite possibilities.”

Written by Maanasa Chitti, edited by Richard Byrne. 

Opening Remarks

Rep. Houlahan Headshot

Representative Chrissy Houlahan

U.S. House of Representatives (Pennsylvania, 6th Congressional District) 
Atul Gawande Headshot

Dr. Atul Gawande

Assistant Administrator for Global Health, USAID
Sarah Craven Headshot

Sarah Craven

Director, North American Representation Office, United Nations Population Fund


Lori Adelman Headshot

Lori Adelman

Vice President, Global Connect at Planned Parenthood Global
Eliza Anyangwe Unedited

Eliza Anyangwe

Editor, CNN As Equals
Prof Stuart Headshot

Prof. Stuart Gietel-Basten

Professor, Social Science, Khalifa University

Hosted By

Maternal Health Initiative

Life and health are the most basic human rights, yet disparities between and within countries continue to grow. No single solution or institution can address the variety of health concerns the world faces. By leveraging, building on, and coordinating the Wilson Center’s strong regional and cross-cutting programming, the Maternal Health Initiative (MHI) promotes dialogue and understanding among practitioners, scholars, community leaders, and policymakers.  Read more

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

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