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When Replacement Rate Fertility is Not Good Enough: Steven Mosher Interviews the Director of Mexico’s National Population Council

Thanks to the good offices of the First Lady of Mexico, Marta Sahagún de Fox, PRI was recently able to interview the head of Mexico’s Consejo Nacional de Población (National Population Council). CONAPO, as it is called for short in Spanish, was set up in 1974 at U.S, urging to deal with Mexico’s “population problem.” Its current director, Elena Zúniga was trained in the art of population control at the University of California at Berkeley, and lived, appropriately enough, in largely barren San Francisco during her sojourn in the U.S. Her chief number cruncher, Virgilio Partida, was also present for the interview.

As Ms. Zúniga admits, the Mexican birthrate has fallen so far and so fast that Mexico barely has enough babies to replace the current population. Still, she is adamant that her programs need to be continued indefinitely.

Mosher (M): Why was CONAPO established?

Elena Zúniga (Z): The Population General Law established a new population policy in our country. The law came into effect in January 1974, and the CONAPO was set up in March. It took as its central objective [reducing] demographic growth”. Its strategies, actions, programs were designed to influence the information and knowledge of the people, promoting attitudes and behaviors of prevention and planning above all.…We are talking about a 30-year revolution, a revolution in ideas, in people’s behaviors.

M: What was the Total Fertility Rate when CONAPO began?

Virgilio Partida (P): 6.2… 6.3

M: Had it begun falling at all?

P: Just slightly. Then [it began to decline] very fast.

Z: The goal of the current population policy is to reach replacement rate fertility. We will reach this target of 2.1 children in 2005–2006. [At present, with 2.2 children per family] we are very close to it. Already 42 percent of the Mexican population has this level of fertility. Some districts have lower levels than this, as the Mexico Federal District. We hope that the fertility of Mexican women doesn’t fall below 1.85 in the years to come.

M: Mexico still has very high rates of child mortality, so my guess is that 2.2 children is already replacement rate fertility. What happens when birthrates fall below replacement?

Z: [The Mexican] population will begin decreasing in 2044… Cases of below-replacement fertility are not well-known, or well-studied.

(Editor’s Note: Since some 16 countries are currently experiencing negative population growth, leading to near panic among some European leaders, Zúniga’s ignorance of the economic and societal effects of depopulation is disingenuous.)

M: Isn’t it time to stop population control programs?

Z: The population policy will go on, because it is based on a constitutional right. Article 4 of the Mexican Constitution gives us [Mexicans] the right to decide how many children to have and when to have them. It also gives us [Mexicans] the right to receive information and [birth control] services — the necessary means to exercise these rights. If a person decides to have five, six or seven children — or one or none — it is up to them. What we [at CONAPO] want is that they have information and means — the widest array of contraceptives — available to them as possible.

(Editor’s Note: It is the practice in Mexican government-run hospitals to insist women: accept sterilization after the birth of their first child. This has been well-documented by PRI and other researchers over the years, but Zúniga denied any knowledge of, or responsibility for, this practice.)

M: How much of the decline in fertility over the last 25 years is a result of your efforts? If CONAPO had not existed, what would the birthrate in Mexico be? How much of this difference has CONAPO made?

P: We estimate that if things had continued as they were in 1974 [when CONAPO was established]… in this scenario we have a population of 128 million people instead of the 105 million we actually have. This is part of our impact.

M: Who sets the targets and quotas in Mexico?

P: The one who establishes the guidelines here is CONAPO. CONAPO is the directorate, the brains of the operation, not the brawn. Working with the health sector, we set quotas. We ensure reproductive rights are respected, and constitutional provisions are carried out. I believe that the function of CONAPO has been to guarantee the permanence of the program.

We have increased the percentage of contraceptive users from 30 percent of all women of childbearing age to 73 percent today.

M: You have a large number of young people coming into their reproductive years. Do you set targets for the number of sterilizations? Do you set targets for the numbers of IUDs and other contraceptives?

P: No, Just contraceptive coverage.

Z: Our Population National Program has a very clear target. Our target is to reduce, during the remainder of this [presidential] administration, a third part of the unsatisfied demand for contraceptives that we found in 2000. This would mean that we would increase the percentage of women who are contracepting [or who have been sterilized] from 73 percent today to 74.5 percent in 2006.… These are women from rural areas, where there is almost no access to health services, indigenous women, women of marginal urban areas with low levels of education. We establish these [birth control] objectives so that the organizations that are affiliated with CONAPO can devote extra effort to them. This is how we combat poverty through programs of reproductive health .…

M: Once you impose targets on government health officials, then it would not be surprising if abuses followed. Is it ever the case that women are denied medical care unless they agree with family planning? Or that they are pressured into accepting sterilization or contraception?

Z: No, certainly not. This does not exist in Mexico’s population policy. [Our population policy] is not coercive. We don’t try to achieve our objectives in that way. If anyone were forced to use a contraceptive method, this would be a violation of the Penal Code. The spirit of the population policy is a spirit of freedom. In fact, Mexico does not need, and has never needed, a coercive policy. The Mexican people adopted family planning because a latent demand existed.

(Editors Note: Ms. Zúnga’s claim that coercion “does not exist” is contradicted every day at Mexican hospitals and clinics. After leaving CONAPO we went to the headquarters of the National Pro-Life Committee, where we interviewed a tearful Maria Gonzales. Ms. Gonzales was denied lifesaving medical care at one of Mexico City’s main government hospitals until she agreed to be sterilized. Her story will be in the next PRI Review.)

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