August 23, 2011
Open letter to be posted on

Babatunde Osotimehin
Director of United Nations Population Fund
Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations
604 Third Avenue
New York, New York 10158

Dear Babatunde Osotimehin:
I read your editorial. (Population and Development SCIENCE vol. 333 no. 6042 July 29, 2011 page 499 along with the special section on population.  There are a couple of facts which I did not find and which I think are very important.

The cheering news is that in rich countries the birth rate is rising, suggesting that it may stabilize near 2.1 children per woman, which is what the UN assumes.  As they get rich, other parts of the world might do likewise, leaving us with a huge but at least stable population.  The two critical questions are:

  1. How much of this rise is due to in vitro fertilization (IVF)?
  2. How many people who are the product of in IVF themselves go on to have children?

The answers have enormous implications for populations.  If the answers are “only a tiny proportion, less than 10%” and “most of them who want to” then there might be some grounds for optimism.  If the answers are “almost all of it, more than 90% and “very few, less than 10%” then one would not say that the rich world has a “relatively lower” birth rate.  One would say the rich world is dying; the rest of the world will follow in due course. 

If the news is good, one would expect it to be shouted from the rooftops.  If the news is utterly terrifying, then the information might be guarded.  This is exactly how it looks from my own perspective. 

Of course this is information you already have or can quickly get.  If that is not the case, then you should be screaming from the rooftops that you need it.  Since you mention no such frustration, I shall assume that you have easy access, in fact that you probably already know. 

So please reassure me.  Tell me what the numbers are.  I look forward to hearing from you.  If I do not hear from you, then I shall assume the worst. 

There is a separate issue that puzzles me, also quite troubling.  I read the name “Malthus” a number of times through the collected articles.  Yet the man has been discredited on both points he claims.  Food supply does not “increase arithmetically.”  Where in the world did he get that?  It has increased dramatically in recent decades, and yet there must be a limit.  “Arithmetic” increase is still potentially able to reach any level, which seems impossible.  The other point is even worse.  “Population increases exponentially.”  Balderdash.  Everyone is aware of the demographic transition whereby fertility eventually falls as wealth increases. 

But while Malthus gets headline billing, I do not read the name “Helgason.”  Yet his contribution (An Association Between Kinship And Fertility of Human Couples.  Agnar Helgason, Snaebjoern Palsson, Daniel F. Guobjartsson, Pordur Kristjansson and Karl Stefanson, SCIENCE vol 329 8 February 2008 page 813) is above reproach.  He has shown that normal fertility depends on sufficient kinship.  The impact of this on populations is greater than the impact of IVF.  Why does no one take his facts into account? 
Thank you.


M. Linton Herbert MD

There have been 20,798 visitors so far.

Home page