The Issue of Population

World of People (image courtesy of Corbis)

I have been out of the blogging scene for quite some time now. Life has a way of happening that we are made to prioritize certain things over others.

The RH Bill updated from its HB 96 version to its 2011 consolidated version has a new title: The Responsible Parenthood, Reproductive Health and Population and Development Act of 2011. For those of you, who have yet to read the consolidated version, click here to view the PDF. (Note that the content was taken and converted accordingly from to a more readable format.)

In discussing Reproductive Health, people get into the natural progression of linking it with population development mechanisms.  Talking about population can be controversial because it rides along issues involving women, families, religious beliefs, environment, economic income… the list goes on. But do we really understand what population indicators mean? Since i am involved with research and statistics on a daily basis, allow me to to demystify some of the population metrics employed when discussing about the RH Bill.


Certain groups and sectors of the society often cite that we are not having a population problem. Others say that world population growth rates are decreasing which may threaten future human development and replacement. It is a fact that worldwide population growth rates are decreasing. You will get to see this from a number of veritable worldwide bureaus including the US Census Bureau and even from the United Nations Population Division. However, they are not as simple as it seems, despite first looks. Decreasing population growth rates do not mean that we’re not going to experience bigger populations.  Also, declining rates do not wholly predict that we will have a dying population either.

Look at Indicator Relationships, Not Just at Independent Data Sets

In employing the use of statistics, it is always wise to inter-relate data with other indicators. This form of validation provides a clearer picture and a more substantial interpretation. Population growth rates and fertility rates, as with any other data sets, should not just be looked at independently. More importantly, they should be looked at for its inter-relationships and correlations. To gain better insight of population indicators like growth rates and fertility rates, analysis should be taken in the context of total population numbers, population densities, birth rates, mortality rates, age-distribution, sex distribution, etc.  Furthermore,  because the world is not infinite, resources get scarce.  Population indicators, when interpreted correctly are necessary tools in managing the economic and environmental carrying capacities and overall sustainability.

Allow me to illustrate.

Look at the graph below. In reading declining  population growth rates, you might tend to assume that we humans might be nearing the brink of extinction by 2050. Such is a knee-jerk interpretation based only on a single indicator.

Now, take a look at the graph below and consolidate it with the one above. Your interpretation will change when you put growth rates in the context of world population in numbers.  At this point, you will perhaps realize this initial fact:  that despite declining growth rates, the world still faces a massive human population in terms of real number projections.

You will see the same phenomenon if you use the US Census Bureau estimates. What seems as an inverse relationship between population numbers and growth rates is not a mathematical fluke. It warrants a conjoined interpretation. So what does it mean? It shows that despite declining rates of population growth, the decrease in rates does not necessarily follow a decrease in population numbers.

Rate is really about speed, not size. It only means population growth is slow. But not slow enough to affect a decline in total world population.

Our population numbers continue to look massive towards 2050. If we reach our 9 billion mark in 2045, our population will have doubled from 1980 numbers. (1)


Now, let’s take a look at Philippine numbers.

Despite declining growth rates, the Philippine population will grow by 57% in 2050 from 1990 levels, equivalent to roughly 146 million people in 2050 compared to 62 million Filipinos in 1990. The US Census Bureau projects a higher population in 2050: 171 million Filipinos as opposed to 65 million Filipinos in 1990. [Note that the US Census uses mid-year population census numbers.]

Using 2010 numbers, the Philippines is estimated at 94 million people according to the National Statistics Office (2). This is close to census numbers by the UN placing the Philippines at 93.6 million while the US Census Bureau estimates that we are at roughly 99 million today . Our current population is almost a third of 1990 levels. The USCB and the UNPD ranks the Philippines as the 12th most populated country in the world (3). In UNPD’s report, the Top 12 most populous countries comprise 62.2% share of the world’s population.  By 2050, the Philippines will move up to the 11th rank of the world most populated countries. (4)

In context, the slow population growth rate is not enough to plateau our population in the next 40 years.


Some people these days talk about TFR or the Total Fertility Rate. Currently our TFR, according to the WPP portal of the UNPD stands at 3.11 children per Filipina. In 1950, the average TFR was 7.29 children per woman. The position paper published by some students, alumni and faculty members from UP correctly pointed to  a decrease of more than 50% in fertility rates in the last 50 years (5). To be more precise, the decrease is 57% in the last 60 years, going by the UN ESA WPP data.

However, as i have explained above, indicators such as the TFR must be taken into context with replacement level . But let’s first explain what it means.

TFR: What Is It?

Total Fertility Rate is the average number of children that would be born to a woman in her lifetime, “if she were to pass through her childbearing years experiencing the age-specific fertility rates for that period” and given that the woman was not “subject to mortality.” (6)  This definition does not simply connote a straight accounting of the number of children per woman in the population.

Actually, TFR is not an accounting of real women at all. It is hypothetical at best. We use imaginary counts of women due to data gathering practicality. Researchers won’t be able to wait for women to go through their entire lifetimes to account for the number of children they actually had.

TFR, therefore,  is a kind of number that asks this: if we were to fast forward the entire childbearing lifetime of women of specific age-groups given they  are alive till they are 50 years old, how many children per woman would there be using this year’s birth numbers and female population per age group?

Calculating Total Fertility Rates

TFR is the sum of all age-specific fertility rates (ASFR) in grouped periods of 5-years. In calculating TFR, age-specific groups between 15-49 are used as a standard as these represent childbearing ages. To calculate age-specific fertility rates, you need

(a) number of births for a specified year per age-group and

(b) total number of females per age-group for that specified year

The ratio between a and b is multiplied by 1000. You then have the ASFR. When you total all the ASFRs for that year and multiply it by 5 years for projection, you will get the TFR.

The excel illustration you see is a general example of how TSR is calculated. More appropriately, TFR is a standardized measure to hypothetically estimate the average number of children per woman. It is an average because some women can have more children than the general average while some will have less.

Understanding Replacement Fertility Level

TFR is used to determine if we are going to meet ideal replacement levels.  When the earlier UP position paper called for alarm about our declining fertility rates, some of my friends were shocked. They were even saying that there is now  empirical evidence against the passing of the RH Bill. Again, knee-jerk reactions. The position paper might be correct regarding declining TFRs but it has succumbed to assumption bias when they said:  “Our TFR is expected to reach the replacement level of 2.1 in 2025 without massive government intervention like the passing of a population control or RH bill. The passing of an RH bill will only accelerate this.” (5)

Would reaching the replacement fertility rate enough to solve our population crisis?   Before we answer that, what is replacement fertility level in the first place?

In simple terms, replacement fertility level is the “level of fertility required to ensure that a population replaces itself in size.” (7)

A replacement level is a normative level that has since been adopted by the UN and population demographers. It is the ideal number of children per woman who can replace her and her husband (if they are married) – therefore 2. The .1 is used as a buffer to give allowance to early mortality and sex ratios at birth. The ideal 2.1 replacement level is normally set for developed countries.

According to UN World Population Prospects (WPP) report, the Philippines will reach the 2.1 replacement level sometime after 2040, not by 2025 as said by the UP position paper.  (See TFR graph up above for context.)  However, for most developing countries, the replacement level adopted is at 2.33 instead of 2.1 because of higher child mortality rates.  If we use 2.33, we will reach our ideal replacement level shortly after 2030.

Managing TFR within Reasonable Limits

The use of 2.1 children per woman may be  the current replacement goal. However, that goal has remained static for quite sometime now and deserves to be reviewed in light of the increasing population in the next 40 years.  If we run below it – is it still a good thing?  How low should it be?  The UNPD WPP report states that a good majority of countries will converge towards a 1.98 RFL by 2050. Southeast Asia as a region has reached its RFL sometime before 2015.  The world taken collectively will be near its RFL by the end of 2035.  The Philippines will reach hers by 2040.

It is within the interest of the Philippines to reach replacement levels and even go slightly below to adjust population towards stability.  Note in the graph below that the number of births will continue to rise, even if the birth rate continues to slacken.  The decline in births is forecasted to begin in 2020 through 2050 but not dramatically so.

Evidently, it is not a steep decline.  Furthermore, infant mortality rates continue to decrease since the 1950’s, from 13%  to the current 2%.  The net difference between births and infant mortality lends towards longer life expectancies.  Attaining replacement levels, in my view. promotes population stability for our future generations.

Would it not be better to live longer, stronger, wealthier but fewer – enabling us to have distributed options for all and not just for the few?

The Filipino woman and her choices for the future

Despite this country being founded on matriarchal practices, the irony is that 11.6 million Filipino women are poor.  Women in the Philippines are the second poorest sector of the society, next to children (8). Why are we then heading towards decreasing fertility rates in the midst of growing numbers?  The answers may well be derived from the following NDHS survey data conducted in 2008 by the NSO and USAID collected for 14,000 women (9) :

  • Fertility Postponement. In the past 25 years prior to the survey, the median age for the first childbirth among women between 15-49 was 22.  In the survey, the median age is 24.  Also, according to the report, “better educated, wealthier women marry later than other women.  Women in urban areas marry two years later than their rural counterparts (23 versus 21 years old respectively).  Women who completed high school marry later than women with no education (21.2 versus 18.4 years old respectively).  Among women aged 30-34, the median age at first marriage is under 20 years old for lower economic quartile, while the median age for the higher economic quartile is +25 years old.”

Now people would perhaps says that furthering the education and economic participation of women in the society should be blamed for the decline in fertility.  The reality is education and economic mobility allow for greater access to a better life.  Education  assists women to get out of poverty and allows us to generate more revenue for the national economy as more educated women participate in the workforce.

  • Desire for Children.  In the table below, 57% of Philippine women with 2 living children prefer not to have any more kids.  That preference percentage increases as the number of living children increases.

  • Ideal Number of Children.  In the table below,  women in the survey preferred having a mean of 2.8 children.  In 1998, women preferred an ideal mean of 3.2

It is within the interest of the Philippines to reach the ideal replacement levels and perhaps even below it.  Attainment promotes responsible human development.  It promotes the education of women, the ability of women to choose their future and become more empowered to be an economic contributor to the society.  More importantly, the “light of the household”  becomes a more informed and paramount contributor to future health and welfare of family.  It is centered on quality, not just mere existence.


Some anti-RH Bill advocates claim that if we pursue a further lowering of our TFRs, that we will be like Japan, which is currently burdened by an aging population.  The thing is the age distribution in Japan is not comparable to those of the Philippines.  This is because when you graph the age-sex distribution of Japan versus the Philippines, Japan would have an inverted pyramid while the Philippines will still have a larger base of people within working age to sustain the economy.  See the following graphs below.  They are self-explanatory.


In essence,  those alarm bells that hail that we need to be worried about the impact of decreasing fertility does not have any solid empirical evidence to support their allegations.  The Population Research Institute (PRI), a religion-based organization purporting to use science,  is quite misguided about their use of population density.  PRI stated in one of their videos entitled “Overpopulation is a Myth” that  we would all fit within the state of Texas.  They derived this by dividing the number of people in a country by their total land mass.  The calculation is simplistic and does not recognize the complex nature of urbanization and human migration.

PRI’s reasoning is faulty as it does not consider human nature and the social science that goes along with it.  People do not wish to just be in one land.  Humans are an adventurous lot and this diaspora has enabled us to expand our horizons and progress.  PRI’s argument is devoid of the reality at hand.  Overpopulation does not connote just a mere number of people in a specified space, nor is it simply about overcrowding.  The impact of unmanaged populations goes towards sustainability – consumption of resources versus the ability of those resources to replenish and replace themselves must be considered also.  In my opinion, i do think it is hubris that man will forever be granted the best entitlement by nature.  We are only co-travellers in this journey with all other sentient beings.

In closing, my hope is that we pursue a more objective analysis and synthesis of population indicators and how it affects us and our future.  Einstein once said that it is okay to be simple, but not too simplistic.  Fourier analysis should also teach us that the picture is clearer if we have more pixels.  The RH Bill, is not a perfect bill, however at its core resides an empirical and social justification of informed choice, women empowerment and the quality of life of our future generations.

And who in their right mind wouldn’t want that?


Data Sources:

Most of the statistical information used in this post is derived from the World Population Prospects (WPP) 2008 data portal of United Nations Population Division (UNPD) and the International Data Base (IDB) of the US Census Bureau.  The UNPD forms part of the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA).

World Population Prospects, The 2008 Revision.  United Nations Population Division.  Accessed from online database: 

US Census Bureau.  International Data Base.  Accessed from:


(1)  USCB Graph description to World Population 1950 – 2050 Chart.

(2)  National Statistical Coordination Board.  Accessed here.

(3)   USCB Country Rankings.  Accessed here.

(4)  Table A3.  Countries Accounting for 75 percent of World Population by Size.  World Population Prospects, The 2008 Revision. UNPD.  p. 41 of Highlights report.

(5)  A Position Paper on the RH Bill by Individual Faculty, Students and Alumni of the University of the Philippines.   Accessed here.

(It must be said though that this position paper does not connote that the entire UP System is against the RH Bill.   In fact, selected faculty from the UP School of Economics wrote a discussion paper about their support of the RH Bill while being objective about some of its minor flaws.   Distinguished  Professor Solita Monsod contributed to the paper.)

A joint statement from select faculty members of the University of the Philippines and the Ateneo De Manila University was crafted in support of the consolidated RH Bill.

(6) TFR Definition adapted from United Nations Department of Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development (UN-DPCSD).

(7) Steve Smallwood & Jessica Chamberlain.  Replacement Fertility:  What Has It Been and What Does It Mean?  Population and Demography Division, Office for National Statistics.  Population Trends Journal.  2005.  Accessed in  Population Trends 119

(8)  National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB). Magnitude of Poor Among Basic Sectors, 2006.

(9) National Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS), 2008.


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