UNLESS immediate action is taken, by the year 2000 one-third of the world's children between 5 and 16 will be living on the street.
Street children and the host of other problems facing children, including those in the United States, have prompted UNICEF, the United Nations children's fund, to organize a "World Summit for Children" this weekend in New York. President Bush is among 70 heads of state (probably the largest gathering of heads of state in history) committed to attend the first-ever PageHuidekoperWilsonworld conference on children.
Bush has a golden opportunity to play a major role in helping to improve the predicament of children. And the place to start is to make clear the connection between the present high rate of population growth in so many countries and the sorry state of children in those countries.
Of the million babies born every three days, 95 percent are born in the developing world, by far the majority to the poorest families in the poorest countries. As the Indian poet, Dom Moraes, put it, "Every 90 seconds an Indian baby left the dark secrecy of the womb and came weeping into a world that cannot afford it."
According to a world fertility survey, millions of poor women want access to family planning; they would like to bear only the number of children they can take care of. But the sad reality is that 65 percent of the 600 million women of child-bearing age around the world do not have any scientific method of contraception.
Perhaps the most eloquent testament to women's motivation to have smaller families is the number of induced abortions that take place annually around the globe. The World Bank estimates the figure could be as high as 55 million -- with a terrible toll in injury or death where the procedure is illegal.
But there are even more disheartening aspects to the picture. Of the women who cannot avoid an unwanted pregnancy or cannot (or will not) terminate one, millions resort to a tragic solution: They abandon their children or sell them.
Nobody dares make even a wild guess as to how many children born in the developing world are thus "thinned out." But UNICEF has seen an alarming increase in child abandonment. Indeed, the organization estimates there are as many as 100 million children today abandoned to the streets. According to Childhope, an international organization with headquarters in Rio de Janeiro, there are 24 million street children in Brazil alone.
What these sad practices illustrate, of course, is the global population problem in microcosm. When the number of people in a family outstrips the resources available for sustenance, parents feel themselves driven to the tragic expedient of abandoning a child.
One of the greatest contributions Bush can make this weekend is to commit his administration to support the largest multilateral voluntary family planning organization in the world, UNFPA, the United Nations population fund. No matter what anti-family planning people have said about UNFPA, the organization does not fund abortions.
Surely family planning is the logical alternative to abortion, and to some of the tragedies that befall unwanted children. Surely this is the first step toward achieving the most fundamental right of the human being, that he or she be born to parents who want a child. Surely the child deserves the right to be born as a result of an intentional, planned, mindful decision on the part of both the woman and the man, rather than as a result of "intercourse roulette."
The world must take all possible care of today's children and see that tomorrow's children are welcomed to this Earth. Bush can play a pivotal role at the children's summit by supporting UNFPA. This could mean that for millions of women and men birth would be a cause for celebration instead of the burden it is in so many cases. This would mean that the joy of children and the love of children could be given full rein.
It would mean no less than a new reverence for life, which is, after all, what we humans are about.
Page Huidekoper Wilson is a board member of the World 6 Population Society and a former board member of the U.S. 9 Committee for UNICEF.