The following paper by Most Rev. James T. McHugh, Roman Catholic Auxiliary Bishop of Newark, New Jersey, U.S.A., was read at the meeting in Rome pf the Bishop Presidents of the Commissions for the Family of the Episcopal Conferences of the World.  The meeting took place from 9 to 11 November, 1988.

Most population specialists project world population growth rates to continue to decline during the next century, resulting in a stabilized population (births = deaths).  This will mean a world population of about 10.2 billion people around 2095.  In light of these simple facts, some consideration should be given to the implications, legitimate concerns and propaganda that often accompany or are based on the demographic projections.

1. Development

Most industrialized countries at present have fertility rates below the replacement level o 2:1 children per woman.  A few are already experiencing fewer births than deaths – that is, an actual decrease in population.  In most cases the low birth rates have not yet adversely affected productivity+ because of the high use of technology and a work force heavily composed of new immigrants or guest workers.  Negative reaction to foreign workers is already creating new problems in some countries.

At the same time the native population is aging.  The uncertainties and fragility of the international financial situation as well as the debts of many Third World countries threaten the stability of industrialized economies as well as those of developing nations.

On the other hand, fertility rates are also declining in the less developed countries (LDCs), but the impact is slow and less apparent.  In some LDCs, birth rates remain high and are often characterized as an obstacle to development.  It is commonly admitted that population growth of and by itself does not cause poverty or the failure of the development process, but t may aggravate other problems such as poor planning, scarcity or misallocation of resources, or poor management.  In some countries, an unstable political situation, drought or other natural disasters, or internal migration problems also negatively affect development.

At the 1984 World Population Conference there was general agreement that while population policies may be an important aspect of development policies, they are never substitutes for more systematic international efforts to meet the needs of developing nations.  High priority was given to international cooperation in meeting the goals of the International Development Strategy for the Third U.N. Development Decade.

Nonetheless, many of the international finance agencies (World Bank, International Monetary Fund) and some of the most affluent developed countries continue to insist on fertility control as a first step or dominant aspect of a development policy.  This mindset id promoted by groups such as The Pathfinder Fund, The Draper Fund, The Population Institute, International Planned Parenthood Federation, and it continues to influence discussions of development and the world economic situation.

2. Poverty

It is often claimed that population growth impedes economic growth and therefore induces poverty.  In practical terms this is translated to mean that larger families burden economic resources and generate social obligations (health care, education, housing) that in turn create poverty.  From a careful reading of the data on population and development it becomes clear that economic and development studies fail to demonstrate that population growth creates a situation of poverty.  As P. T. Bauer, an economist who specializes in development issues , has written, “rapid population growth has not been an obstacle to sustained economic advance in the Third World or the West.”  (Bauer, 1981; see also Schultz,T., 1981; Kasun, 1988; Simon,J. 1977).  Economist Ben Wattenberg argues that population growth can be economically beneficial because it stimulates commerce, productivity, product development and research.  It creates a public fund through taxation that helps pay for services to people.  These economists and demographers recognize that there are other complicating factors such as inequality, discrimination, lack of planning and political leadership, absence of resources or capital that, in a rapidly growing population, forestall or frustrate development.  But growth cannot be singled out as the only cause of underdevelopment.

This is also true in regard to family size.  In most countries fertility has already dropped to between 1.8 and 3.5 children.  Even in high fertility countries family size is generally around 4 children.  In agricultural societies larger family size contributes to family productivity.  A younger society has more incentives to move forward in terms of development, and it provides a broader base from which government can draw to support programmes for the elderly and disadvantaged (see Wattenberg, 1987).  In any case, there are no conclusive data to prove that large families are inevitably poor families.  The Western and developed nations at present have extremely low birth rates, and they still have poor people.  There is a growing recognition that affluent societies with low birth rates are experiencing a new type of poverty, that is, the lack of people who will carry on the values and traditions of the culture, who will assure and continue productivity and economic progress, and ultimately create the income that can be redistributed to care for the needs of those who are unable to care for themselves.

3. Resources and the environment

Prior to the 1974 Population Conference at Bucharest there were dire predictions that population growth would ultimately lead to exhausting the earth’s resources, notably minerals, fuels, and especially food.  Since that time, more careful analysis of natural resources shows that the supply of natural resources is not being exhausted, though consumption patterns, especially in the industrialized countries, are often wasteful.  Scholars such as Julian Kahn, H.J. Barnett, and A.J. Coale have critically analysed the projected scarcities and shown that in many cases there are sufficient resources, and in other cases new synthetic materials are already substituting for formerly used materials.  The same is true of energy resources.

At a recent conference Werner Fornos of the Population Institute claimed that an expansion of family planning programmes in the Third World is necessary to avert a world hunger crisis.  However, recent U.N. studies show that world food production has continued to increase since the mid-1970’s, even in the developing countries, surpassing growth in population.  Roger Revelle, a noted demographer, has estimated that world agricultural resources are capable of supporting a population of 40 billion people.  This could be achieved with an expanded use of the world’s land for agriculture and improvement of agricultural yield both of which are possible.  In effect, those most knowledgeable about global food problems believe that the world is well stocked with food supplies and capable of feeding many more people than presently exist.  Temporary setbacks from drought, ineffective distribution mechanisms, wars or natural disasters may create problems in some parts of the world, but these can be met.  In any case, mass starvation is not a prospect.

Population growth is also cited as a cause of environmental problems.  Donald Mann, President of Negative Population Growth, claims that our only solution to environmental problems is an actual reduction of present world population from 15 billion to 2 billion.  In fact, much of the global pollution results from the indiscriminate use of fuels, technologies and chemicals.  Their use could be controlled or restrained and some things might be prohibited, but a more simplistic approach is to blame the major problems – global warming a, acid rain and depletion of the ozone layer – simply on population growth.  The 1984 Population Conference called for a transition to new technologies that would maintain the integrity of the environment, and it called on governments to establish appropriate policy measures.  Nonetheless, continued efforts to use environmental problems as a reason for population control may be expected.

4. Sexual permissiveness

The 1974 Population conference called for assuring “all individuals and couples” access to family planning information and methods.  This constituted a break with former U.N. policy that spoke of family planning only in terms of married couples.  The 1984 Conference maintained the new language, and it was clear from the debates in both Conferences that family planning availability was to be promoted for unmarried persons as well as for married couples.  Most recently, this has been applied to teenagers to combat the problems of teenage pregnancy.  In all cases it extrapolates sexual activity from marriage, ignoring the fact that sexual intimacy is a prerogative and responsibility inherently connected with marriage and family life.  This emphasis on the individual was the most compelling factor preventing the Holy See from joining the consensus at both conferences.  Accordingly, we must recognize that efforts to promote family planning are premised on, and supportive of, attitudes of sexual permissiveness.  This same thinking is now being applied to preventing the spread of AIDS.

5. Family planning programmes and abortion

Strategies to deal with population growth focus on widespread availability of contraception and sterilization, often without safeguards for the freedom of the couple.  This is most evident in China and India where coercion is a keystone of the family planning programmes.  But there is the added problem that international family planning agencies and some developed nations tend to have a double standard in regard to the Third World.  Methods of birth control that are dangerous or not proved are promoted in, and exported to, the Third World.  Witness the recent debate in France regarding RU486, an abortion pill that was described as necessary to combat population growth.  The same was true of Depo-Provera, a drug not approved for use in the United States but promoted for use in the Third World.  Much of the clinical testing of new contraceptives by international agencies takes place in Third World countries because there are fewer legal safeguards.

The 1984 Population Conference adopted a resolution proposed by the Holy See urging governments “to take appropriate steps to help women avoid abortion, which in no case should be promoted as a method of family planning…”.  This resolution reflected the policies of most countries, but was strenuously objected to by China and a few other countries.  It was supported by many Third World countries and by many Western nations as well.  It was reflective of U.S. policy which had denied funds to the U.N.F.P.A. because such funds were used for abortion in countries other than the United States.  The resolution, as well as the U.S. policy, has been consistently criticized with the hope of doing away with the U.S. policy after the American election.

It is necessary to be especially alert to initiatives from other countries and international agencies that will seek to re-establish abortion as a necessary component part of a broad-based family planning programme.

6. Women’s concerns

Both at the 1984 Population Conference and the 1985 International Women’s Conference access to family planning was claimed to be a special concern and right of women.  It is often claimed that women need contraception to be freed from male oppression and to enjoy fully their “right to reproductive freedom”.  Often, underlying the claim for the so-called right to contraception are attempts to redefine marriage and family relationships, to promote non-marital unions, divorce and out-of-wedlock pregnancy, as well as lesbian relationships.  The emphasis on many of these issues by radical feminists ignores religious and cultural convictions and tends to place poor women at greater risk by undermining the social and cultural restrictions on sexual activity outside of marriage and the family.  Again, attitudes of a small cultural elite gain prominence and have tragic societal effects, especially on the young.

In the preparatory sessions for the 1984 International Conference on Population and in the debates of the conference there was continued recognition of the ethical implications of population policies, the need to consider religious convictions and principles, and also the need to protect the rights of couples to plan family size and the spacing of births.  Nonetheless, there remains a strong ideology of population control that attempts to influence policy initiatives in individual nations and in the international forum.  It is an ideology that is prejudicial and discriminatory towards countries that have what are considered high fertility rates.  It is an ideology that stands ready to accept and justify strategies that are religiously or culturally offensive, at times dangerous to women’s health, and disrespectful of basic human rights.  Some proposals from this quarter involve element of pressure or coercion by conditioning socio-economic assistance on a demonstrated decline in fertility of, at the personal level, by placing pressures on couples that prevent more than one or two children.  The demand for population control is often based on economic priorities, as evidenced by the strong rhetoric of the World Bank.

The population control mindset easily feeds the contraceptive mentality and supports the emphasis on discovering and massively distributing effective methods of contraception.  The continued and pervasive insistence on population control as a primary factor in solving socio-economic problems has prompted a reaction from the bishops in many developing countries.  That reaction was clearly expressed at the 1980 Bishops’ World Synod on the Family.  In their closing Message to Christian Families the bishops stated:

“Often certain governments and some international organizations do violence to families.   Families are compelled – and this we oppose vehemently – to use such immoral means for the solution of social, economic and demographic problems as contraception or, even worse, sterilization, abortion and euthanasia.  The Synod therefore urges a charter of family rights to safe-guard these rights everywhere.”