The Vatican is behind much of the inaction of governments to tackle human overpopulation

By Edd Doerr | 12 November 2014
Americans for Religious Liberty journal, Voice of Reason

A woman reads a pocketbook outside their makeshift house, which is build atop graves at the cemetery in Manila, the Philippines. Efforts to control the Philippines’ population growth have long been hampered by the influence of the Roman Catholic Church. It was only in April that the government finally overcame over a decade of Church opposition to implement a reproductive health law providing the poor with birth control services.

Hope on Earth: A Conversation, by Paul R. Ehrlich and Michael Charles Tobias. University of Chicago Press, 2014, 188 pp, $20.00.

Philosophy for a Better World, by Floris van den Berg. Prometheus Books, 2014, 293 pp, $23.00.

The Family Planning Fiasco: How the Vatican Subverted Family Planning in the Developing World, by Dieter Ehrhardt. Copydruck Roth Wuerzburg, 2014, 219 pp.

Climate change is real and threatens us all. It is linked to atmospheric carbon dioxide buildup, fossil fuel overuse, environmental degradation, resource depletion, toxic waste accumulation, deforestation, desertification, soil erosion and nutrient loss, biodiversity shrinkage, and increasing sociopolitical instability and violence. All this, in turn, is linked to human overpopulation, tripled since 1945 to well over 7 billion. The overpopulation problem was spelled out in the US government’s 1975 National Security Study Memorandum 200 report, signed by President Gerald Ford and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft. The NSSM 200 report, mysteriously classified and buried until 1989, recommended universal access to contraception and noted that overpopulation could not be reined in without widespread legalization of abortion. The report noted that about 30 million abortions were performed each year worldwide, most of them illegal and dangerous. Alan Weisman’s 2013 book Countdown (reviewed in Americans for Religious Liberty’s journal Voice of Reason, No.126) reported that the annual world abortion figure is now 40 million. For details on the NSSM 200 report see VOR issues No. 41 (Spring 1992) and 50 (Summer 1994), accessible online at arlinc.org.

All three of these books deal with the overpopulation issue. Environmental scientists Paul Ehrlich, author of the important 1968 book The Population Bomb, and Michael Charles Tobias put much of the blame for inaction on the Vatican. Ehrlich writes that the main source of opposition to contraception “is that of the Vatican and its bishops. Yet Catholics use contraception as much as non-Catholics, and they have abortions with even higher frequency. But the reason that the hierarchy fights against both is that the higher-ups don’t want to admit that the Protestants and Jews were right.” He adds that the “God-fearing” people’s “rigid opposition to something so basic, so critical to the future of life on Earth, as controlling reproduction [is] just as unethical as any major affront to the environment or terrorist act. They’re working to kill people – women who need safe abortion now, and our descendants who are likely to have much higher death rates related to the decay of human life-support systems as a consequence of overpopulation. The pope and many of the bishops are one of the truly evil, regressive forces on the planet, in my opinion, interested primarily in maintaining their power.”

Strong stuff, that. A great many Catholics and others are hoping that Pope Francis will do the right thing for our planet, rescind Pope Paul VI’s 1968 ban on contraception that was promulgated in defiance of the advice of the overwhelming majority of his own advisers.

Dutch philosopher and ethicist Floris van den Berg agrees with Ehrlich and Tobias on the importance of dealing with the overpopulation issue. But beyond that he proposes an ethical system, called “universal subjectivism”, that “can be adopted by anyone regardless of religious or philosophical orientation”. He is concerned with the sustainability of our environment and offers practical advice. “Eating lower on the food chain, by eating cereal and vegetables, instead of feeding these to animals as feed and eating the animals, is much more efficient in the use of water, food and energy…. Voluntary reduction of the ecological footprint (voluntary simplicity) is a moral duty, not just a nonobligatory choice.”

Dieter Ehrhardt, a retired official of the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and later the UN Fund for Population Activities, with years of experience in the West Indies and Africa, brings his informed perspective to this issue. He praises Catholic theologian Hans Kung and Catholic officials, such as Vatican demographer Rev. Arthur McCormack, who defied the Vatican on contraception, but hits the Vatican hard for its obstinate opposition to progress in slowing population growth. He cites Carl Bernstein’s report that with regard to the 1984 UN Mexico City conference, “In response to concerns of the Vatican, the Reagan Administration agreed to alter its foreign aid program to comply with the church’s teaching on birth control.” Bernstein reported in Time magazine on February 24, 1992, that Reagan’s top advisers, such as Secretary of State Alexander Haig, “regarded the US-Vatican relationship as a holy alliance: the moral force of the Pope and the teachings of their church combined with the American notion of democracy.”

Ehrhardt’s book so far has been published in only a limited printing in Germany and awaits an American publisher. It was reviewed favorably in the No. 3 issue of Conscience, the quite excellent journal of Catholics for Choice. Ehrhardt is one of the few who point out the enormous importance of bureaucratic enertia by big governments for new directions of decision making such as increasing funding for international family planning, and with his lifting of the ban the Pope should encourage immediate funding increases by donor governments. It is too late for the world to afford slow movement in this regard – too much is at stake for mankind.

Overpopulation and climate change are top priority issues that will not go away.

Edd Doerr was president of the American Humanist Association from 1995 to 2003, serving previously as vice-president and board chair under Isaac Asimov from 1985 to 1991. He has been executive director and then president of Americans for Religious Liberty since 1982. A former teacher of history and Spanish, he is the author, co-author, editor, or translator of twenty books, mostly on religious liberty and reproductive rights. He served on the governing body of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice from 1973 until 2004 and on the boards of NARAL, the ACLU of Maryland, and the National Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty. More than 3,000 of his articles, columns, reviews, and letters have been published in The Humanist and many other publications. For over ten years he has been writing a column in the journal Free Inquiry from the Council for Secular Humanism.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. I wouldn't describe myself as either Catholic, or religious, but I am offended by the caption above meme describing pope and bishops as "one of the truly evil, regressive forces on the planet." Overpopulation is but one problem, that causes many other problems, and is caused by many problems.
    The U.S., for example, doesn't seem to acknowledge that the U.S. suffers from 'overpopulation' or resulting negatives. Not only does U.S. now acknowledge overpopulation is having huge impact on country, the govt continues to not only allow, but encourage, rampant immigration (both legal and illegal). The most likely cause of that is 'corporate welfare' '- to provide businesses with an abundance of CHEAP LABOR, and to drive DOWN cost of labor — and put businesses in a position where they no longer have to provide benefits. This has successfully almost totally eliminated the middle class, and we are well on our way to mirroring third world countries comprised of just the rich…and the poor. There is also a denial – or just refusal to look at – how overtaxed, and depleted, resources are becoming. We cannot sustain this level of population ['carrying capacity' — In U.S., or the world.]
    I found it interesting to read that abortions worldwide increased from 30 million to 40 million. I'd hazard a guess that the number of abortions performed during same time period in U.S. – have declined … since U.S. has large segment of population focused on trying to convert U.S. govt to a theocracy. Clearly, religious 'control' in other countries is lacking, or abortions wouldn't be occurring, let alone increasing. So – why is it that people feel it's okay to have an abortion but not to utilize (preventive) birth control? Does this have more to do with economic situations, and lack of availability?? I don't know, but I think the question deserves to be asked…and answered.
    Occurs to me that basing this outcry on a study done in 1975 – it's 41 years old – well I'd like to see something more current.
    Pope Francis has, in so many ways, been a breath of fresh air. I don't think he can fix every ill experienced in the Vatican since the beginning of the R.C. Church – but he's sure shaken up a lot of people. So, rather than label him a 'truly regressive, evil force" it occurs to me that may not be the best way to open dialogue with him or elicit cooperation.
    I'll make a prediction: if Ehrardt's book is published in U.S., it will further galvanize anti-abortion nuts in U.S. to step up their efforts at getting Roe v. Wade reversed….and they'll spread their ant-abortion crusade worldwide.
    BTW I TOTALLY agree that we have a HUGE CRISIS, worldwide, particularly in U.S., as well as caused by U.S., with RELIGION (e.g. 'churches') imposing their man-made morality on others. They have twisted how this country was created and founded, and deny that 'Separation of Church and State' doctrine applies to U.S. constitution. Other countries freely allowing 'missionaries' has allowed them to spread their propaganda, 'morality' and outright hate throughout the world. Perhaps it's time there was a worldwide movement to ban 'traveling' (e.g. immigrant) Christian missionaries.

  2. All of this contraception issue is noitnhg more than a smooth talking political ploy in my eyes and has little to do with loving kindness towards saving babies. I have a very devout Catholic friend I can certainly say the Catholic Church is far overstepping its bounds of separation of Church and State. My friend sent me materials that were given out by her priest for her to distribute and it was pure political propaganda if I have ever seen it in my life. I was ashamed that my friend has become so brainwashed by religion that she believes that God through the holy communion of a priest is telling her how to vote. I’m sorry but not even GOD tells me how to vote and anyone who tries to manipulate or persuade someone else how to vote that isn’t running for office, or isn’t being paid by a political campaign needs to think very clearly about their intentions and motives before expressing passionate views about voting especially when mixing politics and religion and this issue of contraception and abortion. This new attempt to twist and distort the facts about contraception by political strategists into a freedom of religion issue is ridiculous. Where do you draw the line on that. At what point can I just call every law I don’t want to obey unconstitutional based on my freedom of religion . I understand the abortion issue and when we create a lottery where every person in the US must participate and they knock on your door and say Here is YOUR unaborted baby you voted for and here is your tax funding to raise the baby you wanted saved then I will be all for outlawing abortion and limiting contraception but until the people who want to outlaw it will accept the unaborted babies into their homes, it is hypocrisy in my eyes. And until then the rights of women need to and should be respected as a individual and private choice. The same people who want to intervene are the same people who also claim to want less government which I can never seem to reconcile. To me it is a bunch of manipulative politicians wanting to control peoples vote through religion, and a bunch of overly passionate holier than thou religious people believing that it is their God given duty to enforce their waning religion onto others through politics and forget about God given free will especially when it is about just forcing it on someone else and they don’t have to accept any of the responsibility.

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