Pronatalist Zealotry and Reproductive Rights: How Catholic Militants Seized Control of US Family Planning Programs

By Roland Van Liew | Spring 1992
Free Inquiry

Editor’s note: In this article, “Pronatalist Zealotry and Reproductive Rights: How Catholic Militants Seized Control of U.S. Family Planning Programs”, author Roland Van Liew reveals that the Catholic Church’s role in dismantling U.S. government support for family planning and rational population policies has been shrouded in secrecy and protected by a code of silence in the press. His startling evidence that the Church wields highly effective and illicit political influence is timely today.

(Credit: Steve Evans / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0)

Why is Depo-Provera, the world’s safest, most reliable contraceptive, banned in the United States? Why does the United States have a so-called Mexico City Policy restricting family planning assistance to the third world? Why is RU-486, the “abortion pill,” prohibited from even being tested in the United States?

The primary foe of reproductive rights for over a century has been the Roman Catholic church. During the last decade in particular, the Vatican has had staggering success in stifling family planning programs worldwide and especially in the United States. The Church’s role in dismantling U.S. government support for family planning and rational population policies has been shrouded in secrecy and protected by a code of silence in the press. But there are clear indications of a frontal assault on our political system.

There is startling new evidence that the Church wields highly effective and illicit political influence. Saying he has “begun speaking out more frankly,” a former top federal official has blown the whistle on the political dealing and dirty tricks used to cripple U.S. population assistance programs. For fourteen years, Dr. R. T. Ravenholt directed successful U.S. efforts to help third-world countries curb their rampant population growth, only to watch the program be systematically dismantled. In a 1991 report, Dr. Ravenholt details how Catholic bishops and Catholic presidential appointees planned–and largely achieved–the sabotage of U.S. family planning programs.

Dr. Ravenholt was the first director of the Agency for International Development’s Office of Population, serving from 1966 through 1979. In 1973 he was awarded AID’s Distinguished Honor Award, “in recognition of his distinguished leadership in development of worldwide assistance programs to deal with the challenge of excessive population growth.”

Dr. Ravenholt writes that, in addition to dismantling international aid, Catholic interference has deprived American women of important new fertility control products. Two such products are Depo-Provera, a most promising contraceptive, and RU-486, the French early abortion pill. Both products have been found safe and effective and are being marketed abroad. Depo-Provera has been approved for marketing in more than ninety countries, according to Ravenholt, and has been used safely by more than 12 million women.

“It is simply intolerable in this country,” he says, “that a minority religious sect dictates to the entire citizenry that they not have access to fertility control means which would be highly beneficial to them. Depo-Provera and RU-486 are urgently needed in this country and throughout the world. A powerful groundswell of protest is needed against religious constraint of freedom of contraceptive choice.”

In 1975 the National Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted its “Pastoral Plan,” which outlines a comprehensive and coordinated national program of political action. (An extensive investigation of the Pastoral Plan and its implementation is available in several books, including American Democracy & The Vatican: Population Growth & National Security, by Dr. Stephen D. Mumford.) The purpose of the Pastoral Plan is to outlaw birth control and abortion, to “shape our laws so as to protect the life of all persons, including the unborn.” Immediately after the Pastoral Plan was adopted, parish, diocesan, and state coordinating pro-life committees began organizing all 435 Congressional districts in the fifty states.

Dr. Ravenholt reveals that the beginning of Catholic domination of U.S. government-assisted family planning programs began shortly thereafter, during the Carter administration. Catholic influence was greatly strengthened under former President Ronald Reagan and is now firmly entrenched under President George Bush. In his report, Dr. Ravenholt states, “Following a meeting of Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter and his campaign staff with fifteen Catholic leaders at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. on August 31 of 1976, on which occasion they pressed Carter to de-emphasize federal support for family planning in exchange for a modicum of Catholic support for his Presidential race, President-elect Carter proceeded to put the two federal agencies with family planning programs under Catholic control.” The two agencies were the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and AID.

Joseph Califano became Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, and the first to be offered the U.S. AID Administrator position was Father Theodore Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame University. When Father Hesburgh declined, the appointment was given to John J. Gilligan, a Notre Dame graduate and a former governor of Ohio.

In addition, John H. Sullivan, a long time Catholic adversary of AID’s family planning program, moved from Congressman Clement Zablocki’s office into AID during the presidential transition and was given a key role in selecting Carter’s political appointees. During previous years, Congressman Zablocki and Sullivan had “persistently worked to curb AID’s high-powered family planning program.” In 1973, aware that AID had just developed a menstrual regulation kit that was very effective and safe, Sullivan and allied zealots helped Senator Jesse Helms develop the Helms Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act to prevent mass distribution. Since then, this amendment has also prevented AID from providing assistance for the termination of unwanted pregnancies.

President Carter’s political appointees took various actions to curb birth control initiatives and obstruct family planning programs. For example, Dr. Ravenholt points out, “In 1978 after the Food & Drug Administration already had informed the Upjohn Company that its product, Depo-Provera, was approvable, it was HEW Secretary Joseph Califano who specifically directed that FDA not approve Depo-Provera for marketing as a contraceptive. Thus Califano, an otherwise able Secretary of HEW, paid his appointment dues to the Catholic Church.”

John Sullivan was responsible for many of the top appointments within AID, including Sander Levin, a defeated Democratic candidate for governor of Michigan without family planning program experience. He was appointed Assistant Administrator of AID’s Population and Humanitarian Assistance Bureau. Levin took direct responsibility for dispersing Office of Population personnel as desired by his superiors, and returning the program to an administrative structure similar to that which had proven ineffective prior to Ravenholt’s tenure. Levin appointed “special assistants” to administrate population programs and distributed the budget to five Geographic Bureaus instead of the Office of Population. Levin also took long, determined action to oust Dr. Ravenholt. John Sullivan himself assumed the position of Assistant Administrator for Asia, notwithstanding Sullivan’s particular aversion to birth control, especially condoms, as well as abortion.

Dr. Ravenholt, as the architect of aggressive, innovative, and successful family planning programs, became the primary target of Catholic political operatives. In hearings of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on July 18, 1975, Zablocki stated for the record his antipathy to contraceptives and discussed with a Right-to-Life representative, Randy Engel, the removal of Dr. Ravenholt. “I would hope that we could find a way of removing him.” Sander Levin and others aggressively attacked Dr. Ravenholt before the Merit System Protection Board. After several years of harassment, Ravenholt accepted transfer to the role of Director, World Health Surveys, Centers for Disease Control. Since then, AID’s dismembered family planning program has suffered continuing harassment from the Reagan-Bush administrations and anti-birth control zealots, and has been far less effective than it otherwise could have been.

We do not have such clear inside information on the deals made by George Bush, but the public record is interesting indeed. Before running for the presidency in 1979, Bush was a strong advocate of family planning programs both as a U.S. congressman and as U.S. representative to the United Nations. Bush’s own father lost re-election to the U.S. Senate in 1950 by just a few hundred votes when columnist Drew Pearson, on the Sunday before Election Day, “revealed” that Bush’s father was involved with Planned Parenthood. The lesson was not lost on son George, who sold his soul to the religious right in order to gain the presidency.

“Although it is appropriate,” Ravenholt emphasizes, “for Catholic and other religious leaders to exhort adherents and others not to use contraceptives and other means of birth control, it is surely unacceptable to the majority of Americans that any religious minority dictate what means of fertility control may be used by persons of other faiths–by denying them access to valuable products of scientific research through covert political deals and dirty tricks.”

Besides negotiating political deals directly with presidential candidates, the Church made sure that fanatical right-wing religious groups such as the Moral Majority were well funded and in some cases, as with the National Right to Life Committee, this was initiated directly by the Church. Catholics succeeded in coopting the agenda of non-Catholic organizations such as the Moral Majority by offering generous financial support in return for a strong anti-abortion position, as documented by investigative reporter Connie Page in her book The Right to Lifers. The Church also hides its involvement when possible by supporting non-Catholics for leadership of Catholic-dominated organizations so that people become confused about who is behind anti-family planning activities. For example, the first three presidents of the National Right to Life Committee, an anti-abortion group created by the Catholic church and composed primarily of Catholics, were all Protestants, although Jack Wilike, a Catholic, became president in 1980. The National Committee for a Human Life Amendment has no official affiliation with the Vatican but gets the better part of its money from Catholic communicants across the country, and so on.

Little or none of this information gets reported in the mass media. I asked Dr. Ravenholt what the most surprising or distressing reaction was to his report. “The code of silence,” he answered immediately. “It has been an education to me to the extent to which the Church controls the media.”

Besides the complexity of the Vatican’s dealings, there is certainly one forbidding reason for the lack of news coverage: The Church effectively uses its own religious intolerance along with public cries of “bigotry” as weapons to club anyone who criticizes its dogma or its meddling in government affairs. A reporter writing this article for any newspaper in America would face enormous pressure from the Church, which has a very effective policy of blackballing people who oppose it. Critics can quickly lose their jobs and often their livelihood.

(Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay)

Leaders of major family planning organizations, especially Planned Parenthood, have been thoroughly intimidated by the power of the Church. The International Planned Parenthood Federation and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America are very careful to never criticize the Church or the pope directly. Leaders of population organizations will privately admit that the Church is the primary source of opposition, but will not jeopardize their funding by saying so publicly. Planned Parenthood in particular would risk a great deal of money by confronting the source of conflict rather than simply exploiting the controversy.

Says Ravenholt,

It is a remarkable failure of Planned Parenthood to publicly identify their chief adversary, the Roman Catholic church. Improved family planning made notable progress around the world, especially the third world, in the 60’s and 70’s, but has languished during the 80’s until now. The lack of courage of U.S. family planning leaders in recent years has greatly reduced the effectiveness of the global family planning movement.

The current code of silence with respect to identifying the main adversary of reproductive freedom–the Roman Catholic Church–is fomenting a world disaster analogous in scope to that which would have ensued if during this century world political leaders had failed to identify Russia as the main adversary of democratic political freedom.

So it is left to individuals to challenge the church’s influence on public policy. Some persons have stood firm, but they have paid a heavy price. Bill Baird, a tireless advocate of reproductive rights and a forthright critic of the Church’s role in denying those rights, is blocked from a large number of speaking engagements every year by Catholic zealots. He has been picketed by Catholic clergy arm-in-arm with the police, who are supposed to protect his rights, has had to live apart from his family for most of the last twenty years, and has been assaulted and firebombed several times. Dr. Stephen Mumford, a top researcher in the field of U.S. population policy, quickly lost his livelihood after exposing the Church’s role in defining U.S. government policy. Catholic legislators, including senators and governors, have been directly threatened with excommunication and political disaster if they do not vote in line with the Vatican, but many have refused to do so. Dr. Ravenholt, now retired from the federal service, waited to speak out until his livelihood was no longer in danger. He has provided some of the most explosive evidence of the Church’s power in the United States. Courageous individuals like these are the true heroes of today’s battle for reproductive freedom.

The Church’s simultaneous opposition to birth control and abortion is contradictory and has nothing to do with humanitarian concerns. The Church is not effectively trying to reduce abortions. Indeed, its contradictory policies have created an abortion rate among Catholics that is 30 percent higher than the rate for Protestants, as shown in studies supplied by the Alan Guttmacher Institute and Catholics for a Free Choice. The true reasons for Vatican opposition to birth control are rooted in pronatalist power politics aimed at greater numerical hegemony and the need to maintain authority within the Church itself. Vatican power politics threaten reproductive rights of nonadherents; nothing less than our civil liberties and our national security are at stake.

Dr. R. T. Ravenholt held the position of Director of the Office of Population, in the U.S. State Department’s Agency for International Development (AID) from 1966 through 1979. The Ravenholt report, Pronatalist Zealotry and Population Pressure Conflicts (twenty-six pages), is published by the Center for Research on Population and Security (CRPS). Many of the statements in this article are direct quotes from the report. Free copies are available from CRPS, P.O. Box 13067, Research Triangle Park, NC 27709, telephone 919-933-7491. Free copies of the Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities are also available from CRPS.

Roland Van Liew manages his own computer software business and is an environmental activist in eastern Massachusetts.

Professor Milton Siegel, who for 24 years was the Assistant Director-General of the World Health Organization, speaks to Dr. Stephen Mumford in 1992 to reveal that although there was a consensus that overpopulation was a grave public health threat and would be a major cause of preventable death not too far in the future, the Vatican successfully fought off the incorporation of family planning and birth control into official WHO policy. This video is available for public viewing for the first time. Read the full transcript of the interview here.

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