The fight for population control: Cairo, Rome, and beyond

By Edd Doerr | 1994
American Humanist Association


Between September 5 and 13, 1994, representatives of the world’s governments gathered in Cairo for the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development. Their goal: to consider and adopt policies for stabilizing world population at about 7.3 billion by the year 2015. World population presently exceeds 5.5 billion and is growing by about 90 million per year.

There is a strong consensus among most experts that continued population growth combined with accelerating environmental degradation (deforestation, topsoil erosion, over-exploited fisheries, declining fresh water and clean fossil, fuel reserves, nonrenewable resource depletion, renewable resource overuse, waste accumulation, and so forth) can only add up to a planetary disaster.

Before the conference was a carefully designed 118-page Draft Programme of Action, which recognized the interdependence of economics, ecology, population, and human rights and stressed the importance of family planning. Family planning—the key to any balance between population and sustainable development—is the focus of the Vatican’s vehement dispute with the Clinton administration.

Tim Wirth, Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs, declared last spring that the Clinton administration sought a policy that would make good, quality reproductive health services universally available. The administration did not promote abortion but, recognizing that there are about 50 million abortions annually worldwide, urged that women “have access to safe abortion services and to humane services for complications due to unsafe abortions.” The goal, Wirth said, was to make abortion “safe, legal, and rare,” in Clinton’s words.

The program recognized the family as “the basic unit of society,” entitled to “comprehensive protection and support.” It placed strong emphasis on equal rights for women, on raising education and health standards for women and children, and on individual rights. While international support for the draft program was strong and close to universal, it was vigorously opposed by the Vatican, which is demonstrably out of touch with the vast majority of Roman Catholics. Vatican officials began early last spring to mount a coordinated worldwide political and propaganda attack on the draft document. Pope John Paul II sent a letter to all heads of state in March asserting that population limitation programs “could cause a moral decline resulting in serious setback for humanity.” The Vatican’s UN office in New York City attacked the UN draft as promoting abortion and insisted that no recognition be given to any fundamental right to abortion. It also denounced all contraceptive methods as “unacceptable.”

In May, the Vatican issued a 69-page document denouncing what it called “contraceptive imperialism” and insisting that there is no food-producing problem. The Vatican was able to pressure the governments of such small Catholic countries as Malta, Guatemala, Ecuador, and Honduras to back its position and negotiated with the pariah regimes of Libya and Iran for support.

In the United States, the Catholic hierarchy managed to line up a number of conservative fundamentalists, Catholics, and Jews to back its views. But Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, publicized the fact that opinion polls in Catholic countries and elsewhere favor reproductive choice.

In Cairo, finally, the Vatican and its fundamentalist Muslim allies (most Muslims, incidentally, do not oppose family planning, as Tunisia, Bangladesh, and Malaysia have shown) managed to waste the conference’s valuable time with debates over reproductive rights, so that there was insufficient time to deal adequately with all of the proposals before the delegates. In the end, the Vatican and its few allies wore down the more responsible delegates and got the conference somewhat to water down the reproductive rights sections.

When the conference ended, both sides claimed victories. The Vatican said it succeeded in steering the conference away from acceptance of a universal right to abortion. But Frances Kissling said that the hierarchy “know they have lost more than they have gained.” And Ellen Chesler, a birth-control authority, declared, “I think this conference can be seen as ending 2,000 years of ecclesiastical authority or jurisdiction over marriage and women’s lives. Medicine and science, not religion and belief, will govern family planning.”

The final Programme of Action, of course, is only a piece of paper; its only force is moral. National governments must implement its proposals and appropriate money to pay for them. As we know from Murphy’s Law and from the propensity of Catholic bishops and fundamentalist leaders to meddle in politics, achieving population stabilization and the sustainable use of the planet’s limited and dwindling resources will be a serious challenge to the whole world for many years to come.

At this point, let us review four new or recent books which deal with the population/ecology problem:

Full House: Reassessing the Earth’s Population Carrying Capacity by Lester R. Brown and Hal Kane (New York: W W Norton & Co., 1994); 261 pages; $8.95.

Our Angry Earth by Isaac Asimov and Frederick Pohl (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1991); 323 pages; $19.95.

The World Food Problem: Tackling the Causes of Undernutrition in the Third World by Phillips Foster (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1992); 367 pages; $22.00.

The Life and Death of NSSM 200: How the Destruction of Political Will Doomed a US. Population Policy by Stephen D. Mumford (Center for Research on Population and Security, Box 13067, Research Triangle Park, NC 27709); 1994; 384 pages; $18.95.

In Full House, Brown and Kane (president and research associate, respectively, of the Worldwatch Institute) examine population growth in relation to our planet’s capacity to produce basic foods. They demonstrate that population growth is on the verge of outrunning the ability of our land and water to provide sustenance on a sustainable basis. They leave no doubt as to the necessity of immediate action not only to curb population growth but also to improve our efficiency in producing food. (A portion of this book has been excerpted and appears elsewhere in this issue of The Humanist.)

Brown and Kane make their case without even going into the problems of global warming, energy production, transportation, and waste disposal, which make the picture still more grim. In Our Angry Earth, one of Isaac Asimov’s last books, he and Frederick Pohl cover these bases and offer suggestions for dealing with these problems.

In The World Food Problem, University of Maryland agricultural economist Phillips Foster provides a detailed and technical analysis of the complex problem of human nutrition. He, too, shows that reining in population growth is necessary if widespread undernutrition and its accompanying health consequences are to be controlled.

Finally, we have Steve Mumford’s The Life and Death of NSSM 200, an important work first brought to the attention of Humanist readers in a special “Church and State” article in the September/October 1992 Humanist. Mumford’s book (an advance edition brought out for the Cairo population conference) shows how U.S. government efforts to deal with the population problem were strangled in their cradle two decades ago. Mumford shows how rising concern that high rates of population growth “impair individual rights, jeopardize national goals, and threaten international stability” led President Nixon in July 1969 to present a special message to Congress outlining the problem and calling for the creation of a Commission on Population Growth and the American Future. Congress responded by creating the commission. Nixon named John D. Rockefeller III to chair it. The commission’s recommendations, presented to Nixon in 1972, were humane, liberal, and far-reaching, anticipating the Programme of Action presented to the 1994 Cairo conference. The commission called for more sexuality education, equal rights for women, universal access to contraceptive information and supplies, and even liberalization of abortion laws.

Feeling heat from Catholic church officials and facing a reelection fight, Nixon renounced the Rockefeller commission report in May 1972. Once safely reelected, however, in April 1974 Nixon ordered the Secretaries of State, Defense, and Agriculture and the directors of the CIA and AID to make a comprehensive study of the “implications of worldwide population growth for U.S. security and overseas interests.” The study, National Security Study Memorandum 200 (NSSM 200), was completed in December 1974, four months after Nixon’s resignation. President Ford circulated the report among the relevant cabinet secretaries and agency heads and then endorsed it in November 1975 in National Security Decision Memorandum 314.

The 227-page NSSM 200 report rather accurately predicted world population growth trends and their effects on the environment, living standards, and U.S. security interests. The report concluded that rapid population growth posed threats of “serious damage to world economic, political, and ecological systems, and … to our humanitarian values.”

The report recommended that U.S. policy work toward achieving “a replacement level of fertility (a two-child family on the average) by about the year 2000.” It insisted on the right of individual couples to determine the number and spacing of their children and that they have the “information, education, and means to do so.”

After President Ford approved the report, it somehow got stamped “classified” and disappeared from view until three years or so ago. Mumford’s book makes a strong case that pressure from the hierarchy of the Catholic church got the report bottled up and ignored. Thus, thanks to behind-the-scenes pressures and the timidity of politicians, nearly 20 years have been wasted. The population/ecology problem has grown worse and, from what we know happened in Cairo in September, the Vatican has once again contributed enormously to frustrating the will of most nations in trying to bring population growth into line with the sustainable carrying capacity of our planet.

Mumford’s book, containing the complete text of the NSSM 200 report, is vitally important to our overdue efforts to achieve a population/resource balance. It also points to the need for curtailing the political influence of a powerful church hierarchy that ignores the world’s welfare as much as the opinions of most of its own members.

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.


What happened to American political will to deal with the overpopulation problem?
Infallibility and the Population Problem
NSSM 200, the Vatican, and the World Population Explosion
The Vatican’s Role in the World Population Crisis: The Untold Story

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.

Lester R. Brown interview with Rob Stewart

Professor Paul Ehrlich: Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?

Be sure to ‘like’ us on Facebook


  1. The 3rd picture is of Khumb Mela, a Hindu festival held on the banks of the Ganges & Yamuna in Allahabad, India. While India is a poor and over-populated country, this pictures depicts the crowds in a wrong light. The pilgrims, several millions of them, gather to bathe in the rivers to cleanse themselves of their 'sins'. So, a crowd here …is just a gathering of people for this occasion.

  2. "Pope John Paul II sent a letter to all heads of state in March asserting that population limitation programs “could cause a moral decline resulting in serious setback for humanity.” Isn't overpopulation the most serious setback for humanity? The Pope is overriding logic and stubbornly resisting change of policy within the Church. There is no scriptural support for avoiding family planning – it's pure Catholic dogma!

  3. This was written in 1994 – over 20 years ago. The current Pope Francis, who recently visited the U.S. cities of Washington, New York and Philadelphia, and who decries the destruction of nature and the inequality of wealth, had the perfect opportunity to do something about both issues – reverse the Church's stand on population and support the universal availability of family planning. I do despair!!

  4. it is taboo to speak of overpopulation?? The pope comes out with moral decrees about the need to fix climate change and yet ignores the key role that worldwide overpopulation plays both in climate catastrophes but also world conflicts. (ISIS gained traction after a human caused drought in Syria). The pope is then, a hypocrite on this issue, as he hies off to the Philippines just after this to reinforce the anti-birth control stance of his church. That stance is the new taboo. Do not speak. Do not question. It's draconian, this taboo.

    "To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize." Voltaire. Who rules over us, or are we scaring ourselves not to speak and so end up silenced and this core issue goes unaddressed? In this case, the pope's and political and religious pro-natalism wins. It's high time we speak and act and put forth more nuanced positions in the USA so that this issue not get bogged down with the immigration issue.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here