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Planet Un-Parenthood

What you need to know about the ongoing myth of overpopulation

Well, it didn’t quite happen as they feared.

In 1798, Rev. Thomas Malthus, one theoretician of overpopulation, predicted that by 1890 the world would have standing room only. Nearly two centuries later, in the 1970s, media reports cautioned that by 1990 we would need to build huge artificial islands in the middle of the ocean to handle the earth’s population.

Apparently, we’re doing better than that.

Yet some don’t seem to learn from the facts, and we still hear today about the “problem” of “overpopulation.” This supposed problem, which as we will see below is contrary to fact, is used as a justification for killing people by abortion and for state interference with the authentic, God-given reproductive freedom that belongs to families and couples.

The ongoing myth of overpopulation is actually a cluster of myths, some statistical, some philosophical, and some spiritual.

“Having Babies Is Selfish”

Toni Vernelli of Somerset, England, aborted her child and eventually had herself sterilized at age 27. Why? She wanted to reduce her “carbon footprint” and help save the planet.

Her boyfriend, to whom she is now married, saw things the same way, and presented her with a “Congratulations” card.

“Having children is selfish,” Toni said. “It’s all about maintaining your genetic line at the expense of the planet . . . Every person who is born uses more food, more water, more land, more fossil fuels, more trees and produces more rubbish, more pollution, more greenhouse gases, and adds to the problem of overpopulation.”

Sarah Irving feels the same way: “I realized that a baby would pollute the planet—and that never having a child was the most environmentally friendly thing I could do.”

Not everyone has drunk so deeply of the overpopulation myth as these two enthusiasts, but they remind us that the myth does have an impact on our culture and needs to be counteracted.

The Hype

There has been a war of ideas regarding overpopulation for centuries. But around 1970, a publication by Rev. Malthus was met with renewed interest. Malthus, a British economist, wrote Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798. Essentially, he became alarmed at the difference between arithmetic growth (2 – 4 – 6 – 8) and geometric growth (2 – 4 – 8 – 16). Here is his central thesis:

The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man. Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometric ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetic ratio. By that law of our nature which makes food necessary to the life of man, the effects of these two unequal powers must be kept equal. This implies a strong and constantly operating check on population from the difficulty of subsistence.

Other population alarmists jumped on the bandwagon at various times. In 1972, Paul Erlich, author of The Population Bomb, warned that 65 million Americans would die of starvation by 1985. That same year, Planned Parenthood World Population circulated an article titled “The Human Race Has 35 Years Left: After that, People will Start Eating Plankton. Or People.”

The prize for hysterical projections, however, goes to Princeton demographer Ansley Coale, who said we are experiencing “. . . a growth process which, within 65 centuries and in the absence of environmental limits, could generate a solid sphere of live bodies expanding with a radial velocity that, neglecting relativity, would equal the velocity of light” (“Increases in Expectation of Life and Population Growth,” Proceedings of the International Population Conference, 36).

The Reality

The reality, however, is different.

The population of the world doubled from 3 billion in 1960 to 6 billion in 2000. However, this growth was not because we were reproducing so fast, but because we weren’t dying so fast. Thanks to advances in modern medicine, the death rate dramatically slowed during this time.

As for the worldwide fertility rate, it was actually falling throughout the period. In 1960 it was an average of 6 children per woman; by 2002 it was just 2.6. Around 2.1 is the replacement level, that is, the number of children that each couple needs to have to maintain the population. (The extra one-tenth accounts for those who do not have children).

Another way of describing this change in the fertility rate during the time that the world’s population doubled is that we were adding 2.1 percent to the world’s population each year, but by 2002, it dropped to increments of only 1.2 percent.

The United Nations publishes population analyses. When projecting what population growth is likely to be in the future, the United Nations illustrates different versions of what may happen, known as “variants.”

According to its “medium variant,” the UN projects that the world population grow to 8.9 billion by 2050, and will then level out at 10 billion.

However, the “low variant”—which is usually the correct one—shows a leveling out at 7.3 billion in 2040.

Once the population levels out in this way, it will begin to decline. It will never double again.

As population expert Steven Mosher points out, the United Nations’ low variant is not highlighted in the UN reports; rather, it is buried in the details. Moreover, the medium variant, which projects a higher population, is based on a totally unexplained (and unrealistic) assumption, namely, that all countries, over the next half-century, will reach a “fertility floor” of 1.85 children per woman. The assumption, in other words, is that fertility rates won’t fall lower than that. In reality, however, fertility rates in many countries have already fallen lower than this imaginary fertility floor. Since modern societies are typically between 1.1 and 1.6 in fertility rates, a floor of 1.35 seems more likely.

The world population growth rate, therefore, has slowed steadily since 1960. Medical technology, reducing infant mortality, has led to agrarian families no longer feeling that they needed numerous children. Increased wealth has caused the birth rate to decline and the marriage age to increase. The global trend toward longer life spans seems to be slowing.

Life expectancy has increased, and when that happens, the population swells. But eventually everyone dies. Population in a nation whose birthrate is below the replacement level may also swell because of immigration, and this has been the case with the United States, Canada, and Australia.

Where starvation in the world is present, it isn’t caused by a lack of food. Studies consistently show the world has and can produce enough food for the present and future population. As Randy Alcorn observes, starvation occurs due to a combination of many factors, including natural disasters, wars, a lack of technology, the misuse of resources, waste, greed, government inefficiency, and failure to distribute food properly. Indeed, the problem we find in many places is not overpopulation as such, but overconcentration.

Never before have fertility rates all over the world been in such widespread free-fall for such a long period of time. Most Western European countries are now experiencing economic problems that their governments attribute to population reduction.

UN population experts have declared that the very existence of some nations has now been endangered by a decline in the numbers of children that families are having.

According to Dr. Joseph Chamie, former Director of the Population Division of the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs,

Very low fertility levels lead not only to population decline, but also to rapid population ageing. These changes in size and structure have significant social, economic, and political consequences for these countries and regions. And these consequences need to be addressed today, not tomorrow. (Statement to the Commission on Population and Development, 32nd session, March 1999)


Brian Clowes, director of research for Human Life International, points out that population controllers don’t want world population to just level off at zero population growth. They want it to continue to go down until it reaches one or two billion, and then have a global one-child policy.

At the heart of their thinking is not only mathematics, but an erroneous anthropology, a distorted view of the human species. According to this view, there is nothing special about the human species, nothing distinctive that sets us apart from animals. Therefore, decisions about our own welfare must involve considering the welfare of all the “other” animals. Some see us as even inferior to those animals and, in fact, as a cancer on the world. “We must cut out the cancer of population growth,” said Paul Ehrlich in The Population Bomb.

Abortionist Warren Hern expresses this view in the following way:

The human species is a rapacious, predatory organism displaying all the characteristics of a malignant tumor . . . One of the main characteristics of a cancerous growth is that it resists regulation. Growth is not controlled . . . The ideas that provide the philosophical underpinnings of human destructiveness are found most vividly in the Judeo-Christian ethic, which purports to sanctify man’s mastery over nature. This tradition has suppressed and scorned the significant biological fact that man is an animal like many of his other fellow creatures, holding instead that he is God’s gift to creation—the flower of the universe. (February 1990, address to the University of Colorado at Boulder)

Margaret Sanger, who founded Planned Parenthood, had a similar problem with the Christian ethic of charity and therefore opposed helping the poor.

At times, I have received pro-abortion correspondence that expresses a relief and even a joy in the staggering numbers of surgical and chemical abortions that occur around the world, because they reduce the population. One wonders whether such people dare to express the same relief and joy when they hear of tsunamis and earthquakes. After all, those too reduce population.

Indeed, population alarmists will rarely if ever be heard expressing a readiness to put their own lives aside for the good of the planet. Rather, it’s always someone else who has to go. G.K. Chesterton put it well when he wrote, “The answer to anyone who talks about the surplus population is to ask him, whether he is part of the surplus population; or if not, how he knows he is not” (Introduction to A Christmas Carol).

The Moral and Spiritual Myth

As we have seen, the population problem in our day is not overpopulation, but rather declining population, as well as unequal distribution of resources. But even if there were an alarming overpopulation problem, the population controllers put forth a key moral error, which is that we could kill people to solve the problem. Because the end never justifies the means, and because killing the innocent is an intrinsic evil, no circumstances could ever justify killing people—born or unborn—to obtain relief from overpopulation, even if that scenario were as bad as some of the outlandish quotes we have seen would have us believe.

Moreover, the mentality of the population controllers reflects a spiritual myth: that human happiness and fulfillment can be found by pushing the “other” out of the way. This, indeed, is the mentality that fuels abortion and euthanasia, as well as population control. The “other” is seen as a threat that must be eliminated, rather than as an opportunity to give oneself away in love, that the other may grow. Precisely in that self-giving (“This is my body, given for you…”) does the Christian see fulfillment, rather than in the myth that I am liberated only when the other is killed (“This is my body; I can do what I want”).

Ironically, often the very people whom elite population controllers despise or, alternatively, profess that they want to help, show us the way to fulfillment. In her speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., on February 3, 1994, Bl. Teresa of Calcutta shared the following story containing a key lesson from the poor and the hungry:

I had the most extraordinary experience of love of neighbor with a Hindu family. A gentleman came to our house and said: “Mother Teresa, there is a family who have not eaten for so long. Do something.” So I took some rice and went there immediately. And I saw the children—their eyes shining with hunger. . . . And the mother of the family took the rice I gave her and went out. When she came back, I asked her: “Where did you go? What did you do?” And she gave me a very simple answer: “They are hungry also.” What struck me was that she knew—and who are they? A Muslim family—and she knew. I didn’t bring any more rice that evening because I wanted them, Hindus and Muslims, to enjoy the joy of sharing.

The Freedom to Reproduce

Has the reduction of population through abortion, contraception, and sterilization made the world better? No, we’ve ended up, as Steven Mosher points out, materially poorer, less advanced economically, less diverse culturally, and plagued with incurable diseases and many that are curable but ignored. Security isn’t better, nor is the environment better protected.

Indeed, the abortion industry is the only sector of the economy that doesn’t create wealth but destroys it, leaving us all poorer. Abortion destroys human capital, the ultimate resource.

Yet population controllers push forward with an agenda that seeks to reduce the world’s population to dramatically low levels. The effort to do this leads to government policies like the “one-child policy” in China, which punishes couples who conceive a second child.

Parents have a fundamental right to control their reproductive system and determine the number and spacing of children. Pro-abortion groups would be surprised to know what the Church really teaches in this regard. They have hijacked the term “reproductive rights,” but the Church really believes in such rights, which, of course, need to be exercised in such a way that couples never distort the meaning of human sexuality by impairing their fertility, nor ever kill their offspring, born or unborn.

Therefore the Church opposes any government plan to try to control fertility by placing limits on parents’ God-given right to procreate and educate their children. Population control policies exhibit, in Mosher’s words, a “technocratic paternalism,” which subjugates family and individual fertility to the wishes of the state.

Can We Recover?

Many European countries have had policies in place for a long time that seek to raise the birth rate. When I worked at the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family in the late 1990s, documents often came across my desk from the United Nations regarding the crisis of under-population and the various proposals to reverse the falling fertility rates in so many nations. Such proposals include, for instance, monthly financial payments from the government to families with more than a certain number of children.

But Mosher points out that many of these policies ignore the dynamics of the natural family and instead favor gender and marriage-neutral policies (for instance, policies that would give fathers incentive to leave the work force by allowing lengthy time away from their job). Instead, he says, the state should empower couples to reach their desired level of children, and reforming taxes is a key part of the solution. High taxes stress the family, diverting resources away from where they are needed to encourage family growth.

Pope John Paul II summarized in The Gospel of Life both the problems with population programs and some of the more reasonable solutions.

Today an important part of policies which favor life is the issue of population growth. Certainly public authorities have a responsibility to intervene to orient the demography of the population. But such interventions must always take into account and respect the primary and inalienable responsibility of married couples and families, and cannot employ methods which fail to respect the person and fundamental human rights, beginning with the right to life of every innocent human being. It is therefore morally unacceptable to encourage, let alone impose, the use of methods such as contraception, sterilization, and abortion in order to regulate births. The ways of solving the population problem are quite different. Governments and the various international agencies must above all strive to create economic, social, public health, and cultural conditions which will enable married couples to make their choices about procreation in full freedom and with genuine responsibility. They must then make efforts to ensure greater opportunities and a fairer distribution of wealth so that everyone can share equitably in the goods of creation. Solutions must be sought on the global level by establishing a true economy of communion and sharing of goods, in both the national and international order. This is the only way to respect the dignity of persons and families, as well as the authentic cultural patrimony of peoples. (Evangelium Vitae, 91)

Toward an Ethic of Hope

I mentioned the reports about de-population that came across my desk when I worked at the Vatican. They often described proposals by nations to increase their fertility rates. One of those proposals stood out above all the others: Instill hope in the people.

That is at the core of the Culture of Life, because it is at the core of the gospel. And it is the key to undoing all the myths about “overpopulation.” Hope is what gives us the strength to say “Yes” to life. Hope looks at the world and looks at the future and says, “Yes, we can welcome more children here,” because, as Pope John Paul II wrote, “Life . . . is always a good” (EV 31).

At the turn of the millennium, the world’s population hit 6 billion. Population alarmists lamented that fact. But an international group of leaders issued a statement that reflected instead the joyful hope that should be shared by us all: “We are grateful that Baby Six Billion has come into the world. Baby Six Billion, boy or girl, red or yellow, black or white, is not a liability, but an asset. Not a curse, but a blessing. For all of us” (Population Research Institute statement, October 11, 1999).


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