Magazine: Free Inquiry
Issue: Spring 1994 (Vol. 14 No. 2)

Overcoming Overpopulation:

The Rise and Fall of American Political Will

by Stephen D. Mumford

The 1960s saw a rapidly increasing American public awareness of the world population problem. The invention of the contraceptive pill in 1960 stimulated broad public debate on birth control and the need for it. When Pope John XXIII created the Commission on Population and Birth Control in the mid-1960s, he gave hope that the church was about to change its position on birth control. After all, why study the issue if the church was not in a position to change its teaching? In 1968, Paul Ehrlich published his book The Population Bomb, the most successful book of this kind. That same year, the journal Science published one of its most controversial articles, Garrett Hardin's "The Tragedy of the Commons," which sparked much discussion of the overpopulation threat. Mainstream religious denominations called for a bold response to the problem. For example, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in 1965 urged "the government of the United States to be ready to assist countries who request help in the development of programs of voluntary planned parenthood as apractical and humane means of controlling fertility and population growth." By 1971, it recognized that "the assumption that couples have the freedom to have as many children as they can support should be challenged. We can no longer justify bringing into existence as many children as we desire. Our corporate responsibility to each other prohibits this." And in 1972, the Presbyterians called on governments "to take such actions as will stabilize population size. . . . We who are motivated by the urgency of overpopulation .. . would preserve the species by responding in faith: Do not multiply--the earth is filled!" This cry for action made it safe for American politicians to call for programs to deal with the problem of population growth. As a result, in 1969 President Richard Nixon sent a rare Special Message to Congress, and Congress, in an equally rare move, voted to endorse the message. The message set forth afar-reaching commitment to limit population growth, and put in motion a broad range of government activities, both domestic and international. These activities included: (1) the creation of the Commission on Population Growth and the American Future; (2) increased research on birth-control methods of all types and the sociology of population growth; (3) expanded programs to train more people in the population and family planning fields, both in this country and abroad; (4) expanded research on the effects of population growth on our environment and on the world's food supply; and (5) increased domestic family planning assistance, aimed at providing adequate family planning services to all who want but cannot afford them. This was the beginning of the peak of American political will to deal with the problem. Design for a Population Policy and Resistance to It The twenty-four-member Commission on Population Growth and the American Future was chaired by John D. Rockefeller 3rd. It ordered more than one hundred research projects which collected and analyzed data for the formulation of a comprehensive U.S. population policy. After two years of intense study, the Rockefeller Commission made over seventy recommendations. They included: passage of a Population Education Act to help school systems establish well-planned population education programs; sex education to be widely available, especially through the schools; passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA); contraception available for all, including minors, at government expense if need be; abortion for all who want it, at government expense if necessary; vastly expanded research in many areas related to population growth control; and the elimination of employment of illegal aliens. On May 5, 1972, at a ceremony to submit formally the Commission's findings and conclusions, President Nixon publicly renounced the report. This was six months before he faced reelection, and he was feeling intense political heat from one particularly powerful special interest group. During the two years that followed, it became clear that there would be no further response to the Commission's recommendations. Thus in May 1973 a group of pioneer population activists asked Ambassador Adolph Schmidt to speak with his friend, Commission Chairman John D. Rockefeller 3rd. At their June 1973 meeting in New York City, Schmidt noted the disappointment he shared with colleagues because no program resulted from the Commission's recommendations. What had gone wrong? Rockefeller responded: "The greatest difficulty has been the very active opposition by the Roman Catholic Church through its various agencies in the United States." A similar evaluation became public last summer when one Rockefeller Commission member, Congressman James Scheuer (D-NY), spoke out for the first time on what had happened: Our exuberance was short-lived. Then-president Richard Nixon promptly ignored our final report. The reasons were obvious--the fear of attacks from the far right and from the Roman Catholic Church because of our positions on family planning and abortion. With the benefit of hindsight, it is now clear that this obstruction was but the first of many similar actions to come from high places. It is tragic that Americans have been kept in the dark about this undemocratic and un-American intervention by the Vatican. No doubt, both Catholic and non-Catholic Americans would have strongly rejected such interference had they been aware of it. The quality of life for all Americans has been diminished by this unconstitutional manipulation of American policy, undertaken for the purposes of protecting papal interests. Nixon Again Moves Boldly Despite the intense opposition of the Catholic hierarchy to the Rockefeller Commission Report, President Nixon's assessment of the gravity of the overpopulation problem and his desire to deal with it evidently were unchanged. On April 24, 1974, in the single most important act of his presidency regarding the population crisis, Mr. Nixon directed that a comprehensive new study be undertaken to determine the "Implications of World Population Growth for U.S. Security and Overseas Interests." I can only speculate on his thinking, but one can assume that President Nixon knew he would encounter the same intense Vatican opposition he had following the Rockefeller Commission Report. However, with his reelection safely behind him, perhaps he felt that if a definitive study of the national and global security implications of overpopulation showed that the very security of the United States was seriously threatened, it would generate public demand for action. This might serve to overcome the continued opposition of the Vatican. Why else would he have asked for this study, given his earlier experience with the Catholic church? NSSM 200 In National Security Study Memorandum (NSSM) 200, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, acting for the president, directed the secretaries of defense and agriculture, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, the deputy secretary of state, and the administrator of the Agency for International Development (AID), to undertake jointly "a study of the impact of world population growth on U.S. security and overseas interests." The report on this study was completed December 10, 1974, and circulated to the designated secretaries and agency heads for their review and comments. Revisions of the study continued until July 1975. On November 26, 1975, the 227-page report and its recommendations were endorsed by then-president Gerald Ford in National Security Decision Memorandum (NSDM) 314. "The President has reviewed the interagency response to NSSM 200," wrote the new national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft. "He believes that United States leadership is essential to combat population growth, to implement the [UN] World Population Plan of Action, and to advance United States security and overseas interests. The President endorses the policy recommendations contained in the Executive Summary of the NSSM 200 response." To this day, the policy set forth in NSDM 314 has not been officially rescinded. The NSSM 200 Report: Concerns and Recommendations The NSSM 200 response details how and why world population growth gravely threatens United States and global security, and provides a blueprint for U.S. response to this burgeoning problem. The strategy is complex, raising difficult questions. Some suggested policies are necessarily bold. For these reasons, the report's authors urged that it be classified for five years to prepare the American public for full acceptance of the goals proposed. The NSSM 200 report states: "There is a major risk of severe damage [from continued rapid population growth] to world economic, political, and ecological systems and, as these systems begin to fail, to our humanitarian values." "World population growth is widely recognized within the government as a current danger of the highest magnitude calling for urgent measures." "[I]t is of the utmost urgency that governments now recognize the facts and implications of population growth, determine the ultimate population sizes that make sense for their countries and start vigorous programs at once to achieve their desired goals." The NSSM 200 report includes the following recommendations: -- The United States should provide world leadership in population growth control. -- The United States should seek to attain population stability by 2000. This would have required a one-child family policy for the U.S., thanks to the phenomenon of demographic momentum, a requirement the authors well understood. (This recommendation came two years before the Chinese adopted their one-child family policy.) -- The United States should have as goals (1) making family planning information, education, and means available to all people of the developing world by 1980, and (2) achieving a two-child family in the developing countries by 2000. -- The United States should provide whatever funds necessary to achieve these goals. Political Will Peaks President Ford's approval of the policy recommendations of the NSSM 200 response in his Decision Memorandum 314 represented the high point of American political will to deal with the population problem. Then it plummeted. Like the Rockefeller Commission Report, the NSSM 200 response--a definitive study by the most powerful departments in our government, those with virtually all our intelligence-gathering capability--identified a grave threat to United States and global security. But none of its recommendations was ever implemented. Dire Predictions Come True The Rockefeller Commission Report and the NSSM 200 response are arguably the most important documents on overpopulation ever written. Our country and the world would be very different today if the recommendations in these documents had been implemented. For example, had illegal immigration been controlled and legal immigration adjusted in 1971, as the Rockefeller Commission Report urged, the U.S. population would have peaked at 243 million in 2035. Instead, in 1992 our population stood at 255 million, and it will not peak until it reaches 383 million in 2050--assuming there is no more immigration after 1992. The lives of all Americans will be significantly affected as we attempt to accommodate this additional 128 million people. And this number can explode if we do not deal with excessive immigration. In 1974, the NSSM 200 report predicted that growing scarcities of resources would lead to ever-increasing dislocations and conflicts all over the globe that would diminish security for everyone everywhere. The January 31, 1993, issue of the New York Times contains an op-ed piece by Thomas Homer- Dixon, titled "Destruction and Death," which documents that the predictions are already coming true. This article examines case-studies of violent conflicts attributed to overpopulation by researchers from four continents: brutal ethnic conflicts caused by the migration of millions from Bangladesh to India; persistent conflict in the Philippines driven by the desperate poverty caused by overpopulation; conflict between Israelis and Palestinians caused by severe shortages of ground water in the Jordan River basin; violence in urban squatter settlements in South Africa fueled by migration forced by destruction of ecologically sensitive territories; conflict in the Senegal River Basin spurred by expanding population in Senegal and Mauritania; growth of the violent Maoist Shining Path in Peru stimulated by similar factors; and social strife in Haiti--with the resultant exodus of boat people--caused by the irreversible clear-cutting of forests and loss of soil. There are many other examples. Implementation Halted These examples reveal the consequences of our failure to implement the policy recommendations of the NSSM 200 report. This implementation was blocked by the swift action of the Vatican. The Catholic church had to take this action for the same reason it had to block the Rockefeller Commission recommendations: the NSSM 200 response forthrightly opposes Rome on population strategy, family planning, and abortion. During 1976, Catholic activists worked diligently to undermine population growth control efforts. Dr. R. T. Ravenholt directed the global population program of the U.S. Agency for International Development in the Department of State from 1966 to 1979. On March 4, 1991, he addressed the Washington State Chapter of Zero Population Growth (ZPG) and described how this was accomplished. (Copies of the Ravenholt report are available from the Center for Research on Population and Security, P.O. Box 13067, Research Triangle Park, NC 27709, (919) 933-7491, for $3.00 each.) [See R. T. Ravenholt's article in this issue of Free Inquiry, and the article by Roland van Liew in the Spring 1992 issue.--Ed.] Vatican/Laymen Disagreement It is obvious that the Vatican is seriously out of sync with American lay Catholic thinking on family planning and abortion. For example, a recent study by Catholic priest Andrew Greeley of the National Opinion Research Center found that only seven percent of U.S. Catholics support the Vatican position on abortion. In fact, U.S. Catholics exhibit the same family planning behavior as non-Catholics. There is a good reason for this. The security-survival interests of Catholic Americans are pitted against the security-survival interests of the papacy. For many reasons--including economic, medical, and social reasons--family planning, abortion services, good sex education, population education, and the advancement of women's rights, enhance the security of the lay person and his/her family and improve their odds of survival. But family planning, abortion, etc., seriously undermine the security of the papacy and threaten its very survival because they undermine papal authority. Vatican Claims Self-Protection The Vatican claims the right to protect itself against harmful laws--even when democratically legislated! The central difficulty here, of course, is that the Vatican considers "harmful" to itself and its authority what lay Catholics consider beneficial to themselves and their families. In a letter sent to all American bishops by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the most powerful Vatican office, Cardinal Ratzinger reminded the bishops that "the church has the responsibility to protect herself from the application of harmful laws." This letter was kept secret from the fifty-five million American Catholics until a brief notice by Peter Steinfels appeared in the New York Times on July 10, 1992. The actual text was published on July 15, 1992. The church's assertion of "responsibility" implies a "right" as well. The Vatican exercised the "right" to protect herself from what it considered harmful laws when it blocked U.S. adoption of the Rockefeller Commission recommendations and implementation of the NSSM 200 policies approved by President Ford. "To protect herself," the church moved quickly and efficiently to kill the two most important initiatives to control population growth in American history. The Threat to Papal Power When our government legalized contraception and abortion, it pitted civil authority against papal authority. The Vatican demands supremacy over civil governments in matters of faith and morals, but our government has rejected this concept. Thus, while the church is saying that family planning and abortion are evil and grave sins, our government is saying they are good and should be used. While many Catholic countries in Latin America have abortion rates two to four times as high as the U.S. rate, the bishops there ignore abortions. Why? They are illegal abortions, not legal ones, and thus do not threaten papal authority! So the bishops take no significant actions to halt abortions in Latin America. But legal abortions in the U.S., because their legalization established their morality, do undermine papal authority. In Papal Power: A Study of Vatican Control over Lay Catholic Elites, published by the University of California Press in 1980, Jean-Guy Vaillancourt, associate professor of sociology at the University of Montreal, closely examined the sources and evolution of papal power. He found that papal authority is vital to the maintenance of papal power. However, the relationship between the two is circular. Less authority means less power, which means even less authority. Thus, the very survival of the Vatican is threatened by programs of population growth control. This threat to papal authority was recognized decades ago by the Papal Commission on Population and Birth Control. The commission, which met from 1964 to 1966, consisted of fifteen cardinals and bishops, and sixty-four lay experts representing a variety of disciplines. According to commission member Thomas Burch, Pope Paul VI assigned the commission the task of finding a way of changing the church's position on birth control without destroying the pope's authority. But the commission was unable to do this. Finally, after studying the dilemma, the laymen voted sixty to four, and the clerics nine to six, to change the church's teaching on birth control, even though it would mean a loss of papal authority, because it was the right thing to do. However, Pope Paul VI accepted the minority recommendation, and in 1968 issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which banned contraception. But because two newspapers had, without authorization, published the full texts of the commission's reports in 1967, the world knew that a substantial majority of the commission had recommended liberalization on birth control. And in 1985, Thomas Burch revealed to the world the real assignment of the commission. Thus it was clear that Humanae Vitae was an admission that the church cannot change its position on birth control without undermining papal authority--an unacceptable sacrifice. The Vatican believes, probably correctly, that if the solutions to the population problem are applied, the dominance of Vatican power will soon cease. Thus, it is in no position to compromise with the United States. The Vatican simply cannot accommodate U.S. security interests. The Bishops' Pastoral Plan On November 20, 1975, the American Catholic bishops issued their Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities. This was just six days before President Ford made the NSSM 200 report public policy. The success of that plan is confirmed in an excellent article that recently appeared in Time, which I will discuss later. The plan is a frank and superbly detailed blueprint of the bishops' strategy for infiltrating and manipulating the American democratic process at the national, state, and local levels. The purpose is to kill the political will of the United States to overcome the overpopulation problem. Abortion was the issue chosen to galvanize the movement, as proposed by Jesuit priest Virgil Blum in a 1971 America magazine article. The plan details a three- pronged attack, one devoted to each of the three branches of our federal government: legislative, judicial, and administrative. As the Time article shows, with the election of the anti-abortion team of Ronald Reagan and George Bush in 1980, the Vatican seized control of the administrative branch of our government in the area of population and family planning policy. These two men appointed five Supreme Court justices and 70 percent of all sitting judges in the federal court system. All were anti- abortion, another goal of the bishops' plan. The third branch has been more difficult for the bishops, though they did achieve sufficient influence in Congress that pro-choice congressmen could not override a presidential veto. So long as the bishops controlled the White House, this was sufficient for their purposes. Even in the Carter years, the bishops were highly successful in undermining federal government population growth control efforts. The bishops enjoyed considerable success at the state level as well. In 1987, I conducted a study to determine if the bishops had accomplished the goal they set in their plan with regard to the North Carolina legislature. AUniversity of North Carolina statewide poll had established that 79 percent of the state's Democratic voters and 78 percent of the Republican voters were pro-abortion rights. When I examined the voting behavior of the legislators on abortion legislation, I found that 78 percent of the Democratic legislators voted pro on abortion legislation, just as would be predicted if the legislators accurately reflected the Democratic voters of the state. However, only 8 percent of the Republican legislators did, rather than the approximately 78 percent one would predict given Republican voter attitudes across the state. This was exactly the goal set by the bishops. In North Carolina, the bishops had succeeded in making the Republican party theirs. The plan also called for the creation of a broad-based popular movement. This emerged between 1976 and 1980, and became known as the "New Right Movement." Catholics were key players in the movement and its leadership. The creation and control of the movement by the bishops is well-documented. There is a mountain of evidence that they enjoyed great success in killing American political will. Time Magazine Says It Like It Is The headline on the cover of the February 24, 1992, issue of Time magazine was: "HOLY ALLIANCE: How Reagan and the Pope Conspired To Assist Poland's Solidarity Movement and Hasten the Demise of Communism." The article, written by prize-winning journalist Carl Bernstein, contains the most significant revelations since the adoption of the Pastoral Plan in 1975. Bernstein reports, "The Catholic Team: The key administration players were all devout Roman Catholics--CIA chief William Casey, [Richard] Allen [Reagan's first national security advisor], [William] Clark [Reagan's second national security advisor], [Alexander] Haig [secretary of state], [Vernon] Walters [ambassador at large], and William Wilson, Reagan's first ambassador to the Vatican. They regarded the U.S.-Vatican relationship as a holy alliance: the moral force of the pope and the teachings of their church combined with . . . their notion of American democracy." Bernstein makes clear what the cadre of devout Catholics in the Reagan administration did to protect the papacy from the NSSM 200 report. He quotes our ambassador to the Vatican, William Wilson, who reveals that during the Reagan administration, papal policy on birth control and abortion replaced the policy set forth by the NSSM 200 response. In a section of his article headed "The U.S. and the Vatican on Birth Control," Bernstein writes: In response to concerns of the Vatican, the Reagan Administration agreed to alter its foreign aid program to comply with the church's teachings on birth control. According to William Wilson, the president's first ambassador to the Vatican, the State Department reluctantly agreed to an outright ban on the use of any U.S. aid funds by either countries or international health organizations for the promotion of abortions. As a result of this position, announced at the World Conference on Population in Mexico City in 1984, the U.S. withdrew funding from, among others, two of the world's largest family planning organizations: the International Planned Parenthood Federation and the United Nations Fund for Population Activities. "American policy was changed as a result of the Vatican's not agreeing with our policy," Wilson explains. Presidents Reagan and Bush were the most pro-Catholic presidents in American history. The bishops had seized control of the Republican party just as they had set out to do. In November 1992, traditional Republicans realized they had been taken. Outgoing Republican National Committee Chairman Richard Bond told the members of that committee on January 29, 1993, that it was time for the Republican Party to abandon the papal position on abortion. Bond said that the party should not be governed by "zealotry masquerading as principle." So, there are reasons for hope. The bishops have suffered some major setbacks in recent years. The publication of the Time article, the surfacing of the NSSM 200 report, and the loss of George Bush were serious setbacks. We can expect the bishops to suffer further reverses in the Clinton years. Here are the key points I have offered: -- Papal security-survival is pitted against U.S. security-survival. Right now, U.S. security interests are losing out. -- The Vatican has recognized it cannot coexist with American democracy when that democracy passes laws gravely undermining papal authority. -- There is a code of silence that inhibits open discussion of the issues Ihave presented. This code has been successfully imposed by the Vatican. At the present time these issues are undiscussed even among population specialists. There will be no success in dealing with overpopulation until this silence is broken and the Catholic church is successfully neutralized on this issue. I hope each of you will help break this code of silence, so that American political will can be reborn to deal with the population problem. +++ +++ +++ Notes (not included here). ------------------------------------------------------------ Copyright 1994 by Free Inquiry magazine.