The Underpopulation Problem

Steven W. Mosher on the demographic consequences of birth control policies.

Steven W. Mosher is president of Population Research Institute (www.pop.org) and author of the book Population Control: Real Costs, Illusory Benefits (Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, NJ, 2008). Michael J. Miller interviewed him on the subject of his book.

Miller: Dire scenarios about imminent overpopulation, from Malthus to Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, have not materialized. Where are the mistakes in their calculations?

Steven Mosher: In some cases they were deliberately exaggerated, even fabricated, in an attempt to frighten individuals into having no more than one or two children, and legislatures into funding population control programs.

Assuming that the alarmists really believed those projections, I think that their principal error came in the 1960s when they assumed that Third World countries would have to reach Western standards of living before birth rates decreased. They supposed that only affluence would convince people in Nigeria, China, or Peru to have fewer children.

Of course, population control programs played a role in limiting fertility. But the principal reason why almost all Latin American countries today are ator near replacement-rate fertility levels is that the death rate among infants and children went down, and therefore couples voluntarily stopped having large families. They’re still relatively poor, yet they began limiting the number of children. Reduce the mortality rate and population growth ceases.

Miller: Even if projections about limited resources are wrong, what’s the harm in a little “underpopulation”? Isn’t a nation with negative population growth like a factory that sells its unused CO2 allowances to less environmentally friendly businesses?

Mosher: A free-market economy is constantly looking for new markets for goods and services. The size of those markets is driven in large part by the size of the population. As a population grows, the demand for cars, houses, and other goods increases. As a population shrinks, this process works in reverse.

I think, though, that the dangers of population decline are even more serious than this would suggest, because a decline in absolute numbers of people is always preceded by population aging. The population gets out of balance: too few young people enter the workforce; fewer young people get married, have children and buy houses; and the population ages, which puts increasing demands on retirement and healthcare programs.

You might say, “Yes, but a growing population with lots of children has a bad worker-to-dependent ratio as well.” But children don’t require nearly as much health care as the elderly do, children don’t consume as many resources, and children live with their parents, so there are economies of scale.

Europe, for example, is going to see tax rates go through the roof in order to support growing populations of the elderly. Who’s going to be taxed? Working people in their 20s and 30s. When you tax that segment of the population you impoverish it and make it less likely that they will have children at all, much less large families. And so you eat your seed corn. You put so much economic pressure on the young and reproductive that they stop having children.

Birth rates in Catholic Spain and Italy are down to 1.1 children per couple. We’ve done some back-of-theenvelope calculations, and in Italy every young couple would have to have four children in order to stop the population decline that’s currently underway. No combination of incentives in the world could turn this thing around. So Italians have no choice but to accept large numbers of immigrants, mostly Muslims from Albania, North Africa, and the Middle East. This creates the additional problem of integrating people from very different cultural, religious, and social backgrounds into Italian society.

Miller: You observed the effects of the one-child policy imposed in Communist China in the early 1980s. How could such a radical population-control program be implemented in the world’s most populous nation?

Mosher: It’s hard for Americans to imagine how any government could control over a billion people. Chinese law allows one child per couple in the cities; two in the countryside. How does Beijing enforce the rules?

People need to understand that there is a Communist Party presence in every village, hamlet, and neighborhood throughout the country. There are 60 million Chinese Communist Party members, roughly 5 percent of the population, and they’re everywhere. Their job is to see that government policies are not just adhered to, but that they are popular and accepted by the people. The CCP works hard to quell dissent over the one-child policy.

There is a parallel organization for women called the Women’s Federation, again with tens of millions of members. Their job since 1979 has been to enforce compliance with the one-child policy. What do they do? They keep extensive records on the rest of the female population and track menstrual cycles. They ensure that women who have not yet been sterilized are contracepting. They assist the sterilization teams that perform tubal ligations on women who have had two children. Then there are the family planning officials themselves, who run the whole operation.

It is a huge and costly effort. But mass mobilization campaigns are the kind of thing that the Chinese Communist Party is very good at. It is an Orwellian organization that is used to intruding into the most intimate decisions that people make.

There is dissent, of course. There are women who conceal their pregnancies and run away and go into hiding when they’re discovered. We are able to help a few of these women through our Safe House program. But by and large the policy is effective.

Miller: The last half-century saw the end of colonialism and also the worldwide spread of population control programs funded by the West. Have any Third World nations successfully resisted the “incentives” to start such programs?

Mosher: In the book I quote African leaders who denounce this kind of new imperialism. To understand how intrusive it is, imagine the outcry if the Chinese government funded a program to reduce the American birthrate and paid workers to go door-to-door with contraceptives, insisting that American women use them. Yet that is what we, the United States, do around the world. It is not surprising that these programs are resented.

In the book I describe at length the enormous pressures that are brought to bear on governments around the world. Do you want short-term, longterm loans from the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund? You must have a family planning program in place. Do you want money from the US Agency for International Development (USAID)? You must distribute contraceptives to your women; we’ll send you the pills. Many countries resisted these kinds of pressure for a time, but most have caved in.

There’s another force at work here: many needy countries, in Africa especially, are governed by corrupt dictators. How convenient for them to have a prestigious foreign theory on which to blame their countries’ problems! “Our country is impoverished because there are too many people,” the dictator can say, “not because my bureaucracy is hopelessly inept, lazy, and corrupt.” The theory of overpopulation gives them an excuse for the results of their own misrule.

Miller: How did the United States government get into the business of distributing contraceptives?

Mosher: At the end of World War II the United States was engaged militarily around the world, and Americans learned where Burma, Singapore, and Papua New Guinea were. Since Japan and Europe were devastated, half the world’s goods and services were produced in the United States. Being a generous people, we decided to fund foreign aid programs. We went in to improve living conditions around the world and succeeded in lowering infant mortality rates in a number of countries by providing modern medical care.

World population began to increase rapidly. Here is the origin of the notion that there is a “population bomb.” If the population kept doubling every 30 years, the alarmists said, there would soon be tens of billions of people on the planet; unsustainable growth would eventually cause economic, environmental, and societal collapse.

The hysteria about “overpopulation” translated into a stampede to include family planning in our foreign aid program. Laws were passed stating that population stabilization was an official goal of US foreign policy, and that every foreign aid program had to have a family planning component.

The whole movement gained strength from both the left and the right. The liberal argument was that too many people would devastate the environment. The radical feminist argument was that women in Third World countries were being forced to breed because they didn’t have access to modern contraceptives.

The conservative argument—it’s really a national security argument— was that growing populations in Africa, Latin America, and Asia would destabilize the political situation in those regions and lead to Communist insurrection. The other “conservative” argument was that if Third World populations grew too rapidly, the Asians and the Africans and the Latin Americans might want to consume their minerals and resources instead of selling them to us at cheap prices.

Miller: You write that “when the population controllers move into a poor country like Kenya or Peru, primary health care invariably suffers.” Please explain.

Mosher: Imagine that you’re the minister of health in Peru and you have a fixed budget to pay a certain number of doctors and nurses in public clinics nationwide to provide medical care for the poor. Part of that budget comes from government revenues; it’s a poor country, however, and much of your funding comes from foreign aid. Your principal source, the United States, announces that it wants you to make population control a priority of your medical care program. Not just one of 10 goals, along with combating malaria and providing vaccinations. “Unless you make it the number-one priority, we will stop our foreign aid; if you do, we will increase it.”

You don’t want to forfeit half your budget. In the case of Peru, the government actually launched a sterilization campaign. That country’s doctors and nurses, who had been administering vaccinations, begin inserting IUDs and distributing birth control pills. Many surgeons who had been performing emergency surgery and appendectomies and setting broken bones were organized into mobile surgical teams to travel around doing nothing but tubal ligations.

We know from Dr. Carbone, the Peruvian minister of health who served after the sterilization campaign, that rates of infectious diseases skyrocketed in Peru during the height of the sterilization campaign.

In every country where pride of place is given to family planning, resources are taken away from other forms of healthcare. Death rates go up as people die of preventable diseases or from accidents because the medical system has other priorities—preventing pregnancies.

Miller: Bishop Oscar Andres Rodriguez, then president of the Latin American Catholic bishops’ conference, condemned a 1995 USAID report warning about “dangerous” population growth rates in Honduras. Are you aware of any attempt by the United States bishops to criticize USAID policies at the source?

Mosher: No, I am not. The Respect Life Office of the [US] bishops’ conference has been a very stout defender of the Mexico City Policy, which denies US family planning funding to any organization that does not specifically commit to eschew promoting or performing abortions or lobbying for the legalization of abortion. They have been helpful in getting laws passed like the Tiahrt Amendment, which defines voluntarism in family planning programs, mandates informed consent, and rules out targets and quotas or the use of experimental methods on women. They have also been helpful in pointing out abuses in these programs.

But what is needed is a full-scale frontal assault on the whole population- control enterprise. It needs to be defunded. We need to go turn out the lights at the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA). If there was any reason for such an organization to exist in the 1960s, that reason no longer exists today.

Miller: The encyclical Humanae Vitae turns 40 this summer. In your opinion, does the experience of recent decades corroborate the teaching of Paul VI about the social effects of contraception?

Mosher: Absolutely. I think that it’s one of the most prophetic documents ever penned by a pope. I think that Pope Paul VI was right not only in his general argument, but in his specific arguments about the rise in divorce rates, the rise in the abortion rate, the devaluing of children. On all of these points he was tremendously prescient. I think that we need to continue to read and study this document and subsequent documents like Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), which point out the dangers of going any farther down the road of devaluing and instrumentalizing human life.

Miller: Do you think that there’s any chance of mobilizing human rights groups to demand greater accountability from international organizations that promote population control?

Mosher: Well, this was my great hope back in the 80s when I was doing my initial research on China. I went to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the major human rights organizations. I found the assistant secretary of state for human rights under the Reagan administration very sympathetic. For the first time in the state department’s annual human rights report it mentioned, in the context of China, forced abortions and forced sterilizations. That was a victory.

The other human rights organizations were very reluctant to get involved because of their ideological commitment to abortion. It took several years, but in the late 1980s and early 1990s Amnesty International finally began to refer to forced abortion as a violation of human rights. Now, I’m afraid, Amnesty International has taken the formal position that abortion is a human right, and it condemns countries that do not allow abortion on demand.

Miller: What advice would you give to pro-life activists and legislators in Western nations who would like to defund population control programs?

Mosher: We need a family-friendly foreign policy. Pro-life and pro-family groups have to learn a little bit about what’s happening overseas and tell their congressmen that they think that our policies are fundamentally wrongheaded. In a world of falling birthrates we need pro-natal policies.

One US congressman expressed frustration to me not long ago. He said that when he voted against international population control funding, he got a half a dozen angry letters from his district. He said, “Can’t anybody write me and tell me that I did the right thing? The other side can set people to writing or calling at a moment’s notice.” Well, we need to be doing that. Politicians are politicians. Even the best ones need to be encouraged, to know that where they lead, we’re following.

 


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About Michael J. Miller 125 Articles
Michael J. Miller Michael J. Miller translated Priesthood and Diaconate by Gerhard Ludwig Müller for Ignatius Press and Eucharist and Divorce: A Change in Doctrine? for the Pontifical John Paul II Institute.