A Disappointing Outcome

By James Scheuer
Published in The Social Contract
Volume 2, Number 4 (Summer 1992)
Issue theme: "Twenty years later: a lost opportunity"

Twenty years ago our work on the National Commission on Population Growth and the American Future came to an end. We had spent two years discussing every aspect of population growth; we had heard from some of the most distinguished experts in the world; we had benefitted from an outstanding professional staff and from the patient wisdom of our chairman, John D. Rockefeller III. We were pleased with our product, and we anticipated great results.

Our overall basic conclusion said it all '...in the long run, no substantial benefits will result from further growth of the Nation's population, rather the gradual stabilization of our population through voluntary means would contribute significantly to the Nation's ability to solve its problems.' Although the report concentrated on the United States, we hoped that our message would be conveyed to the rest of the world, especially the Third World nations where population growth was out of control. The United States had long been criticized for faulting the poorer nations for their large families while doing nothing about our own demographically-related problems. Now the nation had spoken out, loud and clear, through a distinguished commission. Maybe, just maybe, we would be heard and the cancer of overpopulation would eventually be eliminated.

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.

Here we are - twenty years later. What has happened, demographically, over those two decades? Was the Commission successful in arresting United States population growth? Was the Commission successful in influencing poorer nations to do something about their massive population problems? I fear that the answers to these questions are negative.

In 1970, U.S. population stood at 203 million. We have recently passed the 255 million mark. In just twenty years, we have added more than 50 million people. In 1970, world population was estimated at about 3.5 billion; today world population is approaching 5.5 billion. In just twenty years, we have added 2 billion people to our planet. So much for our perhaps naive dreams that our recommen-dations would serve as a model for our country and for the poorer nations of the world.

What happened to destroy our goal of eventual population stabilization in the United States? As we had hoped, fertility fell even as we were completing our task. For the next fifteen years, American women averaged fewer than two births. Many factors explain this lowered fertility. In 1970, for example, I co-sponsored (along with a new Congressman from Texas by the name of George Bush) the first national program to fund family planning clinics. However, I would like to think that the Commission's work, together with the publicity it received, convinced some Americans that having no more than two children was good for all concerned.

Because of the baby boom that had ended shortly before the Commission began its deliber-ations, a momentum for growth was built into the population. Although the baby boomers themselves had fewer children, so many of them were 'avail-able' to have those children, that the number of births went up. We knew that population growth could not stop overnight. What was unforeseen at the time was the enormous increase in immigration, both legal and illegal, that began in 1968 and rose in the 1970s and 1980s. Nine million people moved to the United States in the 1980s, more than in any similar period in history.

Today the nation's fertility has risen to 2.1 births per woman - in part due to the growing share of immigrants in the population. As immigrants and their offspring will continue to increase their proportion of the population, fertility will continue to climb.

Legal immigration will be greater than ever in the 1990s due to the 1990 legislation that will increase annual numbers by about 200,000. The United States accepts more legal immigrants than all other countries in the world combined. Our continued failure to end illegal movements from Mexico and central America, where the number of young adults searching for work is expected to double over the next fifteen years, further exacerbates the situation.

'Many factors have contributed

to the lack of success in reducing

population growth... The influence

of certain groups, particularly the Roman

Catholic Church, has been far more

powerful than hitherto realized.'

Immigration is a controversial issue in the United States. With legal and illegal entries now surpassing one million every year, there is growing concern that such numbers may be too high for the welfare of all Americans. Our absorptive capacity is being stretched beyond its limits. It is increasingly difficult to provide the proper education to additional millions of immigrants for the demands of the 21st century when we are failing to educate our own population.

With rising fertility rates and a continuing increase in immigration, legal and illegal, there is no end in sight to population growth in the United States.

The world picture is even more alarming. Almost 100 million people are added to the planet's population every year - 90 percent of them in less developed countries. Again we must ask What happened? The momentum in a young population explains part of the growth. Some countries have experienced a decrease in fertility rates, but have experienced an explosion in the number of young people of child-bearing age. According to new projections from the United Nations, even if all women in the world had only two births from now on, the population would still reach 8 billion by 2100 and be still growing.

The billions of dollars in family-planning assistance have had an effect on the fertility of many nations. Yet, in most of Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, fertility levels remain far above replacement. In Rwanda women still average 8 births; in Bolivia, almost 5.

Nevertheless, some remarkable accomplishments have been noted. South Korea's fertility rate fell from about 5 births per woman just thirty years ago to 1.6 by 1992. Rapid progress has occurred in Taiwan, Indonesia, Thailand, and other Asian countries.

Considerable success in reducing fertility has been experienced in parts of Latin America - Costa Rica, Colombia, Brazil and Mexico, for example. Yet in those instances, family size cannot seem to fall below 3 or 4 births. Mexico has had an active family planning program for almost 20 years. Its fertility has fallen - from about 6 or 7 births to just about 4 births. While laudable, this is not sufficient if population growth is ever to end.

Many factors have contributed to the lack of success in reducing population growth, whether in the United States or in the Third World. The influence of certain groups, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, has been far more powerful than hitherto realized.

A concerted effort has been made by these groups to obstruct all efforts to reduce population growth. This attitude gained credence at the 1984 World Population Conference in Mexico City when only the United States and the Vatican argued against being concerned with rapid population growth. James Buckley, the United States representative, insisted that 'population growth is neutral.' At that conference, I, along with many other members of Congress, pointed out that Buckley was speaking solely for the executive branch. We in the Congress hoped for a return to a more sane population and family planning program. Unfortunately, the Reagan-Bush administrations have continued to refuse even to discuss population growth problems. Indeed, according to a recent Time magazine article, 'the Reagan administration agreed to alter its foreign-aid program to comply with the Roman Catholic Church's teachings on birth control.' [Ed. note Readers may wish to refer to a boxed item on page 35 of the February 24, 1992 issue of Time entitled 'The U.S. and the Vatican on Birth Control.']

One cannot examine these influences without addressing the role of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II has been outspoken in his denunciation of any artificial contraceptive techniques. Such denunciations made in places like Angola and India are particularly tragic. But the influence of the Vatican goes beyond mere papal posturing. With fertility falling to new lows in predominantly Catholic developed countries like France, Italy and Spain, the Church has apparently taken a new approach to reach those countries where fertility remains high. It argues that population growth is simply not a problem. In this, the Church has been aided by certain right-wing economists and the Reagan-Bush political team.

Whether at the World Population Conferences of 1974 and 1984, or during international Parliamentary meetings, the Roman Church has tried desperately to discourage countries from participating.

'While the Cold War has ended,

we cannot ignore the possibility

of more wars of survival for

those nations who desperately

need space for their rapidly

growing populations.'

This was particularly true of the 1986 sub-Saharan Africa meeting in Harare, Zimbabwe, sponsored by the Global Committee of Parlia-mentarians on Population and Development, which I helped organize in my role as Chairman of the Global Committee. In the months preceding the conference, the Vatican methodically contacted the Speakers of every nation's Parliament to dissuade them from attending this conference. Despite this pressure, Parliamentarians from 43 of the 46 invited nations attended and participated and agreed with the impassioned arguments of Zimbabwe's Finance Minister, Bernard Chidzero, that 'continued rapid population growth will destroy all the progress we are just beginning to enjoy.'

Pressure from the Vatican did not end with that meeting. It has culminated in the Church's success in keeping the issue of population growth practically out of the discussions at the June 1992 U.N. Conference on the Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro despite the pleas made at the conference by people like Jacques Cousteau.

The issue of population growth is too crucial to the future welfare of our nation and of the world to be left to a few groups like the conservative wing of the Reagan-Bush team and the Roman Catholic hierarchy and its allies in the fundamentalist movement.

As we look into the future, it is painfully obvious that neither the planet nor the United States will reach zero population growth in the next century. If present trends continue, the population of the U.S. could reach 390 million by 2050 and perhaps a half-billion by the end of the 21st century. Even with moderate reductions in fertility, world population could reach 12 billion by 2050 and 18 billion by 2100. Incredibly, if fertility remains constant at current levels, the world population in 2100 will surpass 109 billion! This, of course, will not occur. Mortality would rise well before such a huge number was ever reached and an end to population growth would take place, but at what a price to humanity!

How long must we continue to witness night after night on our TV screens the emaciated bodies of children dying of starvation? If obstructions to providing adequate family planning services to the people of the developing world are successful, these scenes will become more and more commonplace.

Already we are witnessing the beginning of this horrible 'solution' to overpopulation in the famine-ravaged areas of Africa and elsewhere. While the Cold War has ended,we cannot ignore the possibility of more wars of survival for those nations who desperately need space for their rapidly growing populations. Indeed, the world should be thankful to China for its Herculean efforts to lower its fertility. While the one-child-family program may be unaccep-table by western standards, we should also realize that without such a draconian program, China's population could easily be 2 billion rather than 1 billion! Would not a China of 2 billion people expand into neighboring lands to feed its teeming billions, who would be balancing on the precarious edge of starvation?

Because we did too little about reducing fertility a generation ago, the world is now faced with a new 'population explosion' resulting from the momentum for growth I have discussed. The hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church is out of step with the rest of the world. Nafis Sadik, executive director of the U.N. Population Fund, has commented 'All mention of family planning has been removed [from the Earth Charter]. ...That was, I understand, at the very active participation of the Vatican and help by one or two governments ...Argentina and the Philippines.'

'We need to exercise human

compassion and do something about

overpopulation and we have yet

another opportunity to attain

that goal the 1994 World

Population Conference.'

Beyond the United Nations, Prince Charles has expressed concern about the position of the Roman Church in population matters, commenting with reference to the U.N. Conference on the Environment and Development 'Sadly, it seems that certain delegations are determined to prevent discussion of population growth.' The Archbishop of Canterbury has called on the Vatican to rethink its opposition to birth control in the interest of containing population growth and protecting the environment. Sadly, the Pope has recently reaffirmed the position that 'population is neutral.'

If the Church and its supporters do not address this matter in a reasonable manner, the United Nations, and others, should implore them to engage in dialogue. The Roman Catholic Church and its allies cannot be allowed to dictate the rules of the game when it comes to preservation of life on this planet at some level of decency. Consensus is growing on this urgent matter. The United Nations and its agencies - UNFPA, UNICEV, UNDP, the World Bank and others - all agree that young couples everywhere in the world have the basic right to control the number and spacing of their children.

Twenty years ago, the Commission's work came to an end. We did not follow up on its recommen-dations, and population continued to increase at a rapid rate. This year at the U.N. Conference on the Environment and Development, we again missed a golden opportunity as the Vatican and others blocked any reasonable discussion of population problems.

We cannot fail again. The population clock is ticking too fast. What is needed is more grass roots support for those private organizations concerned with issues of population growth and immigration, both domestic and international. What is needed is the courage to speak out against those who, for some incomprehensible reason, are against any limitations on population growth.

We need to exercise human compassion and do something about overpopulation and we have yet another opportunity to attain that goal the 1994 World Population Conference. At that conference, the various U.N. organizations - the World Health Organization, the World Bank, and all others concerned about the devastating effects of overpopulation - must successfully appeal to their adversaries to engage in discourse to solve this human conundrum. We must all join together to combat what may be the planet's greatest challenge - overpopulation. ?

[I wish to acknowledge the assistance and suggestions of my good friend, demographer Leon F. Bouvier, in preparing this paper. - J.S.]

About the author

Congressman James Scheuer was a member of the 1972 Commission on Population Growth and

the American Future. In the House of Representatives, he is Chairman of the Sub-Committee

on Natural Resources and Environment of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology,

and Chairman of the Sub-Committee on Education and Health of the Joint Economic Committee.

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