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Catholics must stop the silence on world overpopulation crisis


Organizations that seek to slow or control the growth of world population have never received much attention from Catholics. Resistance, even hostility, have long marked the attitude of Catholics toward groups like Zero Population Growth.

The unspoken premise behind the Catholic view has been that as a human being it is better to be than not to be, and that God in his loving providence creates every person for good if imponderable reasons.

Meanwhile, population growth continues at a startling rate. In 1966 Earth's total population was 3.4 billion. In 1996 it was 5.7 billion. That's an increase of 2.3 billion in just 30 years.

Further, the actual rate of increase has grown -- to 80 million people annually in 1996 compared to 70 million annually in 1966. Yet little if any planning goes on in the underdeveloped countries where most of each year's 80 million new children are born.

In September 1994 the world focused on population at the United Nations' 9-day International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt. The Catholic press reported at some length on that event but mostly about the views on abortion raised by Catholic delegates. There was little attention in the Catholic community given to the awesome problems that are inevitable if the human family continues to grow by 80 million each year.

Amid the oceans of recent literature about ways to evaluate the possible doubling of the world's population in the next 25 or 30 years, a book titled Ending the Explosion is worth exploring. Taking a well-argued and reasonable approach, William G. Hollingsworth, a professor at the University of Tulsa Law School, addresses a problem whose magnitude is almost incomprehensible. The author clearly believes in regulating fertility, but opposes any form of coercion. He states again and again that no remedy is acceptable unless it is "respectful of human freedom."

Hollingsworth points out ways of assisting families and communities to decrease population without imposing views at variance with freedom. Education of women is one of the most important. Women who can read can obtain accurate information about maternal and child health. They can discover that breast-feeding can often be a natural contraceptive. With education, women will advocate for an increase in the legal age for marriage and will seek ways to restrict the use of child labor.

It is instructive to note that in developing nations, the birth rate has dropped somewhat. In the last decade, the fertility rate fell 26 percent in India, 30 percent in Brazil and 35 percent in Bangladesh. Despite the decrease in births in India, about 25 million babies were born last year. India's population is expected to reach 1 billion by the year 2000.

Like almost everyone who writes about the dangers of our exploding population, Hollingsworth urges access to contraceptive information. Even though it is well known that lack of contraceptive information is one of the causes of some 52 million abortions each year worldwide, many Catholics have traditional or moral misgivings about artificial contraceptives. Millions of persons in India and other nations also object to contraception for moral reasons that parallel the traditional Catholic position. It is also clear that governments and sometimes parents are responsible for 35 thousand young children dying every day of preventable causes.

Catholics are generally absent from or silent about efforts or organizations that direct their efforts to what is called "overpopulation." Catholic anger or sensitivity to the issue is low. There is little if any widespread feeling among Catholics that stronger efforts are needed to promote family planning. Contraceptive services are unavailable to more than 120 million women worldwide, yet Catholics seem indifferent.

Nor are Catholics aware that in the last two years U.S. support for family planning programs plummeted from $582 million in 1995 to $76 million in 1996. The recommendations Hollingsworth makes in his book and the information and the vast literature about the problems connected with the 80 million new children of God who enter the global village each year do not seem to be part of the concerns of the Catholic community.

The lack of interest is surprising, given decades of official Catholic teaching urging parents to be responsible about the number of children they bring into the world. It should follow that Catholics would want to assist parents in poor nations to comply with the universal obligation of parents to be responsible for the number of children they bear.

The issues are morally complex. There are no simple answers. But it is clear that in the year 2010 there will be at least one billion more persons in the world than in 1997. People of faith and the entire human family must undertake heroic efforts to prepare an existence for these children that is worthy of human beings.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

National Catholic Reporter, August 29, 1997