When discussing common responsibilities in the present situation ethical humanists cannot refrain from bringing up the issue of birth-control. We know that a complex problem is involved. From a prosperity point of view population increase is necessary in certain areas. And even in other areas it cannot always be said that the development of economy and technique could not meet the demands of a growing population. But on a global scale there cannot be much difference of opinion that the present population explosion leads to catastrophic consequences.
I cannot keep down the supposition that the leading circles in the Roman Catholic church in an alarming degree underestimate the terrible results of the present development. It is expected that in the first half of the next century – if nothing would be done about it – the world population would reach the unheard of number of fifteen billion. It is most unlikely that we shall succeed in maintaining or reaching a reasonable standard of living for all these people. But the psychological results will still be more alarming.
It is well known that in the animal world overpopulation provokes aggression or suicidal tendencies. And I think that now already we may notice the same trend among the human world. Unrest, distrust, hate and aggression among the human race may be partly – and to an increasing degree – attributed to the psychological over-population in various parts of the world. So in our opinion birth-control and family planning become a moral demand of the first rate. I know that there can be quite and argument on voluntary sterilisation and, maybe, still more on abortion. I don’t think that most humanists think them ideal methods, though they generally would not reject them as means that also can have a moral value in view of the quality of the children to be born. Moreover experience teaches that (periodical) abstinence does not prove to be an efficient means, at least under the present circumstances. Therefore the thoughtful use of contraceptives is considered to be a moral demand. We cannot understand how morality can be menaced by this means. For we don’t think sexuality without procreation bad or unnatural. We even can’t understand what unnatural could mean in a contest in which the lives of babies and aged people are preserved by “unnatural” medical means.
I know all too well that many Catholics in developed countries, maybe even a majority of them, agree with us in this respect. They would argue that there are no fundamental theological objections to this kind of preservation of the quality of living. And indeed I don’t see either what real dogma of faith would be endangered by it. But all this does not away with the fact that resistance to contraceptives and family planning is part of the official Roman Catholic church policy. And we cannot indulge in the illusion that the official policy does not count any if the majority of well-minded Catholics (at least in developed countries) adheres to a different opinion.
For the official Catholic policy influences through Catholic political power to a high degree the policy of nations, even if Catholics represent a minority of the population. So we see that e.g. in the United Nations family-planning schemes are not or hardly acknowledged. And by this effect the leading circles of the Roman Catholic church take a tremendous responsibility for the future of mankind. Poverty, lack of medical and educational services, pollution, starvation, conflict and war are aggravated by excessive increase of population.
The attitude of the official leadership of the Roman Catholic church regarding voluntary contraception, family-planning and population control leads to appalling social consequences.
Ethical humanists, in working to build a world where each child born should have an environment in which it may grow to reach its full potential, and realising the impossibility of this if present population trends continue, call on every man or women of goodwill everywhere and of all denominations to co-operate in order to limit excessive population growth that is a menace to the future of mankind.
Statement by Prof. J.P. van Praag, Chairman, 1970
'The population problem (1970)', Humanists International, Board of Directors, 1970